How SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch became a great story of “future back” innovation, brand, and leadership

February 7, 2018

Elon Musk could not stop smiling. As I sat wide awake in my Dubai hotel bedroom, 0245 local time, watching every moment of SpaceX’s launch spectacle live on YouTube, it initially seemed just another rocket taking off.  In 6 hours I would be on a big stage here, delivering a keynote about the world’s most inspiring, disruptive, remarkable innovators, and the leaders who shape them.

But then, the SpaceX launch became much more. I couldn’t switch off, I was wide awake, and soon I was recreating my keynote to be delivered in a few hours with a realtime case study, broadcast direct from space. It was the launch, the ambition, the technology, the leader, the storytelling.

The realisation that we were in the midst of a great story – a real event, but part of a bigger narrative, to reignite Musk’s mission to colonise Mars by 2025, and to get people excited again with everything about SpaceX, Tesla and more. This was storytelling, Musk-style, at its best.

The telling moment came as the rocket boosters disengaged, using their intelligent extraterrestrial navigation to return to earth in unison. That was remarkable. The launch of a Tesla Roadster into the orbit of Mars, however seemed more like fantasy, especially since it seemed to be driven by that guy who sang Get Lucky from Daft Punk. But it was real, and also part of the evolving Mars story.

Musk has always been a great storyteller. Yet his narrative is real, challenging and inspiring us to believe in future possibilities that seem fanciful and farfetched. But then he starts to deliver – Tesla now with a larger market cap than Ford, the Gigafactory, the Hyperloop, and SpaceX. Whilst you could call today’s mission a test launch. It was much more. It inspired investors, consumers, employees. And us normal folk too.

You might, of course, think of Musk as a showman. The multi billionaire, playing with space toys, spending his time talking to the media, and indulging his dreams. Think again. This is a leader who mostly shuns the limelight. He is happiest working amidst his engineering team (he labels himself Chief Designer, rather than CEO), urging them to constantly think bigger, and think different.

The launch of Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful ever space rocket, has certainly garnered plenty of reaction, from awe to some gentle ribbing. The space craft, designed by SpaceX, looking remarkably like 3 of their previous FalconNine crafts strapped together. It is more than double that of the world’s next most powerful rocket, the Delta IV Heavy, and able to a maximum of 64 tonnes in low-Earth orbit.

The launch generated a huge amount of interest online, and Musk shared regular updates with his 18.9m followers. Social media users waited with anticipation as the scheduled launch time approached. Some counted down as the rocket readied its 27 engines and three boosters and prepared to blast off from Cape Canaveral.

Musk tweeted and chatted, saying the challenges of developing the new rocket meant the chances of a successful first outing might be only 50-50. But the 70m vehicle lifted clear of its pad without incident to soar high over the Atlantic Ocean.

Many people were surprised at what the Falcon Heavy was taking into space. There were no astronauts or satellites on this flight. Instead, Musk decided to send his old cherry-red Tesla sports car with a space-suited mannequin strapped in the driver’s seat. The radio was also set to play a David Bowie soundtrack Life on Mars on a loop.

This was all a fabulous example of “future back” innovation, brand and leadership. Most of us create a vision, mission or ambition. And then start to work towards it. But you quickly get swamped by other priorities, limitations of capacity or resources, and inflexible mindsets.

“Future back” thinking jumps to the future, and then recalibrate priorities backwards. So if you start with a clear view of what it will be like 2025, you can then say what do you need to have done by 2022, 2020, 2018 in order to get there. Priorities change, and ambitions start to seem more possible. The brand becomes a future narrative, the story of where you are going, not where you have been. And similarly leadership is built on a belief in the chosen future and becoming the guide towards it.

As for Musk, the mission is still live …

His red Tesla Roadster is now locked into a perpetual orbit of Mars. It is currently driving/flying along at 11 km/s (7mi/s), 400 million km (250 million mi) from Earth … space junk that could be up there for a billion years … or an inspirational icon for what is possible, and for Elon Musk, what is probable:

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