Blog & Resources

Elon Musk’s Keys to Great Teamwork

What makes great teams great?

In my drive to learn more about how great teams become great teams, I stumbled upon Ashlee Vance’s book, Elon Musk. Vance had his work cut out for him, as Musk didn’t agree to cooperate on the book until well into his writing. In reading about Musk and his approach to business and technology, it was enlightening to learn that when Musk started Tesla and SpaceX, he brought with him many of the methods and concepts learned from his years in the software field.

A main principle of Agile is to have self-organized, cross-functional teams of people capable of getting the work done. It sounds so simple, and yet it is a big challenge to many companies working on their transformation to Agile today.

Imagine a team like this?

Imagine building a new feature for your product, and putting together a team made up of business people, developers, analysts, testers, etc., and then asking them, “What will it take to get this feature built?” Not, can you have this feature done by May 15th. You ask the team, “What can you do?”

You would be putting the commitment into the teams hands and, by having everyone together, you would ensure that the work was completed as defined by the team. Such a simple concept – let people who are asking for, building, testing and accepting the final result, work together from start to finish to ensure they build what the customer wanted!

Self-Organizing, Cross-Functional

Musk took note of how Agile teams worked and the self-organizing and cross-functional team concept, and brought it right to the manufacturing floor of SpaceX. As noted by Vance,

“Desks were interspersed around the factory so that Ivy League computer scientists and engineers designing the machines could sit with the welders and machinists building the hardware. This approach stood as SpeceX’s first major break with traditional aerospace companies that prefer to cordon different engineering groups off from each other and typically separate engineers and machinists by thousands of miles by placing their factories in locations where real estate and labor run cheap.”

Musk leveraged his greatest resource, his people, to work together to do the unthinkable. Starting from scratch in 2002, SpaceX became the only private company ever to return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit, which it first accomplished in December of 2010 – just 8 years. Again, in May of 2012 they made history when they delivered cargo to the International Space Station. Most recently, in December of 2015, SpaceX delivered satellites into orbit and the first stage of their rocket safely returned and landed on earth – the first-ever orbital class rocket landing.

Human Interaction

As further noted by Vance when looking into how Musk changed an industry,

“He’s managed to keep the safety factor up while cutting costs. He’s just taken the best things from the tech industry like the open-floor office plans and having everyone talking and all this human interaction. It’s a very different way to most of the aerospace industry, which is designed to produce requirements documents and project reviews.”

It is clear, not only from Musk’s demonstrable proof, that people who make commitments to their own work and then work together, are capable of accomplishing amazing results. By building self-organizing, cross-functional teams, today’s organizations can leverage the power of self-motivation, commitment and teamwork like never imagined before. That is, if they can let go of old habits.​

Musk took note of how Agile teams worked and the self-organizing and cross-functional team concept, and brought it right to the manufacturing floor of SpaceX.