All Aboard! The Hyperloop Concept has left the Station.

John Follett

By Jerry Rackley

Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX has just dangled his latest bit of imaginative thinking in front of the world: the Hyperloop. If you’ve not kept up with the Hyperloop hoopla, it is Musk’s concept for very high-speed transportation. By high-speed, we’re talking about 600 MPH, 900 KPH or 4,800 furlongs per hour (FPH), or as we say in the backwoods, "lickety-split."


Musk describes the Hyperloop as “a cross between the Concord, a rail-gun and an air hockey table.” The concept was born out of Musk’s frustration with current plans to build a high-speed rail between Los Angeles and San Francisco, plans Musk evidently feels are underwhelming. So Musk, who is no stranger to big ideas, has developed a vision for the Hyperloop and offered it up to the world as an open source concept, which anyone can develop.

The Hyperloop concept is getting both praise and criticism. Is it feasible? Is it safe? These questions are unanswered, but when it comes to big ideas, it’s not unusual to not have all the details worked out in the beginning. Personally, I’d like very much to see the Hyperloop become reality, as I suspect most people would. Musk claims not to have plans to develop it himself, so someone else will have to grab his vision and run with it.

What the Hyperloop concept is already showing us is the power of a vision to propel progress, and it’s worth reviewing as a case study for how visions inspire achievement. Musk’s vision was the product of frustration and need. These ingredients are often the catalyst for big ideas. He felt that the current plans for high speed rail were inadequate, but rather than simply try to fix the current vision, he stepped back and did what great leaders do: considered what the ideal approach would be. What he did not do is frame his thinking around how to provide high-speed mass transit, within existing technology, the current political environment and with current levels of funding. Pardon the cliché, but it was out-of-the-box thinking that produced the Hyperloop concept. Had Musk not approached the problem the way he had, we probably would have gotten plans for a slightly better bullet train.

Another aspect of Musk’s vision casting is the level of detail. If you study what he released, there are some 57 pages of detail; it’s not just a rough drawing on a cocktail napkin. It’s enough detail to put further thinking, development and action into motion. What he did not release was a set of blueprints and specifications for building the Hyperloop. In other words, Musk has inspired us to pursue his idea, and that is the right level of detail needed for now. There is a plethora of detail awaiting development and future innovation, but at this point, the world understands the basics of how Hyperloop might work, but more importantly, what it would do. And this is exactly what’s needed to propel Hyperloop forward.

Visions and big ideas are no different in the corporate world. Markets need visionaries to look beyond incremental advances and current limitations to think in terms of what might be. The thinking alone isn’t enough, however. These ideas and visions require communication, because that is where they gain their power to inspire. A company without a vision is a company without a future. It is the job of the CEO to have a vision for the future of the company, and relentlessly champion that vision. Organizations that are aligned from top to bottom around a vision are formidable forces in their markets.

What we’re seeing now with the vision for Hyperloop isn’t a new dynamic. Students of history have seen this before. In May, 1961, U.S. president John F. Kennedy, in a speech to congress, said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” At the time these words were spoken, the United States was behind in the space race, and the technical details for accomplishing a moon landing were far from worked out. But the expression of this vision created the will to make it a reality.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the visions that inspire the best are those that are challenging. I would argue that if there isn’t a significant element of risk and a high enough degree of difficulty involved in achieving a vision, it won’t inspire. Part of the magic of a vision is that it might not become reality, but that is the very dynamic that pulls us in to it: we realize it won’t become reality, unless we do something to make it so.

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