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The Case For Setting Impossible Deadlines

You might not make your too-tight deadline–but you very well might surprise yourself by what you can accomplish.

The Case For Setting Impossible Deadlines
[Photo: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis/Flickr user NASA Kennedy]

Elon Musk, the billionaire who is currently running electric carmaker Tesla and private space company SpaceX, is known for almost superhuman levels of productivity. An upcoming biography called Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future reveals the tactics he used to keep his staff operating at a high level. In an excerpt from the book, author Ashlee Vance–a tech writer for Bloomberg Business–quotes an early SpaceX employee’s take on Musk’s ambitious deadlines.

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The proposed timeline for upending the aerospace industry was comically short. One of the earliest SpaceX presentations promised the first complete engine by May 2003, a second engine in June, the body of the rocket in July, and everything assembled by August. A launchpad would be ready by September, and the first launch would take place in November 2003, or about 15 months after the company started. A trip to Mars was naturally slated for somewhere near the end of the decade. “Elon has always been optimistic,” said Kevin Brogan, an early SpaceX recruit. “That’s the nice word. He can be a downright liar about when things need to get done. He will pick the most aggressive time schedule imaginable assuming everything goes right, and then accelerate it by assuming that everyone can work harder.”

It might sound crazy–and no, SpaceX hasn’t gone to Mars yet–but setting ambitious deadlines isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You might not make your too-tight deadline–but you very well might surprise yourself by what you can accomplish. As the story notes:

Even as they were trying to figure out Falcon 1, Musk was planning to build something he was calling the BFR, aka the Big Falcon Rocket or Big F—ing Rocket. It would have the biggest rocket engine in history. Musk’s bigger, faster mentality amused and impressed some of the suppliers that SpaceX occasionally turned to for help, like Barber-Nichols, a Colorado-based maker of rocket engine turbo pumps and other aerospace machinery. Bob Linden, a Barber-Nichols executive, remembers dealing with him. “Elon showed up with Tom Mueller and started telling us it was his destiny to launch things into space at lower costs and to help us become spacefaring people,” he said. “We thought the world of Tom but weren’t quite sure whether to take Elon too seriously. They began asking us for the impossible. They wanted a turbo pump to be built in less than a year for under $1 million. Boeing might do a project like that over five years for $100 million. Tom told us to give it our best shot, and we built it in 13 months. He was relentless.”

Read more about the benefits of setting short deadlines here.

[via Bloomberg]

This article has been edited from the original version. The original version characterized SpaceX founder’s management style in ways that are not justified by the source excerpt we quoted. We also updated advice on meeting deadlines at the end of this story.–Anjali Mullany, Editor

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