The SpaceX explosion doesn’t prove that Elon Musk is overloaded

The SpaceX explosion doesn't prove that Elon Musk is overloadedA SpaceX rocket exploded on Thursday morning, while it was being fueled. The rocket was supposed to carry a satellite that would help Facebook provide Internet connections in Africa. Both the rocket and satellite were destroyed.

Later in the day, Time magazine ran an article titled “What SpaceX’s Rocket Explosion Means for Elon Musk”. Here’s the gist of the article:

SolarCity brings low-cost clean energy to the masses. Tesla aims to speed the transition to a sustainable-energy economy. SpaceX’s long-term goal is to make humans a multi-planetary species. Any one of these would be an audacious ambition for a corporate leader. All three at once may be a bit too much for any one human being.

I understand the argument. It certainly seems plausible that Elon Musk is overloaded. He has too much responsibility and too little time. Because his attention is spread too thin, his companies are more likely to have problems with quality, like Thursday’s SpaceX rocket explosion, or Tesla’s recent autopilot-implicated crash fatality.

The problem is, the rocket explosion isn’t proof that Elon Musk is actually overloaded. Just because a story seems plausible doesn’t make it right. And immediately throwing plausible, but unproven, stories at serious failures does us all a disservice.

We really need to learn what the root cause of the SpaceX launch failure was. As scientists and engineers, we only get so many opportunities to learn such important lessons. It’s the only silver lining on a catastrophic failure.

Let’s focus on Elon Musk for a minute. I’ll definitely argue that he’s accountable for all of SpaceX’s failures, just as he gets credit for all of SpaceX’s successes. That’s the nature of being the CEO.

There is a difference, though, between Elon Musk’s accountability, and the ultimate root cause of the explosion. I think we can all agree that Elon Musk wasn’t out on the launch site fueling the rocket. He almost certainly wasn’t the one who designed and documented the fueling process.

So what does the “Elon Musk is stretched too thin” argument look like? I imagine being stretched too thin means Elon Musk focuses too little attention on each company. What happens as a result?

  • He doesn’t properly emphasize a safety culture. His staff prioritize technical achievement over safety, and failures result.
  • He doesn’t properly identify talent for key roles. While he’s quick to identify technical expertise, he doesn’t spend the time to identify people with appropriate attention to detail. At the finest levels, the work is sloppy, and failures result.
  • He doesn’t properly coordinate his company’s timelines with the needs of his team. He’s out of his touch with his team’s capabilities, and he thus commits to unrealistic investor expectations. The work is rushed, and failures result.

I assume there are more iterations of this kind of argument. I don’t know exactly what Kevin Kelleher, the author of the Time article, had in mind. But it seems like it must be something in the ballpark of what I listed above.

What’s the problem? This is a classic case of (mis)understanding business through heuristic.

Look, I get it. Business isn’t science. I’m biased, given my educational background. Still, it seems like there are times where immediately lurching for a plausible, though unproven, heuristic seems particularly costly. I think the SpaceX launch explosion is one of these times.

If one of the above stories about Elon Musk quickly becomes conventional wisdom, without a proper investigation to back it up, then we risk committing to “solutions” for problems we don’t actually have. Worse, when we mistakenly think we’ve solved a problem, we lose our opportunity to find the real solution. We don’t mitigate at all the chance that a similar problem emerges in the future.

Could Elon Musk be spread too thin? Absolutely. Could his lack of focus on SpaceX explain Thursday’s launch explosion? Certainly. But I don’t think the fact that we had a launch explosion proves that Elon Musk is spread too thin.

I doubt SpaceX publishes many details from the investigation they’ll perform. As an engineer, I’d love to see them. About 15 years ago, I studied the Challenger explosion in an undergraduate engineering ethics class. Ever since then, I have been fascinated with the tension between commercial and technical forces, generally defined.

The SpaceX team will eventually learn exactly what caused Thursday’s launch failure. Hopefully they’ll trace the proximate cause all the way back to the root cause, which may or may not be a lack of executive oversight. It’s only respectful and prudent that we allow the SpaceX team the time they need to reach a reasoned, rational conclusion.

The Time article is a perfect example of the reactionary reach for a surface-level explanation that we simply don’t need right now.

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