Innovation, Startup Advice

The Musk effect? Research sheds light on how innovators choose their next career moves

Martin Kovacs /

A desire to understand how innovators such as Elon Musk move from one project to the next has inspired new research into how innovative people determine their next career move, unearthing several trends.

Musk is well-known for his forays into online payments (PayPal), commercial spacecraft (SpaceX) and electric cars (Tesla), but how does a serial entrepreneur like Musk choose what to focus their energy on next?

Focusing on physicists and drawing on database information, Kellogg School of Management researchers analysed how the work of approximately 10,000 physicists changed from project to project.

The trends revealed most physicists’ research remained relatively constrained within particular disciplines or domains.

Physicists also tended to shift to new projects closely related to their most recent endeavours, rather than choosing projects aligned with their initial direction and starting out point.

According to Dashun Wang, Kellogg School associate professor of management and organisations, this flies in the face of a common intuition about innovators’ decision-making.

More time spent moving in one direction equates to pulling further ahead of the competition, and this reasoning points to there being more incentive to choose projects aligned with the initial direction.

Instead, Dashun noted, “what we find in the data is the other way around”.

“If you study something, the next topic you study is predominantly determined by what you studied last — not what you studied first,” he observed.

The researchers dub this behaviour as the “recency effect”. And while Musk himself may be considered an outlier, they say the recency effect also applies to the entrepreneur, pointing to commonalities between his ventures.

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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