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How can you adopt A.L.I.E.N. thinking like Elon Musk?

By IMD Professor Cyril Bouquet - November 2014

What if airplanes could take off and land vertically? What if we could go from Los Angeles to San Francisco in pressurized capsules in less than 30 minutes? What if one day we could live on other planets? These are a handful of incredible ideas thought up by Elon Musk, the man who is trying to revolutionize our future. Founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, Elon Musk is a brilliant inventor who goes from one crazy project to another.

His businesses have enjoyed tremendous success:  

  • PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion.
  • Tesla has been on the stock market since 2010 and has a market capitalization of $30.4 billion; equivalent to Renault, which sells 100 times as many cars internationally.  
  • SpaceX has already received orders worth $4 billion, of which 75% are commercial clients; it is the only private company to succeed in completing three cargo flights to NASA's international space station.  

With his out-of-this-world ideas, he could be from another planet. His type of "alien thinking" is the subject of a book I am working on. Fellow IMD Professor Mike Wade, Visiting Professor Theo Peridis, long-time IMD associate Jim Pulcrano and I, posit that to be an innovator, leaders should emulate five "A.L.I.E.N." types of thinkers: an Anthropologist, a Lateral thinker, an Imaginator, an Experimenter and a Navigator.  

A for Anthropologist

Elon Musk's physics degree and his MBA from the University of Pennsylvania certainly didn't hinder his ambitions to reinvent electronic payments, electric vehicles or the conquest of space. But that doesn't explain how he ended up launching successful projects in areas that he has no training in. His lack of expertise has allowed him to bring a fresh eye to existing challenges. He has also learned about new fields along his path and surrounded himself with experts. However, one of his key traits has been observation. Anthropologists are expert observers. Musk has carefully studied what mankind's problems, habits and aspirations are, like an anthropologist, so his projects can provide them with meaningful solutions to their challenges. He also intricately observes his businesses first hand. He is constantly on the ground speaking with people from all walks of his organizations and keeps his office in open space with the other employees.  

L for Lateral thinker

Musk is a lateral thinker. His ideas are original and defy traditional rationale. He has made the choice, unlike many business leaders, to share the incredible knowledge that helped his company rise to success: since June 2014, the patents of Tesla motors have been released to anyone who wants to use them. Because for Musk, it is better to contribute to continuous improvement for all than to try to protect past gains. Last September, he announced that he doesn't intend to put SpaceX on the stock market because the company is pursuing very long-term goals (like building a city on Mars) and he doesn't want it to be influenced by market logic. Musk's curiosity is insatiable and is focused on non-traditional areas because he believes you never know where a good idea will come from.  

I for Imaginator

Musk doesn't waste time with down-to-earth ideas. At the end of his tenure with PayPal, he wasn't looking to make a return on his investments: his goal was to use technological advances to offer radical solutions to society's major problems. With Tesla, he is working on making environmentally friendly electric cars for the public at large. With SolarCity, he is developing a system for leasing solar panels that will revolutionize the heating of private homes and commercial buildings. With SpaceX, he is trying to widen the popularity of space travel. Musk has also conceptualized the Hyperloop and wants to go to Mars. He doesn't ask why he should do something; instead he asks why not?  

E for Experimenter

If Musk thinks a challenge has to be tackled, he does it no matter what the probability of failure is. For him, failure is always an option. He has said that if you haven't failed at initiatives, you aren't innovating enough. In 2008 he was at the brink of bankruptcy when Tesla sedans were facing quality issues and the launch of his third space rocket was a complete failure. But Musk soldiered on when many others would have thrown in the towel. Then in 2012, he succeeded in sending his rocket, Falcon9, to the International Space Station (ISS) after several crashes. Falcon9 is the first private vessel to deliver cargo to the ISS and safely return cargo to earth, which rings in a new era for space transportation.  

N for Navigator

A.L.I.E.N. thinkers rarely take the easiest path, so they have to be able to share their vision and energy to motivate those around them. If Musk doesn't master all of the technologies he is trying to revolutionize, he provides the vision and leadership that lead his team toward the goals he sets. After the failed SpaceX launch in 2008, he immediately addressed his 300-member team and told them that they had succeeded in getting the rocket to reach space, a feat many countries have failed, and that he would never give up on the initiative. In his interview with TED's Chris Anderson, he lays out his vision for the solar energy of tomorrow. Anderson presses him with technical questions about how solar technology will evolve in 10, 20 or 30 years. Musk doesn't have all the answers but that doesn't stop him from leading his team forward. He is confident "that solar will beat everything; it must. Otherwise we are in trouble."  

Musk dreams of things that others think are impossible. He ignores the assumptions of the past but stays humble. He reminds me that we are living in extraordinary times. Learning how to harness his type of A.L.I.E.N. thinking is the key to bringing out the innovation that your teams are capable of.  

Cyril Bouquet is Professor of Strategy at IMD. His major interest is the interface between organizational psychology, strategy and leadership. He will be leading a stream on how "Alien Thinking" can help your business at IMD's upcoming Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) program in Singapore on 17-22 November 2014.

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