Search This Blog


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Innovation is Magic. Really

When business executives create innovative products or services, they often look to impress their customers by delivering an experience more meaningful, more delightful, than possibly expected. A true "wow!" moment.

And Harvard Business School Professor Stefan Thomke knows just who to consult to create such a spellbinding experience: a world-class magician.

Thomke, the William Barclay Harding Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has paired up with magician Jason Randal since 2009 to teach innovation to business executives.

Randal's lessons for executives are not just about how an engaging personality, psychological insights, and talented hands can create wonderful effects that amaze an audience. It's just as much about the hard, creative work Randal puts in to continuously improve his art.

Magicians are always under pressure to reinvent their performances to stay ahead of the competition. When David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty "disappear," Franz Harary responded with a vanishing space shuttle. The same is true of business managers: They must strive to be innovative, providing the kind of magical product and service experiences that exceed customer expectations and the offerings of competitors. What's the secret?

Success in business as well as magic has less to do with clever marketing and more to do with the innovation process, Thomke and Randal write in the 2012 paper Innovation Magic. The authors also teamed to write The Magic of Innovation, published in the European Business Review earlier this year.


Thomke maintains that innovative managers looking to create successful new products or services can benefit from the practices that magicians like Randal follow:

Take the time to understand the real problem that needs to be solved. Some magicians spend a lot of time considering which illusion they want to accomplish before they start working on how to accomplish the trick. Too often, managers rush to develop solutions to customer problems without stepping back and taking the time to define the real problem the product or service should be designed to solve.

For example, when Walt Disney was plotting out Disneyland in the late 1940s, he didn't concern himself at first with typical amusement park issues like how many rides to build, how much parking to provide, or what food to sell. Instead, he focused on this overarching question: How can Disney make its visitors feel as if they are having a magical customer experience? Defining the problem may be the most important part of the innovation process, and yet it is often given short shrift, Thomke says.

"We have to allow ourselves time. It's often not seen as making progress when you don't have solutions to show. I would argue it's just as important as solving problems. Organizations can do a wonderful job at solving the wrong problems."

Figure out how to solve the problem. "The solution to a problem can sometimes come from the most unlikely sources, and it's often the intersection of different fields that results in major innovations," the Innovation Magic paper observes.

Just as the magician may need to delve into psychology, mechanics, locksmithing and other fields in his quest to pull off a new effect, companies often succeed at innovation when they assemble diverse teams of designers, engineers, and other specialists working together to solve a problem.

Find a way to hide the solution. The magician's audience doesn't necessarily care how difficult a trick is or how it is accomplished. People simply want to be entertained. Similarly, in business, sometimes the best solution involves keeping certain complex pieces that go into a product design invisible.

The electronics manufacturer Bang & Olufsen knew that many consumers don't want to mess with equalizers and other sound controls to get to the right settings when they watch a movie or listen to music, so the company created a high-end speaker system that automatically adjusts itself for the listener.

"At Disney, nobody wants to see someone take the trash out, so Disney has an underground system of tunnels," Thomke says. "It's there, but you hide it because it's completely irrelevant to the customer experience."

Sell the experience. A magician can be highly skilled in illusion techniques, yet may not know how to perform--or sell--the experience in a way that will resonate with an audience.

In the same way, successful companies have learned that selling a product is about more than the product itself; it's about creating a customer experience that taps into people's emotions, ultimately making them feel good. High-end vodka companies such as Grey Goose and Chopin have packaged their liquor in tall, sleek, frosted glass bottles as a way to enhance the elegant feel of the products for consumers.

"A magician has to be very much aware of the emotional state of the audience to get that emotional buy-in," Thomke says. "You can take a trick and do it very clinically and people will sit there and say, 'That was interesting.' Or you can tell an amazing story that draws the audience in and you embed the trick in the story. Once you have buy-in, the audience is much more likely to have a wow experience."


Innovations don't appear out of thin air; rather, people need to actively "intend to innovate," Thomke says. Figuring out how to solve a problem and sell the experience involves deep thinking and plenty of experimentation. Taking it slow, letting a problem "marinate" as you inch forward with figuring it out is often the best approach.

"When you are experimenting, you are going to fail along the way. It's part of the process," Thomke says. "What I often find is that there's no shortage of ideas, but there are so many ideas, they don't get any traction. The idea has to be experimented with. If you start out with a set of well-defined problems and then generate ideas that address those well-defined problems, you have a much better chance of success."

Magicians will stand in front of the mirror to test, revise, retest and further revise illusions until they get them just right. Thomke says that notorious escape artist and magician Harry Houdini owned a very large collection of locks and handcuffs, and constantly rehearsed picking them until he got to the point where he could open most locks in seconds.

"Magicians learn that to do something that only has an effect of a few seconds, it can take months," he says. "You have to think of all the things that can happen. People in the audience can do strange things. They might try to expose you. Magicians have to do a lot of rehearsing and testing, not just so their technique gets better, but also to get a sense for all the contingencies, all the things that could go wrong, so they have a plan for everything."

The same goes for business, he says. "When you're delivering a service, people will respond in very different ways. You have to be prepared." Innovators who are working on solving a problem can benefit from alternating between the roles of creator and critic. At times when we are presented with a new idea, we immediately start tearing apart its flaws--and that can put a damper on the creative process before it has a chance to get off the ground. And just as magicians often challenge themselves to take a trick and make it a better experience, managers should constantly ask, "What else?"

"It seems obvious, but that question of 'what else can I do' is not often asked. Sometimes the question is as important as the answer," Thomke says.


In teaching a case study about Apple, Thomke asks a thought-provoking question to conclude the discussion: Imagine that Apple takes over your company. What would it change? "One good question can allow you to look from the outside in. By asking the right questions, you can get amazing solutions."

Persistence is crucial to success, and executives need to make sure they are not giving up too early. The paper notes that the early makers of MP3 players "helped develop impressive technology, but they didn't take it far enough. They stopped asking the next round of innovation questions, leaving Apple to reap the benefits from recognizing that the crucial thing wasn't just the device itself, but the magical way in which the entire music industry could be transformed with the electronic delivery of digital content. And thus was born the wildly successful iTunes platform."

The unusual partnership came about after Randal visited HBS and performed tricks that blew Thomke away. "He's an amazing performer, and my curiosity went through the roof. I felt like a young boy again." Thomke was teaching a course in the MBA program on innovation in 2009 and had an idea: Wouldn't it be interesting if Randal could talk to students about innovation in his performance art?

"When you teach innovation, you tell your students that the best practices can come from some of the most unlikely sources," Thomke says.

In the following years, Thomke and Randal spent weeks discussing each other's discipline and collaborated on the paper. They also developed a learning experience, titled "Innovation Magic", that builds on their insights and backgrounds as teacher, researcher, and performer.

The experience starts with magic performances by Randal and ends with a two-hour class session that teaches the underlying innovation principles. The initial idea was tested in a course called Leading Product Innovation in the executive education program and refined over the years. At this point, more than 1,000 executives participated and the feedback has been enthusiastic.

And poof, it works; the innovation lessons magically seem to click in just the right way, Thomke says. To make it work required many iterations and innovations in how the material is taught.

"We approach this like you would design any customer experience," he says. "You want it to be unforgettable in a good way, which requires attention to many details and the participants' recognition that the lessons are very useful to solve business innovation problems. The magic is what makes the innovation part unforgettable."

About the author

Dina Gerdeman is a writer based in Mansfield, Massachusetts.

from HBS Working Knowledge


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Evolutionary thinking

Blogging doesn't get easier even after all these years. I still go through the "Who am I to say this?", "Who cares what I think?" cycle each time. I then wait nervously to see if anyone responds once I have published the post. I know that this is what I am asking people to do, not only on the internet (where somehow it feels easier) but at work, where what people think of them matters even more. Why should they?

Two reasons.

Firstly, I don't know what I really think until I write it down, and my guess is that many of you are the same. "What happened today that was worthy of note?"; "What do I really think about this topic?"; "What am I trying to say?"; "How can I get across my ideas as concisely and effectively as possible?".

Secondly, by sticking it out there magic happens. People either reinforce your idea, modify it, disagree with it or just take it in and mull it over. All of these are worthwhile. Just being seen to know things and be thoughtful about your work is good for your career. But beyond this your ideas get tested, they get expanded, you can adapt. This is a powerfully evolutionary idea. We get to test and improve our thinking in real time.

What's not to like about that?

from The Obvious? -


Friday, July 11, 2014

Secret Objectives v Shared Knowledge. Open Performance Management anyone?

I’ve been musing on the traditional approach to performance management, and how management-by-objectives could release so much more value if it was more transparent. I’ve seen so many examples where people rely on serendipity to discover a colleague or a project with an aligned objective. And they often discover it too late! OK – most […]

from All of us are smarter than any of us...


How Ecopetrol built their Knowledge Management Strategy

from Knoco stories


Friday, May 30, 2014

Working out loud

Our new found ability to share thinking and insights so readily using our online tools is key to solving some of our biggest challenges. Our problems are too big for single individuals or isolated organisations to deal with. As I wrote in a previous post we have to get better at working things out together. The hard bit is that this involves working out loud which can feel scary and challenging.

I am currently reading Jane Bozarth's excellent book on the subject, Show Your Work in which she touches on the individual and organisational challenges of sharing your work as you do it. Sharing while it is still rough, while you are making mistakes, when it never gets finished or never quite achieves success. Doing this is raw and challenging but it is is how real learning happens. It is a million miles from the sanitised case studies that I occasionally rant about or the pernicious idea of "best practice".

In his wonderful commencement address for Simmons University David Weinberger writes of the importance of not knowing all the answers. Of being vulnerable and brave enough to feel out of our depth. Working out loud involves doing this in public, exposing our thoughts before they are fully formed, opening ourselves to dissent and difference while we are still feeling raw and unsure.

All of this feels scary, I feel it when I write these posts, but it feels real and so much more powerful than the controlled and measured means of learning that we are more comfortable with.

from The Obvious? -


What's stopping you?

Last week I did three workshops for CIOs and CTOs on how using social tools could help them get back some of the influence they have lost in their organisations. Rather than banning the tools they should be using them to keep their own teams better informed and to reconnect with their organisations.

As with HR Directors many of them aspire to be listened to at the highest levels but as I said, "How can you be a thought leader if no one knows what you think?".

My last four slides had the words Vulnerability, Courage and Trust followed by the question "What's stopping you?". It was fascinating to hear senior people express concern about saying what they think in public. Feeling exposed, issues of accountability, and even the old chestnut "I have nothing to say that people would be interested in".

Really? Is that really true? Is it true for you? What's stopping YOU?

from The Obvious? -


Scratch: The enormous value of children’s programming languages

I have been aware for some years of the various programming languages available for children. This evening I decided to have a go with Scratch with my daughters, as Leda is now almost eight, the bottom of the suggested age range for the language. I was blown away. Scratch has an extremely wide range of

Continue reading Scratch: The enormous value of children’s programming languages

The post Scratch: The enormous value of children’s programming languages appeared first on Trends in the Living Networks.

from Trends in the Living Networks


Monday, May 19, 2014

5 reasons why streams of knowledge run dry and methods have to change

5 reasons why streams of knowledge run dry and methods have to change Why do […]

from The K3-Cubed Blog


Friday, May 16, 2014

Best of Multimedia: A Glimpse into the Workplace of the Future

Traditional offices are evolving in ways that affect where, when, and how we get our best ideas.

from strategy+business - All Updates


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Reflecting on Work Improves Job Performance

Many of us are familiar with the gentle punishment known as "time-out," in which misbehaving children must sit quietly for a few minutes, calm down, and reflect on their actions.

New research suggests that grown-ups ought to take routine time-outs of their own, not as a punishment, but in order to improve their job performance.

In the working paper Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance, the authors show how reflecting on what we've done teaches us to do it more effectively the next time around.

"Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we're busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we'd take some time out for reflection, we might be better off," says Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino , who cowrote the paper with Gary Pisano, the Harry E. Figgie Professor of Business Administration at HBS; Giada Di Stefano, an assistant professor at HEC Paris; and Bradley Staats, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

<divstyle="width:177px;"> Pausing to reflect on our work improves job performance.

Photo: iStockPhoto

The research team conducted a series of three studies based on the dual-process theory of thought, which maintains that people think and learn using two distinct types of processes. Type 1 processes are heuristic—automatically learning by doing, such that the more people do something, the better they know how to do it. Type 2 processes, on the other hand, are consciously reflective, and are often associated with decision making.

Essentially, the researchers hypothesized that learning by doing would be more effective if deliberately coupled with learning by thinking. They also hypothesized that sharing information with others would improve the learning process.


For the first study, the team recruited 202 adults for an online experiment in which they completed a series of brain teasers based on a "sum to ten" game. A round of problem solving included five puzzles, and participants earned a dollar for each puzzle they solved in 20 seconds or less.

After recording the results of the first problem-solving round, the researchers divided participants randomly into one of three conditions: control, reflection, and sharing.

In the control condition, participants simply completed another round of brain teasers.

In the reflection condition, participants took a few minutes to reflect on their first round of brain teasers, writing detailed notes about particular strategies they employed. Then they, too, completed a second round of puzzles.

In the sharing condition, participants received the same instructions as those in the reflection group, but with an additional message informing them that their notes would be shared with future participants.

Results showed that the reflection and sharing group performed an average of 18 percent better on the second round of brain teasers than the control group. However, there was no significant performance difference between the reflection and the sharing group. "In this case sharing on top of reflection doesn't seem to have a beneficial effect," Gino says. "But my sense was that if the sharing involved participants actually talking to each other, an effect might exist."

Next, the researchers recruited 178 university students to participate in the same experiment as the first study, but with two key differences: One, they were not paid based on their performance; rather, they all received a flat fee. Two, before starting the second round of brain teasers, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they felt "capable, competent, able to make good judgments, and able to solve difficult problems if they tried hard enough."

As in the first study, those in the sharing and reflection conditions performed better than those in the control group. Those who had reflected on their problem solving reportedly felt more competent and effective than those in the control group.

"When we stop, reflect, and think about learning, we feel a greater sense of self-efficacy," Gino says. "We're more motivated and we perform better afterward."


The final study tested the hypotheses in the real-world setting of Wipro, a business-process outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. The experiment was conducted at a tech support call center.

The researchers studied several groups of employees in their initial weeks of training for a particular customer account. As with the previous experiments, each group was assigned to one of three conditions: control, reflection, and sharing. Each group went through the same technical training, with a couple of key differences.

In the reflection group, on the sixth through the 16th days of training, workers spent the last 15 minutes of each day writing and reflecting on the lessons they had learned that day. Participants in the sharing group did the same, but spent an additional five minutes explaining their notes to a fellow trainee. Those in the control condition just kept working at the end of the day, but did not receive additional training.

Over the course of one month, workers in both the reflection and sharing condition performed significantly better than those in the control group. On average, the reflection group increased its performance on the final training test by 22.8 percent than did the control group. The sharing group performed 25 percent better on the test than the control group, about the same increase as the reflection group.

This was in spite of the fact that the control group had been working 15 minutes longer per day than the other groups, who had spent that time reflecting and sharing instead.

Gino hopes that the research will provide food for thought to overworked managers and employees alike.

"I don't see a lot of organizations that actually encourage employees to reflect—or give them time to do it," Gino says. "When we fall behind even though we're working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection."

About the author

Carmen Nobel is senior editor of HBS Working Knowledge.

from HBS Working Knowledge


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Internet of Things: enabling the era of precision manufacturing

Remember pictures from old factories where a low-level employee roamed the factory floor on a regular schedule, writing down on a clipboard readings from gauges and other instruments? Who knows when his supervisor ever looked at the results, and what …

from O'Reilly Radar - Insight, analysis, and research about emerging technologies


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Balancing freedom and obligation

Some of you will be aware that over the weekend I decided to read a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Half way in I decided to stop. The increasing feeling that I "should" finish it was part of my decision to do so. As a fifty three year old adult I decided that it was up to me how I spent my weekend and with so many other good books in the queue - I gave up.

But there is still that nagging feeling doubt. Maybe a real grown up would have hung in there? I had the same feeling, many years ago, when I left a performance of Madame Butterfly during the interval. The music was turgid, the language alien to me, and there wasn't even much rushing around. I'd had enough. But the doubt lingered. Still does.

It is not as if I am a lightweight or philistine. I studied classical clarinet to a near professional level. My degree (just) was in English Language and Literature. I read constantly. I am no stranger to the need to introduce my kids to the idea of deferred gratification.

But there you are, I am trying to justify my decision to you. To convince myself that I am making a considered judgement as to how to pass my increasingly scarce time on the planet rather than running away from something I am finding arduous.

I may never escape this struggle between freedom and obligation.

from The Obvious? -


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ten Years, Ten Thoughts

In compiling my ebook, Seeking perpetual beta: a guidebook for the network era, I tried to cover all the posts that resonated with readers, clients, and colleagues over a decade. Here are some highlights, representing one thought per year. Taking control of our learning is a challenge for individuals used to working inside hierarchies that... Read more »

from Harold Jarche