For the past 18 years, SpaceX has been revolutionizing human space travel and will continue to do so. However, it is doing it less by creative ingenuity and more by steadfast determination.
From Falcons to Dragons to Starships
In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX with the stated goal of reducing the cost of space transportation in order to enable the colonization of Mars. Since then, the company has achieved a number of key milestones, culminating most recently with the successful delivery of two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station flying 400 kilometers above the Earth's surface. It has been an ambitious development program, getting from the first orbital flight of the Falcon 1 rocket in 2008 to the Crew Dragon 2 mission this past weekend. Not to rest on its laurels, the company is already deep into the testing of the next-generation Starship, a fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle.
By most measures, SpaceX has already achieved its primary founding mission by drastically reducing the cost of access to space.
However, despite media hype to the contrary, its success is NOT due to Musk's technical genius or vision. After all, most of the "disruptive innovation" for which he receives credit was already well-known before he arrived on the scene. Rather, SpaceX has succeeded precisely because it has been able to EXECUTE in a way that no one else has been able to duplicate. And credit for THAT success should not go to Musk (at least not him alone) but instead to the company's long-time President and COO, Gwynne Shotwell.
Disrupting by doing what others cannot (or have not)
An aerospace industry veteran and trained mechanical engineer, Shotwell joined SpaceX in 2002 as its 11th employee. In 2019, Forbes listed her as the 55th most powerful woman in the world. Along with Musk, she has led SpaceX through all of its major successes and guided it past the many setbacks it has faced along the way.
Generally Musk is credited with many of the company's most disruptive innovations, such as its business model (charging for rides to space rather than selling its hardware), its reusable rockets (at least the first-stage boosters, thus far), and its vertical integration (designing and producing most of its own components in-house). However, none of those are novel concepts. After all, many entrepreneurs have lived the mantra "there are no truly original ideas left".
What is truly admirable about SpaceX is how effectively it has been able to stitch together all of these otherwise unoriginal ideas into a single powerful history-changing force and then deploy it with relative efficiency via relentless execution. This is precisely where Shotwell shines, to the point that many industry insiders claim that SpaceX would not be where it is today without her.
AS BUSINESS LEADERS, it is easy to let the high-paced tech-driven modern world push us into thinking that we need to succeed through "disruptive innovation" and that that requires a level of genius we may not possess. Instead, we should remember that solid execution toward an ambitious vision almost always delivers greater results than merely divining new ideas.
Execution trumps innovation almost every time, but both together is ideal
Fill all gaps on your team by recruiting diverse and complementary competencies
Always make sure that one of your top leaders is a top-notch operator