“Elon Musk took over a struggling business with Twitter and has quickly made it worse” – CNBC
“Elon Musk is Bad at This” – The Atlantic
“The Elon Musk (Twitter) Era Has Been a Complete Mess” – Vanity Fair
To all these, I have to say, “What the hell did you expect?”
Look, I get that Musk is on a different plane of smart from most of us. No argument there.
The same is true, I suspect, for most tech CEOs who are the original founders of their company. The issue is that the kind of smart they are is not necessarily the kind of smart you need to run a big complex corporation.
If you look at the various types of intelligence, folks like Musk would excel at logical-mathematical intelligence -- or what I would call “geek-smart.” But this intelligence can often come at the expense of other kinds of intelligence that would be a better fit in the CEO’s role. Both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence immediately come to mind.
Musk is not alone. There is a bushel load of tech CEOs who have pulled off a number of WTF moves. In his article in The Atlantic titled “Silicon Valley’s Horrible Bosses,” Charlie Warzel gives us a few examples ripped straight from the handbook of the “Elon Musk School of Management.”
Most of them involve making hugely impactful HR decisions with little concern for the emotional impact on employees -- and then doubling down on mistake by choosing to communicate through Twitter.
For most of us with even a modicum of emotional intelligence, this is unimaginable. But if you’re geek-smart, it probably seems logical.
The disconnect in intelligence types comes in looking at the type of problems a CEO faces. I was CEO of a very small company -- and even at that scale, with a couple dozen employees, I spent the majority of my time dealing with HR issues.
I did learn one thing: issues that include people, whether they be employees or customers, generally fall into the category of what is called a “complex problem.”
That’s separate from a “complicated problem,” as defined by Cynefin, a model created in 1999 to help managers identify the best decision strategy for the issue they’re dealing with. In the model, there are five decision domains: Clear, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Confusion.
Geek-smart people are very good at complicated problems. This is the domain of the “expert” who can rapidly sift through the “known unknowns.”
Tech founders initially become successful because they are very good at solving complicated problems. In fact, in our culture, they are treated like rock stars. They are celebrated for their “expertise.”
Typically, this comes with a “smartest person in the room” level of smugness. They have no time for those that don’t see through the complications of the world the same way they do.
But here we run into a cognitive obstacle uncovered by political science writer Philip E. Tetlock in his 2005 book, “Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?”
As Tetlock discovered, expertise in one domain doesn’t always mean success in another, especially if one domain has complicated problems and the other has complex problems.
Complex problems, like predicting the future or managing people in a massive organization, lie in the realm of “unknown unknowns.” These problems are, by their very nature, unpredictable. The very toughest complex problems fall into a category I’ve talked about before: wicked problems.
And, as Tetlock discovered, experts are no better at dealing with complexity than the rest of us. In fact, in a complex scenario like predicting the future, you’d probably have just as much success with a dart throwing chimpanzee.
But it gets worse. There’s no shame in not being good at complex problems. None of us are. The problem with expertise lies not in a lack of knowledge, but in experts sticking to a cognitive style ill-suited to the task at hand: trying to apply complicated brilliance to complex situations.
Geek-smart people believe they know the answer better than anyone else because they see the world differently. They are not open to outside input. And it’s just that type of open-minded thinking that is required to wrestle with complex problems.
When you consider all that, is it any wonder Musk is blowing up Twitter -- and not in a good way?