Correcting the reality distortion field: Learning the right lessons from Steve Jobs

There have been many stories about Steve Jobs lately. Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography Steve Jobs came out this week and is now the #1 bestselling book. Isaacson has hit the talk show circuit hard—I must have heard essentially the same interview at least four times this week.
Through Isaacson, here is what we are learning about Steve Jobs:

  • Steve Jobs was an arrogant jerk. A harsh but concise summary. He often treated his family and coworkers quite badly. He was quite full of himself.
  • Steve Jobs was cruel and humiliating. He didn’t hesitate to humiliate employees. Many Apple employees lived in fear of being fired—and rightly so.
  • Steve Jobs valued his own personal opinion above everything else. Jobs famously said “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” As a result, Apple has downplayed user research. Apparently Jobs wasn’t all that interested in the opinions of Apple employees either as he routinely ignored their input.
  • Steve Jobs was a demanding perfectionist. He wanted everything to be just right, and wouldn’t accept anything else.
  • Steve Jobs was a great innovator. At least, that’s what everybody says. But unless you define “innovation” as “perfecting ideas invented by others,” I believe Apple isn’t especially innovative.

Isaacson (like everybody else) is in a state of wonderment as to how this all managed to work out so well. All this worked out because, against the odds, Jobs was usually right.

I’ve seen other managers attempt to do similar things, and the results are consistently disastrous. For example, endlessly obsessing over colors might put you on everybody’s “A list,” but probably not the A list you have in mind. Being an arrogant, cruel, humiliating, self-absorbed, perfectionist jerk isn’t normally the road to success. It would a tragedy if this turned out to be Steve Jobs management legacy. Steve Jobs wasn’t successful because of these characteristics, but in spite of them. Not just anybody could have pulled this off—Steve Jobs himself was just barely able to be Steve Jobs. I fear that we are in for a generation of Steve Jobs wannabes screwing up every project they touch.

“You aren’t Steve Jobs, so don’t act like him.”

Exposing the reality distortion field

Let’s consider one example. When Isaacson describes Jobs’ famous reality distortion field, he explains how the Macintosh team said a project would take three months to complete. Jobs insisted that they do it in only two weeks, and lo and behold, they amazingly got the project done in two weeks.

This is pure BS. The reality distortion field here is that Steve Jobs deluded himself into thinking that is what actually happened. In the real world, when a team of talented software developers say a project will take three months to complete, it will probably take a bit more at best. People rarely overestimate. If they worked double time, perhaps they could get a week and half’s worth of work done in a week’s time. It is simply not possible for a team to deliver three months of real work in a couple weeks.

My experience is that if a project manager insists on doing a project in less time than the shortest estimate, the project will end up taking more time than the longest estimate. I can’t prove this, but Steve McConnell comes awfully close in Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules.

In the section Overly Optimistic Scheduling, McConnell tells the story of Microsoft Word for Windows 1.0. Based on metrics, McConnell estimates the optimal schedule to be 460 days. The shortest estimate the team gave was 395 days. Bill Gates insisted that it be done in 365 days. How many days did it actually take? Try 1887—5 times longer than planned! Why? Because cutting all the corners required to pretend that the product could be done in a year meant that the resulting code was poor quality crap that all had to be redone (or “stabilized”). This is how ignoring your team’s estimates usually works out, and I doubt that Jobs’ results were any different.

The Right Lessons of Steve Jobs

I think that Steve Jobs was absolutely brilliant visionary and project leader. But the brilliant part isn’t the story being told by Isaacson—those are mostly character flaws. Here’s my summary of the brilliant part:

  • Focus on experiences over features and technologies. The user experience is the only thing that matters. To users, the user experience is the product. Therefore, the user experience rightfully drives the design and features and technology are enablers—not the other way around.
  • Make it delightful. Well-designed products make an emotional connection. They are a joy to see and a joy to use. They are designed to make users fall in love with them.
  • Do less better. Better to do a few things well. Have a few, well targeted products instead of many, poorly positioned ones. Better to have a few great features than many not-so-great ones. Nail those and move on instead of constantly fixing problems in hastily designed and implemented features. Jobs once said “Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles.”
  • Keep it simple. The simplest design that does the job well is better than a complex design that can potentially do everything. Well-designed simplicity is powerful—don’t let anybody sell you that tired “simple means simplistic” nonsense.
  • Set a high bar. Good enough is not good enough—aim for insanely great. Set high expectations for your products and your team. Have pride in the quality of your work.
  • Get it right the first time. Don’t start work on an innovative product until the technology is ready. Ship a product when it’s ready, not when it’s due. Don’t take three times to get it right.

These are the right lessons—the part of Steve Jobs’ life that you should aspire to emulate.

If you do only one thing: Remember that Steve Jobs’ vision, focus, and high standards are what made Apple great, not his personal character flaws.


Leave a Comment / What do you think?

3 Responses

Links to this article

For more information, please contact info@uxdesignedge.com

All Content Copyright © UX Design Edge