Reality Distortion Fields and Naive Entrepreneurs

by Lucas Vargas

First coined to describe Steve Jobs’ charisma and its effects on employees, the reality distortion field (RDF) term has been generalized to refer to the effect on an audience’s sense of level of difficulty. It makes the audience believe that accomplishing a mission, no matter how complicated it could be, is possible.

But then a question comes to my mind. Is it possible for an entrepreneur to apply a lean startup methodology if he creates an RDF? To answer this question, we must distinguish two types of entrepreneurs.

The first group consists of people who create the RDF but not necessarily believe that the mission can be fulfilled. They use the rhetoric and charisma to convince their interlocutors, motivate them to accept an idea, regardless of whether they believe it or not. I would classify them as smart. I believe that Steve Jobs is part of this group of people. He doesn’t really believe that all the products he develops are going to be a success. He takes advantage of his celebrity status to create a lot of publicity and influence his employees, customers, and partners by saying: “isn’t this feature cool?”, even when he doesn’t think such feature is really cool.

The second is the group of people who link the RDF to passion. They declare their belief in the success of the idea and, as a consequence of expressed sincerity, they are able to convince their interlocutors. These are naive.

The biggest difference between the smart ones and the naive ones is that the former group has the ability to push back early on, to pivot even when minimum evidence is presented to them. They are the ones able to run a lean startup properly, to use customer feedback intensively throughout the development of the product in order to reach product market-fit. It doesn’t mean that they will replace their vision with data or customer feedback. Rather, they have a structured process of using customer development and analytics to prove or refute their hypothesis.

The problem happens with the naive ones. When they create an RDF, they deeply believe that their idea is going to succeed; therefore they don’t pay attention to signals sent from the market, to what clients say. The extremely passionate naive entrepreneur believes that customers don’t know what they are looking for or there will be a different set of customers who will approve the original business idea, therefore the idea is still a success (at least in the entrepreneur’s mind). He is going to convince everybody that his idea is right. Employees will start believing that customer feedback was misinterpreted, while partners and investors will trust the entrepreneur’s vision. In this case, RDF is not compatible with the lean startup.

The challenge now is how to solve the problem of the naive entrepreneur? Their problem is that they don’t realize when their inside the distortion field. Therefore, they should create tools to prohibit them from entering that mode. In order to do so, they must have phases and solid milestones for each phase since the inception of the startup; such plan has to be approved by the team – employees and investors. Milestones have to indicate what hypotheses need to be proven according to a timeline. If hypotheses are not proven within the expected time, pivoting is necessary. This way, the entrepreneur will not be able to create a distortion field because the plan for pivoting had been designed and approved by everybody. An attempt to change the plan would create distress among the team and potentially tear the company down.