"Reality Distortion" is Misunderstood

Many have tried to retrospectively discover what made Steve Jobs successful. What were the special things he did differently than others?

One in particular concerns the “Reality Distortion Field” which apparently was his trick of getting "10 pounds of flour to fit into a 5 pound sack." In other words, to get people to do impossible things in a shorter period of time than they believed was possible.

With his passing, this super-hero skill has been built up into an almost magical power. I don’t buy the “magic” part.

Rather, I believe he was able to use the voice-of-the-customer (VOC) and his innate understanding of market conditions to know when to, ”Drive a stake in the ground.” This timing is effectively the optimal market window for a given technology specification, and when missed, results in lower share/margin and possible death for start-ups (read more).

Often the “stake in the ground” is confused with the real time that is needed to get there, given the list of deliverables that are supposed to be done. The gap is rarely reconciled, and you will see in the example below (NeXT's first product) that it wasn’t.

Mr. Jobs was able to maintain a focus on the market window, which is very hard to do when pushing the development of advanced technology at a competitive price point. He also knew what was needed, at the expected time of introduction. His minimalist skills served him well in being able to narrow product specifications in order to hit a window in time. The myth was that he somehow magically distorted time and space to create time-to-market mericles.

It is not magic, but rather good management when it is done right.

We observed contemporaries of Jobs in Silicon Valley, at about same time as NeXT (early 1990’s), doing the same thing as Jobs later did at Apple after his return. Scott McNealy (Sun) and Ed McKracken (SGI) were also very good at knowing the optimal entry point/time frame for new products. We called it Fast-Time-To-Market (FTTM) practicesin a later study about these fast teams at Sun and SGI, and at other successful places in the valley.

They did what Jobs was able to do; they were able to make a technology-driven team understand “why” what they were doing had to be done by a certain time. We find that teams that miss their window rarely knew why they were trying to hit it, while the ones that made it in time clearly understood the implications of failure — they knew the “why for.”

Let me explain using a video that was recently forwarded to me. It came from a series called “Entrepreneurs,” about the NeXTproject, the company Jobs formed after leaving Apple the first time. There is more on TNW (The Next Web) along with some other interesting videos of Jobs during the NeXT timeframe.

At 10:31of the video, Joanna Hoffman pushes back on the Spring 1987 target market entry date, calling it “Reality Distortion.”

Then at 12:22; Jobs responds, “What I want is probably irrelevant… I mean there are certain realities here, both physiological and market, that are going to come into play in my own personal judgement, and I think this is a window that we’ve got, we’ve been given it, and thank God we’ve been given it, nobody else has done this, it's a wonderful window, we have 18 months… So I don’t think we have a company, if we don’t do this…”

Steve Jobs is explaining the rationale for his 18 month schedule. At that time in Silicon Valley, everyone was trying to break the 2 year development cycle time barrier. The fast teams were developing new products in 12 and 18 months, so Jobs was simply stating the obvious; that to be best in class (and stay in business) one had to be in the market in 18 months.

His small team was telling him, that given the scope of what was to be delivered in 18 months, that it was impossible. Further, that they had never done it before (which I’m sure is a reference to the failures at Apple to get the second generation Macintosh platform and software to market in time, due to "scope creep" and poor organization they had recently experienced at Apple).

The team was describing what we would call the “real schedule.” The “what” and the “when” were simply not aligned or “reconciled” in this example. The “18 month stake” Mr. Jobs set would be called a “target” in our language, and the total duration of the things they needed to release in 18 months would be called the “schedule.”

I happen to know they didn’t have a “bottoms-up” schedule, so so they were not able to realistically argue the gap between what they thought they could do and what he (Mr. Jobs) was expecting them to do, within the 18 months.

When we studied fast teams, we learned that they would align what was wanted with when it was needed (the “stake in the ground”). They did it by walking back the critical path (which pre-supposes teams have a realistic schedule in the first place) to determine where and when innovations were needed in order to close the gap. They made the trade-offs necessary to achieve alignment of “what” and “when,” without compromising what customers really valued.

That NeXT team in the video could have used a schedule to make their point, but they missed the chance (lacking a real schedule) and could only make theoretical arguments against a very powerful and persuasive person. Of course they lost, but both sides actually lost the opportunity to close the gap by identifying the root causes, while they still had time (i.e., 18 months).

So I don’t think Mr. Jobs had some special power to get that extra 5 pounds into that bag, rather he had a special gift for connecting a group of technology-focused engineers with the outside reality of when and what was needed to be successful with a new product. Not magic, but it is a skill that every fast team we’ve studied possesses in one form or another — they knew the window and they used it to drive early trade-offs needed to hit the window on time. They in fact achieved the impossible, not by magic tricks, but rather by logic and a focus on reality.

Interestingly, the first NeXT computer they were debating in this video was actually released in 1988, a year later than Mr. Jobs “18-month stake in the ground.” They were both right; the team said it was 2 1/2 year project and Jobs was right that they needed to hit the market in 18 months with the spec they had targeted.” They also missed the price-point by about 100%. NeXT was clearly a breakthrough product, but they failed to achieve success with their expensive and under-powered unix box that would also didn't run industry standard scientific applications becuase of its unique operating system. By the early 1990’s, NeXT competors like Sun, DEC, HP, and IBM were producing much more powerful “engineering workstations” at a lower cost and which could run industry standard Unix applications.

Full disclosure; I met Steve Jobs in about 1990 in their Redwood City office, a few years after this video was made. The topic of our meeting was to determine if NeXT would participate in our best-practice study. We already had agreements from Sun, SGI, and IBM and we hoped to convince Mr. Jobs to participate in the study, with the promise that what we learned about being fast to market would be anonymously shared with the study participants.

The meeting was very short; if my memory serves me, I think it was less than five minutes before Steve, leaning back in his chair, hands behind his head, feet on the conference table and looking into the ceiling tiles, said, “I’m not interested in your study, since there is nothing I want to learn from any of these companies.” With this declaration, he wished us luck and made a quick exit.

NeXT stayed in business for another 6 years after our brief meeting, before being acquired by Apple. The investors made money in the exit and NeXT’s OS formed the basis for both Sun and Apple’s future success.