Simplicity is the glory of expression-  Walt Whitman

The Idea: A recent Quartz article about the genius of Elon Musk sources a proverbial story about Richard Feynman and how he viewed life.   Feynman was a scientist, teacher, storyteller, and musician.  He was an MIT and Princeton graduate, assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, and translated Mayan hieroglyphics.  And his work rethinking quantum mechanics and electrodynamics stands today.  He was a lot like Elon Musk.

The two are alike, the author argues, in both brilliance and process.  The author once asked Richard to explain a complicated statistical physics question and he responded:

“I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

There’s a paradox at play in today’s organizations when it comes to innovation and creativity. Some of the most impactful, recent innovation has been about reduction, not expansion. We often go the wrong way.

Elon Musk’s newest concept for subterranean tunnel systems doesn’t involve super robots or construction tools, but instead suggests a simple modification of an already used process. His transportation systems are below the ground not above ground.

Musk does this habitually.  He makes headlines for suggesting he can solve apparently impossible problems with small modifications to the process.  Rather than thinking ‘outside the box,’ it seems he’s more concerned about reevaluating what the box is doing wrong before jumping outside of it.

Asking the right questions of your team and your product is the only way this process starts.  I recently wrote about Gifford Pinchot III’s practice of intrapreneurship, and how it’s possible to spur innovation within the confines of a corporation.  I’d bet Musk enforces the same values that Pinchot discusses:

  • Having a culture that’s sturdy, flexible, and courageous.
  • Facilitating purpose-driven innovation from within.
  • Elevating the role and expectation of team members.

Musk is doing what few can do: make things simple.  He boils it down to a high school lecture! He embraces boring logistics indiscriminately, even naming his aforementioned tunnel construction company, “The Boring Company.”

How can we all embrace our own ‘boring companies’?

Ask The Right Questions At Your Next Brainwriting Session

Researchers, Coyne, Clifford, and Dye wrote a highly-trafficked HBR article that explored the importance of asking structured questions at your next meeting focused on tangible idea implementation.  Below are some tremendous questions to offer:

    • What’s the biggest hassle of purchasing or using our product?
    • Which technologies embedded in our product have changed the most since the product was last redesigned?
    • What breakthroughs in efficiency or effectiveness have we made that could be applied in another industry?

Return To Your “Why?”

A great strategy will always fail against a passion and purpose.  Organizations (and teams) that surpass expectations and competition do so because of calling, not just strategy. If you don’t have a big enough “why” fueling your culture, you are more vulnerable than you think.  If you find your “why” you have just found your culture.

Simplicity is breathtaking, difficult and is fertile ground for great communication.  As Leonardo da Vinci reminds us “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”