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What Elon Musk Thinks Corporate Leaders Are Doing Wrong – and How Consumer Insights Can Help Fix It

Elon Musk is the richest man in the world – at age 49, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX is a multi-billionaire many times over. He does what he wants. He says what he thinks. He has disrupted the status quo again and again with his relentless innovation and refusal to follow the tried-and-true path of established U.S. corporations. The guy who quit Stanford after one day is doing things his way – and it’s not about the money. It’s about creating something new; creating real value.

In late 2020, Musk participated in the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Summit, and with his usual candidness, gave some strong advice to business leaders.

“Are CEOs in corporate America focused enough on product improvement? I think the answer is no,” he said. According to Musk, innovation often doesn’t come through one breakthrough idea but through a relentless focus on continuous improvement.

Elon Innovation Quote 
His advice for leaders? Step back and ask if your product is as awesome as it could be. The answer is probably no. Then, said Musk, you need to ask yourself what you can do to make it great.

You make a product great by developing a product-focused mindset, which is a skill that Musk says can be learned. Instead of obsessing over spreadsheets, Musk wants execs to spend more time on the factory floor and interacting with customers.

As an insights professional, this is music to my ears. Engaging with the customer, building empathy and truly grasping their needs is the way to uncover and then solve problems.

Insights and marketing teams know all about this. But what about your company’s top leaders? Are they in the trenches, or are they too far removed to see the power of continuous innovation?

Here are a few ways to incorporate Musk’s approaches and bring them to life within your own organization.

Take leaders on a journey with their customers

Seeing your customers actually use or interact with your product is one of the best ways to uncover actionable insights. Take your leaders on a customer journey by sharing video interviews and stories that let them get to the heart of who their customer is and what they need. It’s a powerful way to provide perspective they can’t get from percentages or spreadsheets.

Another way to bring the customer to life for leadership is by using research dashboards instead of PowerPoint. Dashboards are about collaboration, early learning and exploration. PowerPoints are presentations.

smartdashboard with quote

The best insights dashboards quantify open-ended responses and let you drill in to see the customer quotes behind the data. PowerPoints are great for summarizing, but they don’t offer the flexibility and sharing options afforded by a dashboard, nor can they provide real-time information.

Bring leadership into your agile teams

Find ways for leadership to participate in your agile development teams. Invite them to join a one-week Innovation Sprint. During this process, you can go from identifying opportunity areas to brainstorming and testing early ideas.

Let your leaders get their hands dirty with you as you build, test and learn. Being part of the process will give them a deeper understanding of why certain decisions or innovations do or don’t make sense. Their perspective and vantage point can richly enhance the work you are doing.

Solving customer problems is exciting, as is seeing the rapid progress you can make when insights and development teams work closely together. When leaders experience this firsthand, it gives them a real advantage.

Embrace the negative

It’s easy to focus solely on customer satisfaction or performance metrics based on the product you have today. Validating in market results and understanding what is working well is important, but perhaps more important is understanding what is not going well. As Musk said, “Try. Try hard. Just be an absolute perfectionist, seek negative feedback from all quarters, ask, “how do we make this better?”

Seek negative feedback? Yes. Imagine the win-win of improving your product. Even the smallest criticism can be inspiration for major improvements. How much revenue do you stand to gain if you could improve your products? How much more loyal could your customers be? Understand the customer’s pain points and then test, learn, and innovate – over and over until you get it right.

Elon Product Quote

“Make your product better. This is the thing that really matters,” Musk said.


To learn more about how companies are prioritizing innovation while operating with agility, check out our eBook: How Innovation Teams Use Agile Research to Build Better Products in Less Time.

Thumbnail How Innovation Teams Use Agile

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Topics: Market Research, Strategic Best Practices, Innovation, Marketing, Agile

Monika Rogers

Monika Rogers

Monika Rogers is the CEO and Co-founder of Digsite. She has more than 20 years of marketing, innovation and market research experience, including positions at General Mills, Pillsbury and the A.C. Nielsen Center for Marketing Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.