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This is a personal blog which will tackle areas of interest in the field of knowledge management. I will especially be looking at various management areas and covering the areas of people, processes and importantly the role of Web 2.0 technology.
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.
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?
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."
Dina Gerdeman is a writer based in Mansfield, Massachusetts.
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?
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?
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.
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?