Forget Focus?

What does it take to be a genius tycoon these days? Few of that sort have built themselves up as swiftly as Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors. Musk also dreamed up the 760-mile-an-hour Hyperloop system of transportation, which we recently discussed here.

David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, speculates in Bloomberg Businessweek that Musks’s strength may reside in his lack of focus — or, as Burkus puts it, his “constantly shifting focus.”

Photo credit: Remek T

“Indeed, Musk’s career stands in contrast to what I call the Expert Myth,” Burkus writes. “The Expert Myth claims that innovation is typically the result of the most experienced or knowledgeable person in a field. In reality, breakthroughs are often made by people at the fringes of an activity, by those with a base of knowledge and the ability to bring fresh ideas to the table—people such as Elon Musk.”

Peter Drucker would probably have agreed, up to a point. Musk’s businesses have followed the “fustest with the mostest” strategy, which we’ve discussed in the past. It requires the creation of something entirely novel that dominates the market.

“Perhaps because ‘Fustest with the Mostest’ must aim at creating something truly new, something truly different, nonexperts and outsiders seem to do as well as the experts, in fact, often better,” Drucker observed in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “Hofmann-LaRoche [the pharmaceutical company], for instance, did not owe its strategy to chemists; it owed it to a musician who had married the granddaughter of the company’s founder and needed more money to support his orchestra than the company then provided through its meager dividends.”

But fustest-with-the-mostest, Drucker warned, was “much too risky and much too difficult to be used for anything but major innovations.”

His view was that innovation in the vast majority of cases requires a high degree of focus. “There are clearly people who are more talented as innovators than others but their talents lie in well-defined areas,” Drucker wrote in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “Innovators rarely work in more than one area. For all his systematic innovative accomplishments, Edison worked only in the electrical field.”

How important do you think focus is to innovation?