What Business are you REALLY In?
Earlier in May, Tesla announced that they have created and would be selling a product called Powerwall that homeowners can install for around $3k and it stores about 10 kilowatt-hours of renewable (wind, solar, etc.) energy, which is about enough to power a typical North American house for approximately 10 hours.
While not every organization has an “Elon Musk” running things, one lesson that can be learned from Tesla is that a visionary leader really helps its people keep their eyes up on the bigger picture.
What makes Tesla an interesting, and ongoing, case study on innovation isn’t just the technical innovation involved with the battery systems, but the way in which they view their business and mission. Here’s how I imagine what has been going on in Elon Musk’s head for a long time:
“Tesla is a renewable energy storage company and I’m going to test out my concept by building and selling cars, and we’ll go from there.”
The vastly larger frame of “renewable energy storage” vs “cars” means that Tesla, as an organization, has much greater potential to see trends and possibilities on where the business can go than any of its “automotive” competition. I highly doubt that General Motors sees themselves as a “getting people where they want to go” company vs “we make cars” company. True, GM is dabbling in alternative fuels but are they prepared for, and even encouraging, a world where far fewer people need or want expensive personal transportation devices but still want to “get from A to B”? Unlikely. I’m probably not going too far out on a limb to suggest that GM is much more like Kodak (“We make film, dammit!” or Blackberry (“Nobody will ever want a touchscreen, dammit!”) or pretty much every newspaper (“We put ink on dead trees in exchange for classified ad revenue, dammit!”). I wonder how many people at GM (or FedEx) see Uber as their biggest competitor, rather than Ford and Chrysler.
While not every organization has an “Elon Musk” running things, one lesson that can be learned from Tesla is that a visionary leader really helps its people keep their eyes up on the bigger picture(s), encourages and rewards people for keeping an eye on that bigger “frame” while still getting lots of important work done in the present. It’s definitely a challenge but it means that the organizational culture is one that is constantly looking out for new opportunities to break new ground and to put the brakes on products/services that no longer best serve the bigger mission.