The Visionary's Lament

“But customers don’t know what they want!"

It’s an anguished cry that I have heard often from startup founders. In a way, I don’t blame them. I’ve been there myself. If we’re not attempting something truly new and innovative – what’s the point? If we’re just going to conduct the world’s biggest focus group to decide what to do, why couldn’t any old idiot do it instead? Isn’t the whole point of devoting our life to this enterprise to show the world that we have a unique and visionary idea?

I remember one conversation with a visionary quite well. He had just come back to the office after a few days away, and he was filled with big news. “I have incredible data to share!” which was pretty unusual – a visionary with data? He carefully explained that he had conducted a number of one-on-one customer interviews, showing them an existing product and then documenting their reactions. His conclusions were well thought out, coherently based in the data he was presenting, and painted an alluring picture of a new way forward. His team almost exploded on the spot. 

“That’s the same idea you’ve been pushing for months!” “What were the odds? Customers explained to you that we need to do exactly what you wanted to do anyway? Wow!” It was an ugly scene.

We all know that great companies are headed by great visionaries, right? And don’t some people just have a natural talent for seeing the world the way it might be, and convincing the people around them to believe in it as if it was real? 

This talent is called the reality distortion field. It’s an essential attribute of great startup founders. The only problem is that it’s also an attribute of crazy people, sociopaths, and serial killers. The challenge, for  people who want to work with and for startups, is learning to tell the difference. Are you following a visionary to a brilliant new future? Or a crazy person off a cliff?

True visionaries spend considerable energy every day trying to maintain the reality distortion field. Try to see it from their point of view – none of the disruptive innovations in history were amenable to simple ROI calculations and standard linear thinking. In order to do something on that scale, you need to get people thinking, believing, and acting outside the box. Their greatest fear is categorically not that their vision is wrong. Their real fear is that the company will give up without ever really trying.

This is where data, focus groups, customer feedback, and collaborative decision-making get their bad rap. In many cases, these activities lead to bad outcomes: watered down vision, premature abandonment, and local maxima.

When visionaries say “but customers don’t know what they want!” they are right. That’s the problem with false dichotomies: each side has a kernel of truth within it. You cannot build a great product simply by obeying what customers say they want. First of all, how do you know which customers to listen to? And what do you do when they say contradictory things? 

And yet, the people who resist visionaries also have a point. Isn’t a bit scary, maybe even suicidal, to risk everything on a guess – even if it is emotionally compelling? 

Like all false dichotomies, if either side “wins” this argument, the whole enterprise loses. If we just follow the blind mantra of “release early, release often” and then become purely reactive, we’re as likely to be chasing our tail as to be making progress. Similarly, if we pursue our vision without regard to reality, we’re almost guaranteed to get some aspects of it wrong. 

The solution is synthesis: to never compromise two essential principles. One, that we always have a vision that is clearly articulated, big enough to matter, and shared by the whole team. Second, that our goal is always to discover which aspects of this vision are grounded in reality, and to adapt those aspects that are not.

A vision is like a sculpture buried in a block of stone. When the excess is chipped away, it will become a work of art. But the challenge in the meantime is to discover which parts are essential, and which are extraneous. The only way to do this is to continuously test the vision against reality and see what happens.


Photo: bernichacra, Flickr.


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