Back in 2006 when Apple was developing the iPhone, Steve Jobs decided that while the original plan was for the iPhone to have a plastic screen, like the iPod, it would feel much more elegant and substantive if the screen was glass. He set about finding a glass that would be strong and resistant to scratches. This led to a meeting with Wendell Weeks, the CEO of Corning Glass.
Jobs described the type of glass required, and Weeks indicated they had developed such a glass, called Gorilla Glass, back in the 1960s, but there was no demand, so Corning quit making it. After realizing just how scratch-resistant it really was, Jobs decided to use it for the iPhone, and said he needed a large amount of the glass within six months. Weeks said that was not possible, since no Corning factory was making the glass and none was equipped to make it. Jobs stunned Weeks by saying “Don’t be afraid. You can do it. … Get your mind around it. I know you can do it.”
Jobs would simply not give up, and amazingly, Weeks and Corning did it. At Apple, Steve Jobs was known for making the impossible happen. It was Bud Tribble of the original Apple Macintosh team who lifted the phrase “reality distortion field” from “Star Wars” to describe Jobs’ propensity to ask for the impossible and stubbornly stick to the goal. The people around him did whatever it took to make it happen because it was exciting and because they understood the impact created by making it come true.
Henry Doss recently wrote at Forbes about striving for the impossible. He pointed out that when the apparent unrealistic goal is authentic, i.e., would clearly have a big impact, a leader can get the troops charged up to pursue it. Importantly, the leader must be willing and eager to make sure the following actions are acceptable and encouraged. In fact, it is these actions that create the reality distortion field that enable success:
- Remove organizational barriers. When people are working on critical, time-sensitive, “big” challenges, you can’t allow any kind of organizational drag to hold things up.
- Ignore procedural, status quo practices. Mundane rules, operational practices, and procedures need to be put aside.
- Accept the risk inherent with urgency. Urgency creates an environment where risk is necessary. Decisions will need to be made with less certainly.
- Focus on learning, not blame. Risk-taking will result in mistakes, which should be viewed not as a cause for blame, but as an opportunity to learn and improve.
In summary, when there are big opportunities, don’t shy away for all the usual mundane reasons — create a reality distortion field.
Bob Herbold is the former chief operating officer of Microsoft Corp. and author of the recently released book “What’s Holding You Back? Ten Bolds Steps that Define Gutsy Leaders.” His blog on leadership can be found at BobHerbold.com.