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Is Elon Musk a Good Agile Manager?

Is Elon Musk a Good Agile Manager? I recently participated in a discussion on the question of “How would you describe Elon Musk’s leadership and management style?” There has been a lot of interest in this since Elon Musk acquired Twitter and I’ve given a lot of thought to this subject.

  • I actually did a case study on Elon Musk and Tesla for the second edition of my book on Agile Project Management that is scheduled to be released early in 2023.
  • There’s a lot we can learn from him about applying Agile to a complex product development process that is not totally software development; however, there is also a lot we can learn from him about applying an Agile management philosophy at an enterprise level.
Is Elon Musk a Good Agile Manager?

Elon Musk does not fit any typical leadership styles. He has a very unique style and he definitely has some good points and some “not-so-good” points:

Good Points

1. Entrepenerial Skill

He is absolutely brilliant as an entrepreneur in starting new businesses and his prolific new companies embody a lot of characteristics of a highly Agile enterprise:

  • They are very fast-moving and very adaptive to changes in technology and market needs. Tesla can produce design changes daily and still manage the configurations of all Tesla’s throughout the world.
  • His companies also have a very lean management structure with limited overhead and a very strong emphasis on whatever it takes to get the job done in as simple and streamlined approach as possible.

2. Use of Technology

He also knows how to use technology like AI to use automation very effectively. With Twitter, I think he realized how bloated they were with using people and managers to do things like content moderation that could be much more streamlined and automated.

3. Empowerment of People

He empowers the people who work for him to do their jobs; however, when there is a problem, he is known to jump in and get personally involved and sometimes micro-manages.

“Not-so-good” Points

Those are the good points – here are some of the not-so-good points:

1. Operational, Day-to-day Management

Any company needs to have some level of sound operational management to run the business day-to-day and ensure that is well-managed and profitable. Being completely Agile is not necessarily an appropriate goal in itself. There are real-world tradeoffs that need to be made to balance agility with some level of planning and control:

  • Elon is a broad strategic thinker and I suspect he gets bored easily with the mundane, tactical details with the day-to-day operations of running a company once it is started. I think he has recognized that and hired managers who can do that for him.
  • However, I think he still tries to do a fair amount of micro-managing and has trouble letting go and finding the right balance between free-wheeling, dynamic agility and a more stable operational management platform. An indication of that is the problems that Tesla has had of managing revenues and profits lately

2. Scope and Breadth of Control

I also think that, although Elon is absolutely brilliant, he over-extends himself too far. It’s impossible for anyone to have the bandwidth to manage all the different businesses that he has started and make them all successful.

  • It’s hard to imagine anyone, even someone as brilliant as Elon, being able to do that successfully. With regard to Twitter specifically, I think he clearly over-extended himself with that acquisition and I think he is realizing that.
  • The key thing will be “does he learn from his mistakes and take corrective action?”. He seems to be at least moving in that direction by recognizing the need to delegate the CEO role at Twitter to someone else. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

3. Respect for People

He is obviously very demanding of his employees but he seems to take that to extremes that may not be realistic. He correctly recognized that Twitter had a very bloated overhead and laid off a lot of people, but the way he did that seemed to be extremely precipitous without an adequate understanding of the consequences and without much sensitivity to the people involved.

  • Respect for people is an important Agile value and I think Elon generally does respect the people who work for him; – “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • However, he has unrealistic expectations of of them. He works incredible hours himself to the extent of even sleeping on the factory floor when there is a problem to be resolved and he expects the same kind of total commitment from his employees. That’s not consistent with the Agile principle that “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Overall Summary

I know that Elon Musk understands Agile from a product development perspective and I think he has also applied some level of Agile thinking in the management of many of the companies he has founded. However, he has some flaws that remind me a lot of Steve Jobs who has some similar management and ledership characteristics. (See related post on Steve Jobs). We can learn a lot about Agile management and leadership from both Elon Musk and Steve Jobs:

1. Strong, Aggressive Leadership

Both Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are strong, aggressive leaders. There is nothing wrong with strong, aggressive leadershp; and in fact, it is essential for a truly successful Agile implementation; however, it can be taken to extremes. The important thing is to incorporate a sufficient level of respect for people into the strong, aggressive leadership style.

2. Balancing Agility with Control

At an enterprise level, becoming completely Agile is not necessarily an isolated goal in itself for most companies. Its unrealistic to believe that any company can throw out all conventional notions of planning and management and adopt a completely free-wheeling and dynamic Agile culture and product development process. It takes a lot of skill to find the right balance.

3. Pragmatic vs. Idealistic View of Agile

Our understanding of Agile has matured a lot over the years and continues to mature, particularly regarding implementing Agile at an enterprise level. At one time, there was somewhat of an idealistic view of Agile. At that time, many Agilists might claim that:

  • Strong, aggressive leadership is inconsistent with empowered Agile teams, and a true Agile implementation is based on fully-empowered teams with very little or no management, and
  • Any significant notion of conventional management planning and control is also inconsistent with Agile at both a project level and an enterprise level

As Agile has matured over the years, we’re learning a lot about what works and doesn’t work in actual practice, and some of the more idealistic notions of Agile are giving way to a more pragmatic approach. However, it’s important to not lose sight of the original idealistic under-pinnings that Agile is based on.

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2 thoughts on “Is Elon Musk a Good Agile Manager?”

  1. Hello Chuck! I am pleased by the in-depth examination of Elon Musk’s management style that you have provided as an inexperienced project manager with only a diploma’s worth of project management knowledge. I’m interested in enrolling in one of your courses.

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