Creating The Reality Distortion Field

A Crucial Skill for Agile Transformation Leaders

Enterprise Firing Phasers by Robby-Robert on DeviantArt

In the HBR article — The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson puts forward an interesting characteristic of Jobs as being fundamental to his success — his ability to create the reality distortion field.

To quote in his own words, this is what Isaacson says,

“Jobs’s (in)famous ability to push people to do the impossible was dubbed by colleagues his Reality Distortion Field, after an episode of Star Trek in which aliens create a convincing alternative reality through sheer mental force. Those who did not know Jobs interpreted the Reality Distortion Field as a euphemism for bullying and lying. But those who worked with him admitted that the trait, infuriating as it might be, led them to perform extraordinary feats.”

What makes people like Jobs think that something is possible even with the odds stacked against it. Contrary to the reality playing out in front of them, especially as others see it, another version of reality is playing in their minds. That alternate reality provides them with the conviction to push forward. They push their teams hard and do not accept no for an answer.

In Chapter Three of Steve Jobs, biographer Isaacson states that around 1972, while Jobs was attending Reed College, Robert Friedland “taught Steve the reality distortion field.” The RDF was said by Andy Hertzfeld to be Steve Jobs’ ability to convince himself, and others around him, to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. It was said to distort his co-workers’ sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and to make them believe that whatever impossible task he had at hand was possible. (Source: Wikipedia)

Selling the pipe dream

Agile Transformations are complex endeavours where the leader is working through systemic challenges and organisational resistance to pull the organisation towards a new reality. The new reality is quite hard for others to visualise. Though many would like the idea of an agile organisation and the benefits that agility would bring, it almost looks impossible from where the folks are and how they see reality. For them it’s a pipe dream.

While it may seem like a pipe dream, with determination and grit, a march towards agility is possible, though it will never be a cakewalk. The leader needs to paint the vision of the new reality. Then at every opportunity use his skills to fire up people around him to believe in that vision and future. Not just those around them; they first and foremost need to fire up themselves.

The transformation story has to be sold, not just to others, but first and foremost to ourselves.

One of the best, if possibly a bit exaggerated examples of the reality distortion field comes from Jobs’ biographer Isaacson. During development of the Macintosh computer in 1984, Jobs asked Larry Kenyon, an engineer, to reduce the Mac boot time by 10 seconds. When Kenyon replied that it wasn’t possible to reduce the time, Jobs asked him, “If it would save a person’s life, could you find a way to shave 10 seconds off the boot time?” Kenyon said that he could. Jobs went to a white board and pointed out that if 5 million people wasted an additional 10 seconds booting the computer, the sum time of all users would be equivalent to 100 human lifetimes every year. A few weeks later Kenyon returned with a rewritten code that booted 28 seconds faster than before. (Source: Wikipedia)

What Jobs essentially did is use the power of storytelling — more specifically, narrative transportation. In simple terms, narrative transportation theory says the more immersed a reader becomes in the story, the more receptive they become to its point of view.

Giving a shot

By asking if he could save a person’s life, Jobs has converted a tedious, uninteresting task into a very humane one and transported Kenyon to a different place. A place where he is receptive to the idea of giving a shot at it.

This receptive conditioning in the audience is precisely what transformation leaders have to do. We have to motivate people to take that shot. Whether we will be successful or not, no one knows. Our job is to create the conditions so that people take that shot — by narratively transporting them to the new reality.

While many of us may not have Jobs’s bravado and charisma, building an ability to create the reality distortion field is something worth pondering and a skill worth building.

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