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PR spin or brilliant culture-driving by Elon Musk?

#NimbleVlog Season 02 Episode 03NASA recently announced it has selected SpaceX’s Starship to land astronauts on the moon for the first time since the Apollo era! The news prompted ORCHANGO’s president & co-founder Edmond Mellina to reflect on Elon Musk’s frequent use of the term R.U.D. (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) through the Starship development program. He concludes with three questions for leaders concerned with building an innovation culture…


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RUD… R.U.D. – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly

Elon Musk often uses the acronym in his Tweets about his SpaceX venture and the rocket launches. He is not the one who has coined the phrase, however he certainly made it popular – and myself, that’s how I first came across the term, back in 2015 when I saw one of his tweets.

My first reaction was rather negative. I thought: “This is a massive, massive understatement; it’s basically a P.R. spin”.

But then, I started to pay more attention to the way Musk was using R.U.D. And I changed my mind: it’s not a PR spin; it is a brilliant culture-driving move by Elon Musk.

Think about it. Elon Musk is a serial and disruptive entrepreneur. So, he knows that failure goes hand-in-hand with innovation. So, he expects Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly events. Even better, when one R.U.D. occurs he gets excited. Why? Because of the learning opportunities it generates. In his mind, a R.U.D. is one step closer to Mars.

This was in full display a few months ago when they did the Starship fly test “SN8” – Serial Number 8. You’ve probably seen the footage. The flight went very well… but at the end, there was a fiery explosion right on the landing pad.

On Twitter, Elon Musk explained what happened and said he was very happy because they got all the data they needed from the crash. And he gave huge kudos to the SpaceX team!

So, when the CEO reacts that way to a massive crash, that sends a huge signal through the entire organization. It totally kills any fear of trying new things. It fuels innovation. It is highly inspirational. In other words, it drives a culture of innovation.

So, it was not surprising that in the few weeks after the crash, if you were visiting SpaceX’s YouTube channel, pinned at the top was a video about that test… And it was mostly about the R.U.D., about the explosion! Which was amazing, they were basically showcasing the disaster. But at the end of the video, they were concluding with a very positive note about the learnings; and about the next step, the next test.

Since then, Elon Musk and his SpaceX team have been moving closer to Mars with more tests; more problems; extracting more learning out of them; and driving more innovation…

And it looks like the folks at NASA have been impressed: a few days ago, the big announcement was that NASA has selected SpaceX to move the astronauts back and forth between the new [Space] Station and the Moon.

In the previous episode of the #NimbleVlog, I talked about the levers for culture change. And I stressed the importance first and foremost of the leadership – from the top but [also] throughout the organization; and I also talked about how important it is to use symbols, stories, and rituals to drive a culture shift.

So, if you look at it from this perspective, it’s not surprising that in the hands of Elon Musk, a R.U.D. – Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly – becomes a powerful culture-driving tool. First, of course, because he is a CEO so he is the top leader. But also because for them, talking about a R.U.D. has become a ritual; it is highly symbolic; and it tells a story from an engineering standpoint about what happened, what are the learning that they extracted, and how this is going to fuel further innovation.

So, if you are a leader talking about the importance of innovation, there are three questions you need to ponder:

First, what is the equivalent of a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly in your business? Second, when such an event occurs, how comfortable are you – really – with it? And third, what do you say to your people then?

The answers to these three questions will tell you whether you are driving, or hindering, the innovation culture you are saying that your business needs…

Three questions for leaders concerned with building an innovation culture

Question #1 – What is the equivalent of a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly in your business?

Question #2 – When such an event occurs, how comfortable are you – really – with it?

Question #3 – What do you say to your people then?

Playlist with all the #NimbleVlog episodes

Headshot Of Edmond Mellina, ORCHANGO's President & Co-Founder

Edmond is ORCHANGO's president & co-founder.

He is internationally respected for his expertise in nimble change leadership and culture change. For the past 30 years, he has been executing strategic transformations, building agile capabilities, and advising clients across sectors in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

He is a former corporate transformation executive in drastically changing industries: CIO at Delta Hotels when Expedia disrupted the hotel business; and VP Corporate Development & General Manager USA for the technology business of Envoy Communication Group when design and marketing agencies started to become digital.

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