The Thinking That Is Behind “Think Different” And Why Elon Musk Is Taking Tesla Private

Dennis Hambeukers
Aug 10, 2018 · 8 min read

Yesterday I was watching an interview with Louis van Gaal on the tv show Zomergasten. It started out a little slow but in the three hours the interview took, I slowly started to dawn on me why van Gaal is one of the best soccer coaches in the world. He is a systems thinker. Right now I’m re-reading Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline and in his book he points to systems thinking as the quintessential skill for any organization to succeed. With this idea in mind, I could see van Gaal’s brilliance comes from his ability to think in systems. His whole Total Human Being System is a systems thinking approach to soccer and to the organization of a soccer team and a professional soccer organization. He understands that every element in a system contributes to the success or failure of a team, and not just physical abilities and talent. That is why he tries to educate the press time and time again. Because the press and what they write is part of the system and has effects. That is why he had hotel rooms being remodeled for his players. Because downtime is just as important as training. That is why he breaks down players. He needs to turn them from unknowingly incompetent to knowingly incompetent before he can start to work with them. He tries to create a learning organization in the truest sense as Peter Senge describes in his book. He success comes from being a systems thinker.

What’s the question? No! What’s the question?

The concept of the tv show Zomergasten is that the guest can also select a movie that is played right after the interview. Van Gaal chose the movie Moneyball with Brat Pitt. I have seen this movie a couple of times, but I never looked at it through the lens of systems thinking. It turns out the whole movie is about systems thinking :-) During the interview van Gaal selected a clip from the movie to talk about that illustrates perfectly what systems thinking and creating a learning organization is all about. The clip starts with Brat Pitt asking his team what the problem is. The meeting the team is in is about selecting new players for next season for the baseball team they run. The team is the poorest of the entire league so they don’t have the money to buy top players and during the meeting they have been evaluating options. They do this the way they have always been doing it. To illustrate the old ways, the team consists of old-timers. When the clip starts Brat Pitt has been listening to minutes of discussions about looks of players and whether they have a pretty girlfriend or not. He decides to step in because the is tired of observing behavior that will not get the team anywhere. The ship has already sunk but no-one sees this but Brat Pitt. He urges the team to start thinking different.

Open up the system

What Brat Pitt does in this scene is systems thinking. He has seen results: their the worst team in the league. He observes behavior that leads to these results: endless discussions that have no basis other than gut feeling. And he is starting to analyze the system that creates this behavior. To start the analysis of the system he needs to have the right question. The right question is like a surgical knife that allows you to dissect and analyze the system. Once he formulated a question, framed the problem in the right way, “… it’s an unfair game and you are sitting here talking about bodies like we are selling jeans…”, he created a first opening to think about how to change the game. The only chance you have at winning an unfair game is to change the game. To do something nobody else is doing. If you are doing the same things the New York Yankees are doing while they have much more money than you have, you are going to loose. That is why Brat Pitt says “… we have to think different.”. Then he goes on an does what nobody did before: bring statistics into the game. His team became immensely successful and he changed the game forever. He was able to do this because the was able to change the system: decision were no longer made based on gut feeling, but on actual data. This created a totally new behavior: they were able to buy very good players at super low cost because they did not fit the scouts traditional ideas of a good player. Their behavior also became data driven, they started to think more scientifically and harness the power of the computer. They introduced a new element into the system that changed the game, changed the system.

Do things other people don’t understand or why Elon Musk is taking Tesla private

System thinkers do things that others, non system thinkers, don’t understand. When you don’t see the system, certain choices and actions might seem strange. Most people don’t understand why van Gaal is always yelling at journalists. He is not an aggressive, ill tempered person. He does this because journalism is a part of the sport and any change he can make in journalism will benefit his team. The team of Brat Pitt in Moneyball didn’t understand why he was bringing a computer nerd on the team. He does this to change the system and change the game and give the team the only shot at succeeding. A lot of people questioned Elon Musk’s sanity when he announced on Twitter that he was thinking about taking Tesla private.

“Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.” — Elon Musk

Taking your company public is the holy grail for a lot of entrepreneurs. So once you have achieved this goal, taking your company private again sounds insane. He did it because being a public company creates a lot of focus on short term results and this interferes with the long term strategy that Elon Musk has. So at some point the disadvantages of being a public company can outweigh its benefits if you look at this from a systems thinking perspective. When you think from a systems thinking perspective, this makes total sense. When you don’t, it doesn’t.


Systems thinkers are hackers. They do things other people don’t think of and other people don’t immediately understand. They see the system and see how they can change it, they hack the system for change. They can do things other people don’t think of because they see, analyze and understand the system. A lot of successful people are systems thinkers: Louis van Gaal, Billy Beane, Dan Lok, Gary Vaynerchuck, Tony Robbins, Steve Jobs, Daniel Ek, Elon Musk….the list goes on and on. Look at what they say and do, they all talk about three things: systems thinking, systems thinking and systems thinking.

Steve Jobs

Everybody knows Steve Jobs’ famous marketing payoff for Apple: Think Different. This is a very powerful systems thinking slogan that has worked very well for Apple. But thinking different in the literal sense doesn’t get you anywhere. Just doing something different than others will not change the game. You have to do the right kind of different. That is the difference between genius and stupid. The difference may be hard to spot in the beginning. And it is a well known fact that if everybody agrees with you, you are not thinking big enough. And if everybody thinks your idea is stupid is a good indication that you are on the right track. But the different ideas that work out come out of systems thinking. In fact thinking different is the goal of systems thinking and of creating a learning organization. Peter Senge formulates it like this:

“For most players in the game, the deepest insight usually comes when they realize that their problems, and their hopes for improvement, are inextricably linked to how they think. ” — Peter Senge

When thinking different comes from a deep rooted understanding of the system you work in and what behavior the elements in that system generate and insights into how you can change the system, thinking different will change the game. When thinking different comes from a superficial “creative” idea, if it has any success, its success will be short lived. Thinking different is the goal of systems thinking and the learning organization. I believe systems thinking is the deepest and hardest type of thinking, but it also generates the greatest rewards. Steve Jobs was right in his famous Crazy Ones video: you have to dare to be crazy to get into systems thinking. But realize that all the people in this video are profound deep system thinkers:

Crazy Ones by Steve Jobs

If you want to learn more about the ideas of Peter Senge, be sure to check out this blog about what a learning organization is:

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I will dive deeper into subjects around Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Design Thinker Thinking About Design — Strategic Design Consultant @zuiderlicht.

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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