The Musk Algorithm and the Sabotage Manual from WW2: which best explains your organisation?

Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson, published by Simon and Schuster 2023.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

“If you have never been punched in the nose, you have no idea how it affects the rest of your life” is how Elon Musk explains his childhood and introduces us to what drives him in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Musk’s  career so far.

I started reading the biography of Musk reluctantly, because I have found Musk’s capricious power in our world dangerous and some of his behaviour disturbing. Turning off Ukraine’s access to Starlink over Crimea to prevent them from sinking the Russian Black Sea fleet being one example. 

But I also have been taken aback by his success in creating SpaceX and Tesla and the complex, world-beating products these companies make – on timelines and to standards others can’t match.  There had to be insights there.

Just a quick reminder about what Elon Musk has achieved in contrast to well-established competitors: SpaceX is the largest provider of civil space launch services globally.  It is the only civilian company able to provide crew rotations for astronauts going to the International Space Station. It launched  the first crew rotation in 2020, with 8 missions since then.

Boeing, an incredible aerospace and space company for decades before SpaceX existed, got a contract that was almost double SpaceX’s at the same time from NASA to do the same thing.  In 10 years, Boeing has still not successfully demonstrated its crewed Starliner capsule, let alone flown multiple real missions.

I’d recommend the book for many reasons, even just as a wonderfully-written story of the rollercoaster ride of a 17 year old moving to Canada and then the US with no cash and little support who has been shaping the world ever since by his creativity, force of will and sheer perseverance.  It’s almost the textbook American success story.

Or read it for the simple human drama of Musk’s relationships and interactions with humanoids.  He has many strengths and skills, but something he – and those around him – see as key to his success is his almost complete lack of empathy, which gives him the ability to just make the call regardless of feelings.  And just when you thought a personality could be summed up in the label “ruthless bastard”, you see the truth of his own assessment that he can be ‘a fool for love’.  The depth of his love for his (many) children is palpable too. His care for the future of humanity is as obvious.

But back to business.  Here’s why anyone working in the defence sector, whether in government or the corporate world, should read this book.  It’s a manual for producing incredibly capable systems and products without being paralysed by complexity, bureaucracy and inertia. It’s a recipe for results at speed.

At 670 pages though, I know it’s too much for a bunch of busy people flooded with emails, urgent briefing papers to write, meetings to go to and the general busyness of our times.  So let me give you the one essential chunk of insight you can apply to your own work, your organisation’s structure and processes and – if you are lucky enough to be actually making something as opposed to thinking about others doing that – your product development and production line.

I give you Musk’s Algorithm, which has brought affordable, desirable, highly functional EVs into the world and which has transformed the space launch and overall space industry, and is on the way to sending humans to Mars and beyond:

  1. Question every requirement. Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came form a department, such as “from the legal department” or “the safety department”. You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.
  2. Delete any part or process you can. You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.
  3. Simplify and optimise. This should come after step two. A common mistake is to simplify and optimise a part or a process that should not exist.
  4. Accelerate cycle time. Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realised should be deleted.
  5. Automate. That comes last. The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs shaken out.”

The relentless, repeated way Musk and his ‘hardcore’ teams in Tesla and SpaceX apply these 5 steps is more than gruelling and throws off many talented people who just can’t work that way. But it also produces rapid success with highly complex products, technologies and solutions where others struggle and fail.  That sounds counterintuitive. It is and it works.

To me, the simplifying and stripping back of extraneous requirements, processes and parts is refreshing. And the fact that rapid results producing highly functionally and technically complicated solutions come from this relentless drive to simplify and accelerate is a huge insight.

It’s a world away from the mindless drive we see to integrate everything with everything on the assumption nirvana follows – because this simplifies nothing and complicates and slows everything. It’s also a world away from people who celebrate complexity as the reason nothing can be done rapidly.

Reflecting on the book and the Musk Algorithm brought a contrasting model for organisational behaviour to mind. This second model seems a much better description for many big government and corporate entities, particularly those whose functions and futures are pretty secure regardless of performance. Model number 2 is here, the Sabotage Algorithm.

It’s brought to you by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), America’s first centralised intelligence agency, which conducted espionage, sabotage and propaganda during World War 2.

Extracts from OSS Field Sabotage Manual: General Interference with Organizations

  1. Insist on doing everything through “channels.” Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  2. Make “speeches,” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your points by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate patriotic remarks.
  3. When possible, refer all matters to ‘ committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible- never less than five.
  4. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
  5. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  6. Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to “be reasonable”.
  7. Misunderstand orders. Ask endless questions or engage in long correspondence about such orders. Quibble over them when you can.
  8. Be worried about the propriety of any decision- raise the question of whether such action as contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.
  9. To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Criticise the capable.
  10. Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
  11. Multiply paperwork in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
  12. Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.

Applying this algorithm seems to better explain what we see and hear from leaders of clunky bureaucracies like Australia’s Defence Department or even big multinational primes who have been producing products like missiles, space launch services and vehicles of various types for decades.

Here in Australia, the Sabotage Algorithm certainly explains the paralysis in delivery of anything new in any timeframe that isn’t measured in decades, and the cripplingly incoherent and expanding top structure of Australia’s Defence organisation, its committees and its internal processes, all of which seem designed to stop anything getting done.

A final Musk quote: “This is how civilisations decline. They quit taking risks. And when they quit taking risks, their arteries harden. Every year there are more referees and less doers.”

If your working world sounds more like the Sabotage Algorithm than the Musk Algorithm, then maybe something needs to change.  Fast.

Related articles:

We need a defence organisation that can operate at the speed of its environment

Defence can’t fix itself and that matters for our security

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