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Reality Distortion Field: A Powerful Motivator in Organizations!

The reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will, and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand. If one line of argument failed to persuade, he would deftly switch to another. Sometimes, he would throw you off balance by suddenly adopting your position as his own, without acknowledging that he ever thought differently.  “

–         Andy Hertzfield on Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field.

Many of us have heard the word – Reality Distortion Field.  The term has been attributed to Steve Jobs who was widely known to have communicated messages to his constituency in a manner such that the reality of the situation was supplanted by him packaging the message so that people would take the bait and pursue paths that would, upon closer investigation, be dissonant from reality. But having been an avid acolyte of Jobs, I would imagine that he himself would be disturbed and unsettled by the label. Since when did the promise of a radiant future constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of a person to embrace what seemingly is impossible and far-fetched and instill confidence in the troops to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did the ability of leadership to share in the wonders of unique and disruptive creations constitute a Reality Distortion Field? Since when did dreams of a better future underpinned with executable actions to achieve it constitute a Reality Distortion Field?

The Reality Distortion Field usage reflects the dissonance between what is and what needs to be. It is a slapstick term which suggests that you are envisioning tectonic dissonance rifts between reality and possibilities and that you are leading the awestruck starry-eyed followers off a potential cliff.  Some people have renamed RDF as hype of Bulls*#t.  They believe that RDF is extremely bad for organizations because it pushes the people outside the comfort zone of physical and logical constraints and is a recipe for disaster. The argument continues that organizations that are grounded upon the construct of reality and to communicate the same are essential to advance the organization. I beg to differ.

So let me address this on two fronts:  RDF label and if we truly accept what RDF means … then my position is that it is the single most important attribute that a strong leader ought to embrace in the organization.

The RDF label:

We all know this to be true: A rose by any other name is still a rose. We just happen to call this rose in this context a RDF. It is presumed to be the ability of a person to cast possibilities in a different light … so much so that the impossibilities are reduced to elements just within the grasp of reality.  Now I ask you – What is wrong with that? For a leader to be able to cast their vision within the inimitable grasp of an organization is a huge proxy for the faith of the leader of the people in the organization. If a project realistically would take 3 months but a RDF is cast to get a project done in 15 days – that is a tall order – but think of the consequences if people are “seduced” into the RDF and hence acts upon it. It immediately unfolds new pathways of collaboration, unforeseen discoveries into super-efficient and effective methods, it creates trench camaraderie, it distills focus into singularity points to be executed against, it instills and ignites a passion and an engagement around the new stakes in the ground, people become keepers of one another for a consequential and significant conquest, it brings out the creative energies and the limitless possibilities, once the goal is accomplished, of disruptive innovation in means and ends.  Of course, one could also counter-argue a plethora of incidental issues in such cases: employees would burn out under the burden of unrealistic goals, employees are set more for failing than succeeding, it would create a disorderly orientation upon groups working together to meet RDF standards, and if one were to fall short …it would be a last straw that may break the camel’s back. So essentially this speaks to the ordinal magnitude of the RDF schema that is being pushed out by leadership.

RDF and the beneficial impact to an organization:

It is the sine qua non of great leadership to be able to push organizations beyond the boundaries of plain convenience.  I have, in my career, been fortunate to have been challenged and on many occasions, forced out of my comfort zone. But in having done so successfully on many occasions, it has also given me the confidence to scale mountains. And that confidence is a perquisite that the organization leadership has to provide on a daily basis.  After all, one of the biggest assets that an employee in an organization ought to have is pride and sense of accomplishment to their work. RDF unfolds that possibility.

We hear of disruptive innovations. These are defined as innovations that leapfrog the bounds of technology inertia.  How does a company enable that? It is certainly not incremental thinking. It is a vision that marginally lies outside our aggregated horizon of sight.  The age today which is a result of path breaking ideas and execution have been a result of those visionaries that have aimed beyond the horizons, instilled faith amongst the line men to align and execute, and made the impossible possible.  We ought to thank our stars for having leaders that emit an RDF and lead us off our tenebrous existence in our diurnal professional lives.

There is absolutely no doubt that such leadership would create resistance and fierce antipathy among some.  But despite some of the ill effects, the vector that drives great innovations lies in the capacity of the organization to embrace degrees of RDF to hasten and make the organizations competitive, distinctive and powerful.


Medici Effect – Encourage Innovation in the Organization

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
– Steve Jobs

What is the Medici Effect?

Frans Johanssen has written a lovely book on the Medici Effect. The term “Medici” relates to the Medici family in Florence that made immense contributions in art, architecture and literature. They were pivotal in catalyzing the Renaissance, and some of the great artists and scientists that we revere today – Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo were commissioned for their works by the family.

Renaissance was the resurgence of the old Athenian democracy. It merged distinctive areas of humanism, philosophy, sciences, arts and literature into a unified body of knowledge that would advance the cause of human civilization. What the Medici effect speaks to is the outcome that is the result of creating a system that would incorporate what on first glance, may seem distinctive and discrete disciplines, into holistic outcomes and a shared simmering of wisdom that permeated the emergence of new disciplines, thoughts and implementations.

Supporting the organization to harness the power of the Medici Effect

We are past the industrial era, the Progressive era and the Information era. There are no formative lines that truly distinguish one era from another, but our knowledge has progressed along gray lines that have pushed the limits of human knowledge. We are now wallowing in a crucible wherein distinct disciplines have crisscrossed and merged together. The key thesis in the Medici effect is that the intersections of these distinctive disciplines enable the birth of new breakthrough ideas and leapfrog innovation.

So how do we introduce the Medici Effect in organizations?

Some of the key ways to implement the model is really to provide the support infrastructure for
1. Connections: Our brains are naturally wired toward associations. We try to associate a concept with contextual elements around that concept to give the concept more meaning. We learn by connecting concepts and associating them, for the most part, with elements that we are conversant in. However, one can create associations within a narrow parameter, constrained within certain semantic models that we have created. Organizations can hence channelize connections by implementing narrow parameters. On the other hand, connections can be far more free-form. That means that the connector thinks beyond the immediate boundaries of their domain or within certain domains that are “pre-ordained”. In those cases, we create what is commonly known as divergent thinking. In that approach, we cull elements from seemingly different areas but we thread them around some core to generate new approaches, new metaphors, and new models. Ensuring that employees are able to safely reach out to other nodes of possibilities is the primary implementation step to generate the Medici effect.
2. Collaborations: Connecting different streams of thought in different disciplines is a primary and formative step. To advance this further, organization need to be able to provide additional systems wherein people can collaborate among themselves. In fact, the collaboration impact accentuates the final outcome sooner. So enabling connections and collaboration work in sync to create what I would call – the network impact on a marketplace of ideas.
3. Learning Organization: Organizations need to continuously add fuel to the ecosystem. In other words, they need to bring in speakers, encourage and invest in training programs, allow exploration possibilities by developing an internal budget for that purpose and provide some time and degree of freedom for people to mull over ideas. This enables collaboration to be enriched within the context of diverse learning.
4. Encourage Cultural Diversity: Finally, organizations have to invest in cultural diversity. People from different cultures have varied viewpoints and information and view issues from different perspectives and cultures. Given the fact that we are more globalized now, the innate understanding and immersion in cultural experience enhances the Medici effect. It also creates innovation and ground-breaking thoughts within a broader scope of compassion, humanism, social and shared responsibilities.

Implementing systems to encourage the Medici effect will enable organizations to break out from legacy behavior and trammel into unguarded territories. The charter toward unknown but exciting possibilities open the gateway for amazing and awesome ideas that engage the employees and enable them to beat a path to the intersection of new ideas.

Creativity vs. Innovation: The Bridge to Somewhere Relevant.

Creativity is not innovation. Let me say that again – Creativity is not innovation!

However, creativity is an important process toward innovation. There are other components that are just as important in the process, and these may, one might argue, amputate the creative process – but these components are important in increasing orders of magnitude to fuel the innovative cycle. Some of the other key components are focus, discipline, boundaries, and relevance. I will tackle each of these in further detail.

1. Creativity: You begin with an idea. The idea could be different, it could be unique or it could be an existing shift in the way of looking at things. It is novel but perhaps may not be appropriate. It could defy the physical and temporal constraints … it may not be even appropriate for the time and purpose. It elevates a response to a condition that has actually brewed in one’s mind for some time; or a simple realization when the constellation of circumstances seem to be aligned to surface the idea. It is singularly the process of gestating and giving form to an idea and channelizing it, through some medium, for active and passive observation.

2. Focus: The idea is out there … an abstract metaphor perhaps! Or something that is concrete but it is an object that is like an amoeba. It changes, it is malleable, it is psychedelic, it is formless … and so now you have to zero in and seek the relevance. You have to eliminate the irrelevant … you have to peel the onion and get to the core of the creative component. Two people might look at the core in the same creative component and arrive at starkly different results. The core is a mesh of both – objective being and a subjective assessment of its latent value.

3. Discipline: Now that you have zeroed in on the core and you have reflected upon it long enough to allow permanence, the hard task is discipline. This is an act of pushing away all peripheral thoughts that may threaten or distract you from amplifying the core. It is here when you say more no’s to push away the meteoric shower of blinding and provoking possibilities. This is a hard milestone: this is where we now start to think that we can bite more than we can chew; we give ourselves superhuman strength; we believe that a few extras here and there will only add and certainly not take away value from the core. Alas, we would be so wrong if we start thinking that way. If we happen to introduce more variables with the penultimate thought of creating something grand, we would have create immense complexities that would suddenly make the core less relevant. So discipline is to ward off those extraneous thoughts and return with plural judgment toward a singular end.

4. Boundaries: Now you ensure that the core does not spillover beyond its reach … in other words, it does not spread itself so thin that it dilutes its purpose for existence and relevance. You establish boundaries. The scale of such boundaries that you determine are in the context of the existence of the core … ideas that are thinly separable from others but enough to maintain its own identity will have smaller and well defined boundaries versus ideas that swim in the blue ocean wherein one can envision a slightly larger scale with some porous frontiers.

5. Relevance: Once you have gone through all of the above steps, you have to seek relevance or position the core toward relevance. It is a philosophical mindset … if you get this right, the messaging of positioning and execution strategy will be a lot easier and executable.

Innovation is the production and the implementation of the ideas. But innovation must have a payback within a reasonable time frame. It may span seconds to a generation, each of which would have different levels of investment and risks attached to it. Regardless, innovation without payback is a mirage … a delusion … a word that will implode quickly with the passage of time. Creation is easy, innovation is hard! Creation can be a solo effort; innovation by and large requires more players in place, institutional or otherwise. Creation dies with you; Innovation stands the test of time. Creation is the embodiment of the thought – cogito ergo sum; Innovation is the core that lives beyond your times.

So consider the question – Do I want to simply create or do I want to innovate?

The answers may lead you to divergent paths …and, if innovation is the path you choose, get in terms with the social network – the array of people, institutions, value systems, dreams … all of which exist in some cohesive whole. Imagine that the social network is your reference library that you must depend on to forge ahead to enable meaningful and impactful innovations … since innovation cannot ever occur in a vacuum.