Why Elon Musk sets nearly impossible goals for SpaceX employees

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. AP

Elon Musk operates his businesses, including SpaceX and Tesla, with a tireless, sometimes extreme intensity.

At his first company, software maker Zip2, Musk eventually learned that he shouldn’t manage people under the assumption that everyone operates the way he does, Ashlee Vance writes in his book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.”

But that hasn’t stopped Musk from pushing his employees to the limit under nearly impossible deadlines.

This is best seen at SpaceX, his rocket and spacecraft company. An early SpaceX engineer named Kevin Brogan tells Vance that Musk’s deadlines would seem absurd to employees, leaving him to think that Musk never intended for them to be reached.

“He can be a downright liar about when things need to get done,” says Brogan. “He will pick the most aggressive time schedule imaginable assuming everything goes right, and then accelerate it by assuming that everyone can work harder.”

Unrealistic deadlines have often resulted in SpaceX projects being behind schedule. “Time and again, Musk found himself making a public appearance where he had to come up with a new batch of excuses for a new delay,” Vance writes.

But Musk denies intentionally setting impossible goals, saying in “the early SpaceX days, it would have been just the lack of understanding of what it takes to develop a rocket.” He adds, “You don’t want to tell people to go through a wall by banging their head against it.”

Musk explains to Vance:

It’s different to say, “Well, what do you promise people?” Because you want to try to promise people something that includes schedule margin. But in order to achieve the external promise schedule, you’ve got to have an internal schedule that’s more aggressive than that. Sometimes you will still miss the external schedule.

Employees tell Vance an unintended consequence of this approach is that they give Musk false expectations to appease him, which he then passes on to customers, who later call the company upset that their order wasn’t fulfilled. This comes with a risk of damaging SpaceX’s reputation, but Musk tells Vance this doesn’t bother him because such occurrences are expected in the aerospace industry.

Those who work for Musk long-term find ways to thrive off his challenging requirements. Dr. Steve Davis, for example, is the director of advanced projects and has been with SpaceX since its inception in 2003. Brogan claims Davis has been working 16-hour days for years. “He gets more done than 11 people working together,” Brogan says.

As Dolly Singh, former head of talent acquisition for SpaceX, told Business Insider: “Diamonds are created under pressure, and Elon Musk is a master diamond maker.”

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