Elon Musk Slashes Bureaucracy, Giving Twitter a Chance to Soar
Success isn’t guaranteed, but he has saved the company from systemic and degenerative paralysis.
By Rob Wiesenthal, WSJ
Dec. 8, 2022 12:50 pm ET
Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter, he has undertaken a rapid restructuring that few large technology companies would attempt unless faced with an immediate liquidity crisis. Minutes after closing his purchase of the company, he started a process that reduced the workforce from 7,500 to 2,500 in 10 days.
Media pundits immediately slammed him, arguing that his slash-and-burn strategy would destroy one of the world’s most important social-media platforms—already in danger under the burden of $14 billion in debt. Much of this criticism came in the form of tweets, as the irony of using Twitter to denounce Twitter apparently escaped Mr. Musk’s critics. But the restructuring of Twitter won’t destroy the company.
Mr. Musk is trying to cure a degenerative corporate disease: systemic paralysis. Symptoms include cobwebs of corporate hierarchies with unclear reporting lines and unwieldy teams, along with work groups and positions that have opaque or nonsensical mandates. Paralyzed companies are often led by a career CEO who builds or maintains a level of bureaucracy that leads to declines in innovation, competitive stature and shareholder value.
Mr. Musk set his new tone immediately. He eliminated a 12-member team responsible for artificial-intelligence ethics in machine learning, the entire corporate communications department, and a headquarters commissary that cost $13 million a year (despite prior management’s pandemic decree that Twitter employees would be “remote forever”).
Three attributes give Mr. Musk a better chance of rebuilding Twitter into an innovative force in social media: He is an operator, an engineer and a sole owner.
As an operator, he knows he doesn’t need five layers between him and the employees who actually do the work. His recent email to the engineering team stating, “Anyone who actually writes software, please report to the 10th floor at 2 pm today,” makes it clear he doesn’t want a membrane of corporate yes-men between him and the people who actually build things.
As an engineer himself, he will command respect and loyalty from certain existing and new engineers, and he won’t be jollied into agreeing to cushy timelines or accepting flippant rejections of his product requests that have merit.
As sole owner, he can also quickly terminate the members of Twitter’s black hole of middle management, that cold and lonely place where great ideas go to die at big companies.
These mission-critical qualifications will enable the company to innovate and speed product development while liberating employees to get things done, unburdened by unnecessary bureaucracy.
Redundant managers, along with managers who have opaque responsibilities, are in essence professional critics. Kenneth Tynan said, “A critic is a man who knows the way, but can’t drive the car.” While corporate execs typically can’t drive the car, they do have a time-tested path to success at big companies: Don’t do anything. Simply critique others’ attempts to do something. Don’t initiate any projects that have any risk of failure or embarrassment. And always stay close enough for credit but far enough from blame. That’s the road map for job security, but not for innovation.
By eliminating layers of management and proactively asking executives who prefer the warm womb of corporate indecision to leave and bringing in tested and trusted engineers and executives loyal to him, Mr. Musk will be able to move fast, get things done, and eliminate corporate waste.
Like it or not, he is establishing a new corporate culture at Twitter. It’s a culture that is little known to the generation brought up on Zoom. The days of nap pods, emotional-support dogs, corporate pronoun guides, personal wellness days and email blackouts after 5 p.m. are quickly vanishing.
This new culture at Twitter will embrace speed, contribution transparency, revenue acceleration and reduction of corporate overhead. Those employees who relish getting things done will thrive. This blueprint didn’t originate with Mr. Musk. It’s the old 1980s “live to work” culture rather than the 2020s “live to woke” culture of Twitter’s previous regime.
Twitter’s success isn’t guaranteed. Mr. Musk may become bored trying to fix his new electric train set and find another one. He may come to believe that Tesla’s recent $400 billion-plus loss of market capitalization is due to the market’s view of his shift in focus to Twitter. Or perhaps his use of the service as his personal bullhorn will ultimately alienate too many advertisers and too many of the blue-checkmark brigade.
Still, the only road to guaranteed failure would have been for Mr. Musk to leave the old corporate culture of Twitter alone. He simply can’t. He has to reverse Twitter’s big-tech atrophy and force the status quo to lose its status.
Mr. Wiesenthal is Founder and CEO of Blade Air Mobility. He has been a Managing Director at CS First Boston, Chief Financial Officer of Sony Corporation of America and Chief Operating Officer of Warner Music Group.