The space tech industry has been stuck in a loop of re-creating the same designs for at least the past 40 years. On the other hand, SpaceX has taken a different approach. Rather than developing a huge (and costly) spaceship that could take humans to Mars, they chose to build a smaller rocket and iterate on the design.
In 2002, Elon Musk founded SpaceX with a dream to colonize Mars. Few believed that ten years from then, the company would become an industry disruptor. His approach is called iterative development.
Iterate, iterate, iterate
Iteration enables gradual improvement. When this approach is followed, a team working on developing a product can quickly release a working, yet imperfect version of the product. This is achieved by repeatedly going through a create-evaluate-repeat loop. SpaceX designs and simulates but also builds and tests constantly.
The iterative process shifts the way a team interacts with the stakeholders. To get maximum value, they get highly involved at all stages of development, adjusting requirements, and helping to prioritize features on the product backlog.
Smaller releases help customers to gradually adapt to new functionalities. As it also allows developers to collect feedback and analyze how new features are performing with users. Insights gained from feedback can be helpful for the business to adapt to the changing market with maximum efficiency.
Perfect is the enemy of the good
It is often impossible to know all the requirements when building a new product. Chances are that many key aspects of a product will only emerge later in development requiring significant changes to the plans. Therefore, trying to build a perfect product it’s not only time-consuming but also costly. At SpaceX, they realized they learn more by building something far from perfect and pushing it to failure than they would learn running thousands of simulations. They follow a “fail fast” approach. Instead of spending years on the design and then cautiously building a perfect prototype, they build many and put them to test.
For example, the new Raptor rocket engine is the most advanced rocket engine ever made, having two pre-combustion chambers (for fuel & oxygen). They achieved it by making their best design, trying it, pushing until it blew up, measuring every detail of the outcome, and then going back to the whiteboard and starting again.
Small steps towards a big goal
SpaceX “test as they fly”. They are aiming for a bigger vision. As Eduardo Iwai (CPO at Alice education, BeeTech Product advisor & Former CPO at Easy Taxi) shared with our team his perspective: Elon Musk plans to go to Mars the agile way, through iterative development.
At a glance, it might look like he is taking big steps.
It’s actually small steps:
Sending a space rocket to the International Space Station.
Creating autonomous vehicles: this could become a way of distributing supplies on the Mars surface.
The tunnels that could potentially transport people below Mars surface.
Solar panels and an energy grid for the red planet.
Elon interacts with each product and focuses on evolving each technology. He has a pull of experts, but he wants to know everything about what and how to make each product work as well as the entire production ecosystem behind it.
People laughed about his company’s projects and past failures. But since he is iterating upon his vision, he is working out all the potential failures on the go. Chances are there will be no comparable technology and his companies will lead. “Making humans a spacefaring species” might be not that far from sight after all.
Applying the “Elon way”
Currently, my team is working on developing a product. The biggest challenge so far has been the creation of a simplified version. It is very easy to fall into the trap of wanting to create a perfect prototype. Elon’s company approach proves how powerful the iteration process can be: creating and testing assumptions against reality followed by making necessary adjustments for speedy value creation. We are taking small steps towards a big goal. It won’t be perfect in the beginning, but we are confident that we will get there one step at a time.