The visionary's lament

The talent is called the reality distortion field - an essential attribute of great startup founders

Lessons learned from entrepreneur by Eric Ries
September 20, 2010
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“But customers don’t know what they want!”

It’s an anguished cry that I have heard often from startup founders. In a way, I don’t blame them. I’ve been there myself. If we’re not attempting something truly new and innovative – what’s the point? If we’re just going to conduct the world’s biggest focus group to decide what to do, why couldn’t any old idiot do it instead? Isn’t the whole point of devoting our life to this enterprise to show the world that we have a unique and visionary idea?

I remember one conversation with a visionary quite well. He had just come back to the office after a few days away, and he was filled with big news. “I have incredible data to share!” which was pretty unusual – a visionary with data? He carefully explained that he had conducted a number of one-on-one customer interviews, showing them an existing product and then documenting their reactions. His conclusions were well thought out, coherently based in the data he was presenting, and painted an alluring picture of a new way forward. His team almost exploded on the spot.

“That’s the same idea you’ve been pushing for months!” “What were the odds? Customers explained to you that we need to do exactly what you wanted to do anyway? Wow!” It was an ugly scene.

We all know that great companies are headed by great visionaries, right? And don’t some people just have a natural talent for seeing the world the way it might be, and convincing the people around them to believe in it as if it was real?

This talent is called the reality distortion field. It’s an essential attribute of great startup founders. The only problem is that it’s also an attribute of crazy people, sociopaths, and serial killers. The challenge, for  people who want to work with and for startups, is learning to tell the difference. Are you following a visionary to a brilliant new future? Or a crazy person off a cliff?

True visionaries spend considerable energy every day trying to maintain the reality distortion field. Try to see it from their point of view – none of the disruptive innovations in history were amendable to simple ROI calculations and standard linear thinking. In order to do something on that scale, you need to get people thinking, believing, and acting outside the box. Their greatest fear is categorically not that their vision is wrong. Their real fear is that the company will give up without ever really trying.

This is where data, focus groups, customer feedback, and collaborative decision-making get their bad rap. In many cases, these activities lead to bad outcomes: watered down vision, premature abandonment, and local maxima.

When visionaries say “but customers don’t know what they want!” they are right. That’s the problem with false dichotomies: each side has a kernel of truth within it. You cannot build a great product simply by obeying what customers say they want. First of all, how do you know which customers to listen to? And what do you do when they say contradictory things?

And yet, the people who resist visionaries also have a point. Isn’t a bit scary, maybe even suicidal, to risk everything on a guess – even if it is emotionally compelling?

Like all false dichotomies, if either side “wins” this argument, the whole enterprise loses. If we just follow the blind mantra of “release early, release often” and then become purely reactive, we’re as likely to be chasing our tail as to be making progress. Similarly, if we pursue our vision without regard to reality, we’re almost guaranteed to get some aspects of it wrong.

The solution is synthesis: to never compromise two essential principles. One, that we always have a vision that is clearly articulated, big enough to matter, and shared by the whole team. Second, that our goal is always to discover which aspects of this vision are grounded in reality, and to adapt those aspects that are not.

A vision is like a sculpture buried in a block of stone. When the excess is chipped away, it will become a work of art. But the challenge in the meantime is to discover which parts are essential, and which are extraneous. The only way to do this is to continuously test the vision against reality and see what happens.

So what should you do if you find yourself working with a visionary? Almost every successful visionary has found partners to work with that help them stay grounded in reality. To do this you have to find ways to be supportive of the vision at the same time as reporting the bad news about where the vision falls short. I recommend a mantra that I learned from Steve Blank: always consider your job to find out if there is a market for the product as currently specified. Don’t try and change the vision every time you get new data. Instead, get out of the building and look for customers for whom your product vision is a slam-dunk fit. If and only if, after exhaustive searching, you cannot find any customers that fit the profile, is it time to have a serious conversation about whether and how the vision should be modified (a pivot).

And what should a good visionary do to help find synthesis? Based on the successful visionaries I have had the opportunity to work with up close, I'd like to offer two suggestions for the role a visionary should take on:

  1. Identify an acute pain point that others don’t see. It’s important to specify the vision as much as possible in terms of the problem we’re trying to solve, rather than a specific solution. (Or, to use Clay Christensen's formulation, of the "job" customers are hiring us to do.) Even though the visionary surely has some concrete ideas which are to be tried, he or she should always be asking, “would I rather solve the problem, or have this specific feature?”
  2. Hold the team to high standards. Despite Steve Jobs' incredible talents, he doesn’t personally design and ship every Apple product. It’s much more likely that his main function is to hold everyone who works for him to the same high standard. Once they’ve agreed to try and solve a dramatic problem, it’s the visionary’s job to hold each provisional result up to the light of that vision, and help the team remember that although trade-offs and compromises are always necessary – the real payoff is in solving that acute pain. This can help avoid the trap of the false negative: even if the first few iterations don’t get it right, the vision inspires us to learn from our failures and keep trying.

Let me close with a specific story of a visionary at work. I’ve heard from several sources a story about Jeff Bezos and the invention of one-click shopping. It may be apocryphal, but it’s illustrative anyway. Amazon had tasked a team with building their new one-click shopping feature, which was designed to reduce the friction required to make an impulse purchase. The purpose of naming the feature “one-click” was to clearly communicate to everyone the vision of maximum simplicity. When Bezos was meeting with the team to review their first version of the feature, so the story goes, after he clicked to make his purchase, he was prompted with a confirmation dialog box. He had to click “yes” to continue. In other words, one-click shopping required two clicks!

Now, it’s really important to see this story from both sides. Bezos was surely infuriated that the team had missed so obvious a point about his vision. But see his team’s point of view: they were immersed in a culture of protecting the customer. It was probably considered too dangerous to let someone “shoot themselves in the foot” and make an unintended purchase that could have serious economic consequences.

But by actually building a version of this feature, and doing some simple testing with customers and with Bezos, this team surfaced an issue that probably wasn’t really clear in Bezos’ vision from the get-go. Namely, how are we going to handle the case of customers one-clicking by accident? The synthesis solution is so simple, I’m sure it seems obvious in retrospect (and I’m sure dozens of people, for all I know including Bezos himself, are now sure they came up with it on their own): since mistakes are the uncommon case, give the customer several opportunities to realize and correct them after the fact, rather than trying to prevent them with a confirmation dialog box.

Those are the attributes I admire in successful visionaries: a determination to see the vision through, holding their teams to high standards, and a commitment to iterate in order to get there.

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