Elon Musk: Forget Breakthough Innovation — Just Make the Product Better

By Scott Kirsner |  December 8, 2020

Elon Musk was interviewed as part of the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council conference today. The session was focused on “the state of innovation.” Here are the three most important things he said for people working on R&D, new product development, and innovation — and their senior leaders.

1. Do the leaders in big companies prioritize innovation enough? 

“I think the answer is no. Generally, my recommendation would really be: Spend less time on finance, spend less time in conference rooms, less time on PowerPoint — and more time just trying to make your product as amazing as possible.”

“There might be too many MBAs running companies. … There should be more focus on the product or service itself — less time on board meetings, less time on financials. [People] will take their cue from that.”

“I earnestly would recommend to anyone listening: Just spend less time in meeting rooms, and more time on the factory floor, more time with customers. I would just urge people to step back a second and say, ‘Is your product as awesome as it could be?’ Probably not. What could you do to make it great? … I don’t think it necessarily has to be breakthrough innovation. Just make your product better.”

2. The innovation mindset can be learned.

“I think it is learnable. Step number one would be, try it. Have you tried it — hard? If you haven’t tried hard, try hard. I think [the innovation mindset] is learnable. It’s not some mysterious thing. Just be an absolute perfectionist about the product you make, the service you provide. Seek negative feedback from all quarters — from customers, from people who aren’t customers. How can we make this better? It’s absolutely learnable. If you find yourself spending a lot of time getting presentations and reviewing spreadsheets, you’re barking up the wrong tree. That’s the effect, not the cause. Get out there on the factory floor, get out there in the stores, talk to customers, think about what would you love to have.”

3. If you don’t love the idea, others won’t, either.

“I’ve had this conversation at Tesla a few times: ‘We don’t love this product, but we think others will love it.’ That’s not really how it works. If you don’t love it, don’t expect others will, either.”


Wall Street Journal subscribers can watch the full video of the interview with Matt Murray, the Journal’s editor-in-chief, here.