One of the World's Biggest Innovators Says He’s 'Not Really a Fan' of Disruption

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors Inc. Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP

The founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX says he's “just a fan of making things better.”

Elon Musk, the entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal before founding Tesla Motors and SpaceX, said yesterday he’s “not really a fan of disruption,” but is rather “just a fan of making things better.”

Those words, spoken Monday at the Edison Electric Institute, may come as surprising given Musk’s laundry list of achievements. SpaceX, for example, has forced its way into the space launch and exploration business in recent years, with its Falcon 9 rockets delivering satellites into orbit.

That’s certainly disruptive activity – just ask Boeing – but Musk added context to what would otherwise be a difficult statement to defend.

"If there's a need for something to be disrupted, and it's important to the future of the world, then sure, we can disrupt it,” Musk said.

There’s a lesson for the federal government in this.

Attempting disruption only makes sense when there is a direct need to do so. The U.S. government will spend approximately $86 billion on IT alone in the coming fiscal year, yet that figure has held relatively steady in recent years.

Meanwhile, demand for IT services for government agencies has only increased, mirroring the amount of digital data and records agencies collect and use for various purposes. The Obama administration’s proposed budget calls for $7.3 billion in expenditures on provisioned services like cloud computing, which are expected to improve the speed and efficiency of government services while reducing infrastructure costs.

It’s important federal agencies and departments explore the use of disruptive technologies based on need -- not hype and buzz. The Defense Department, much maligned by industry for its slow exploration of cloud computing, has gained speed as of late, but only after taking steps to ensure security, actual cost savings, and increased effectiveness in carrying out mission.

Yet, government has seen its fair share of hyped-up moves to cloud and other disruptive technologies go bad. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ $36 million cloud email contract evaporated over a dispute over email retention. Once the deal went sour, VA went back to its own internal systems again after wasting a few bucks. Was the need that great, or were they after disruptive technology for the sake of having a disruptive technology? If the status quo works, keep it. And if it doesn’t, then perhaps it’s time to channel Musk and think about being disruptive. 

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