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This is what happens when your team's 'Plant' has a budget

What behaviours help Elon Musk push the boundaries?

‘Plant’ is the term given to a unique cluster of behaviours in the Belbin Model that are clearly demonstrated by innovators and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk.

Strong Plants will often make their mark as founders and inventors bringing a natural flow of ideas and innovations to their teams and organisations. However, when a Plant actually calls the shots strange things can happen - like Red Sports cars rocketing towards Mars (well near it anyway).

There is no doubt that Musk has much in common with other famous Plants such as David Bowie and Douglas Adams both of whom he playfully paid homage to during this launch.

The Belbin Team Role model outlines 9 Team Roles that cover thinking, social and action oriented behaviours. Any given individual will have a unique personal chemistry of these team role strengths based upon many contributing factors. However, it is our preferred team roles that will shine through most clearly in our day-to-day behaviour and triumphs.

The question must be asked, what gives entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, this ability to push boundaries? To stretch the limits of business, technology and in this case, space travel?

A strong measure of Plant predisposes a person like Musk to seek new ways of doing things, and some other Belbin roles such as Resource Investigator and Shaper will also often serve to typify this sort of entrepreneur’s ability to drive an idea to fruition.

The Role of Plant is one of the strong ‘thinking’ roles. Throughout years of research, Belbin and his colleagues found that teams tended to go around in circles during complex simulations until they ‘Planted’ into the team an individual who could generate new and creative alternatives. Hence the ‘Plant’.

The behaviour of a Plant is typified by what Edward De Bono called ‘lateral thinking’, the ability to see things from different and often ‘bigger picture’ perspectives. Wild ideas are conceived of and then with the help of others, can be made into playful, although not always practical, reality.

It’s often the ‘working with others’ component that will make or break the Plant. A wise Plant works with others to help make their dreams become reality.

This description undoubtedly suits Elon Musk, who is in the great company! Other famous and ‘history making’ Plants include Leonardo Da Vinci, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and Nicola Tesla.

Plants, like each of the 9 Team Roles of the Belbin Model, have their strengths and also their corresponding weaknesses.

They can certainly be prone to eccentricities - such as firing their Red Sports Car into a space orbit towards Mars. The lovely gesture of adding the message “Don’t Panic” to the dashboard of that car would have pleased another famous space-oriented Plant - Douglas Adams, creator of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series. The music playing on the stereo? Well that is also from another Plant - David Bowie. Three quite different people yet all sharing many of the traits of a strong Plant.

A strong Plant will produce volumes of new ideas, seek better ways of approaching a challenge, and often be happiest in the vanguard of ground breaking ideas and innovations. If it’s been done before, then it’s likely to be of little or no interest to a Plant.

Some Plant traits include:

Typical Strengths of a Plant:

Creative. Free thinkers. Generates ideas, sees patterns and can solve complex problems. Independent, clever and able to see new approaches. Can also synthesise combinations of other approaches.

Allowable Weaknesses of a Plant:

Their ideas may be radical and lack practical constraints. Can react strongly to criticism and praise. May struggle to communicate effectively with others on a different wave-length.

Non-allowable Weaknesses of a Plant:

Taking strong ownership of their own ideas when input and critique from others is often essential to make an idea viable. Ignoring practicalities and incidentals. Failing to see inherent risks in a new idea to favour novelty.

Plants often need other Role Types around them:

Co-ordinators to help them focus and manage their contributions. Monitor Evaluators to provide analysis and often needed critique of ideas. Implementers for practicality and systems and Completer Finishers for follow-through.

As Leaders:

Plants can be visionary leaders taking teams in exciting and unorthodox new directions, but they need to watch out for self-discipline, day to day details and the stresses of leadership impacting their mood and creativity.

Like the rest of us, Mr Musk is far more than just a Plant, as human behaviour is made up of a subtle chemistry of Team Role behaviours arising from a blend of contributing factors (from emotional reactivity in the limbic system, to our thinking power and a lifetime of experiences) None are better or worse than the other. It is ‘what is fit for purpose’. We are therefore not just one Role type in isolation, but a subtle and unique blend of Natural, Manageable and Least Preferred Roles.

Elon Musk possesses other Team Role strengths that have helped to make him a successful entrepreneur and given him the resources to indulge his wilder and more visionary ideas.

It is likely that he also has amongst his top roles the strengths of a Resource Investigator and a Shaper.

Shapers are dynamic and mission focused individuals who also love a challenge. They are not afraid to shake the tree and to relentlessly pursue their goals. The desire to win, to achieve and to drive their team towards the goal are all Shaper traits.

Resource Investigators are curious and entrepreneurial folks who have the ability to spot opportunity, will pursue what stimulates them and have the charisma to sell their ideas to others.

The trilogy of Plant, Resource Investigator and Shaper is thus quite the entrepreneurial trifecta.

Plant – I have a great idea!

Resource Investigator – I can convince everyone else that this is the way to go.

Shaper – It’s happening now baby!

Meredith Belbin’s famous Model and profiling tools help us to identify and measure these behavioural clusters. Whilst an actual profile is the optimal way to measure these things, the fact that Musk has some Plant is unlikely to be disputed by practitioners of the model.

It’s also useful to remember that someone who has Plant as their lowest Role may also have some great ideas, it’s just that a natural Plant will have them in far greater volume and be openly recognised by others for making that contribution to a team regularly and reliably.

For someone like Elon Musk, his Plant contributions will likely continue to benefit his business interests and hopefully also advance human space exploration and numerous other fields of endeavour. A successful Plant does this by harnessing not just their own strengths, but by managing their weaknesses and embracing the differing but complimentary strengths of others.

In Belbin’s words ‘Nobody is perfect, but a good team can be”.

To learn more about Belbin visit -

Image Credit: Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster in space with SpaceX's "Starman" at the wheel. YouTube SpaceX

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