Innovation Is Magic. Really

When Stefan Thomke teaches students how to manage innovation and creativity, he turns to an unexpected source: Magician Jason Randal.
by Dina Gerdeman

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 whom 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 to teach innovation to business executives.

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.

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.

“Organizations can do a wonderful job at solving the wrong problems”

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.

A Magical Process

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

Take 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 defining 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 though they are having a magical customer experience? Defining the problem may be the most important part of the innovation process, 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. Likewise, in business, sometimes the best solution involves keeping certain complex pieces that go into a product design invisible. That's why Bang & Olufsen removed equalizer controls from some of its audio equipment in favor of a 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."

“Magicians learn that to do something that only has an effect of a few seconds, it can take months”

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."

Failure Is Part Of The Process

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 celebrated 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.

When Apple Buys Your Company

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 innovation lessons, which required many iterations and innovations in how the material is taught, magically seem to click in just the right way, Thomke says.

"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 senior writer for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge

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    • Mathews Daniel Kapito
    • Director, Notebook Solutions
    I would always agree to the fact that Innovation is magic. Most successful companies are based on the grounds of creative thinking (Innovation) and allow their employees to bring out new ideas or be innovative. Apple has found its success based on Innovation.
    To a greater extent we all must understand that creative thinking alone does not bring success to an organization, there is more to it. We need a form of innovation that bring with it the support of a team full of planners and organisers to evaluate the impact of new products or reforms to the organization and for how long. In today's competitive environment product life cycles are shorter and this can make innovation a killer as we can compete against ourselves to a greater extent.

    Great article. Force us to rethink our processes
    • Gerard Bremault
    • CEO, The Centre for Child Development of the Lower Mainland, British Columbia, Canada
    I couldn't agree more with the focus on problem solving and the all too human tendency to rush to solutions with insufficiently defined and prioritized problems. In my experience, resisting that temptation is an absolutely key first move - staying with the problem long enough to sharpen and deepen it produces the clarity that fuels superiour solutions.
    • Haragopal K Krovvidi
    • Vice president - Commercial, Care Hospitals
    Yes, selling a product is more than product itself. Many a time it is proven in my personal experience.
    • Gopal Iyer
    • Head Retail Products & Distribution, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank
    How true! Innovation is about finding solutions to problems. Simpler the better!

    Very often, innovation gets confused with large, long, expensive projects that set out to change the world. Most often its merely about finding a solution that always existed - just that nobody looked at it the way a magician did.

    Love the analogy of magic used here to demystify innovation.
    • Dr Ramanand Yadav
    • Lecturer, Indian Maritime University
    I am delighted to find this question, "Imagine that Apple takes over your company. What would it change?"
    This write up is sufficient to understand the relationship between innovation and magic. I feel that every successful innovation is magic for some segment of the population, where it is going to have a short term effect in terms of delighting the customer. I feel, every idea need to benchmark its innovation capability, which can help to sustain with changes.
    • Eileen McDargh
    • CEO, McDargh Communications & The Resiliency Group
    Brilliant analogy. Innovation is not the sudden flash of brilliance but a very deliberate practice of questioning, testing, and practicing. AND it also requires a willingness to let go of sacred cows and to seek input from wide sources. That is not magic--that is humility
    • Dan Gabree
    • AVP Sales, Symphony Teleca
    I agree that the question about what would change in your company if Apple took it over is great. There are many other good points here and considering "What else can I do?" is something that us usually missing in today's business world. This article casts light on key ideas for all aspects of life and business today.
    • Richard Gudoi Gid'Agui
    • Director/CEO, GidLind Professional Business Consulting Services
    Dear Dina,
    Truly as you put it, innovations come with a magical stance.
    The issues that Corporate Boards and CEO's should engage in, is to think loud and think strategically.
    More so when it comes to rethinking the business and carrying the marketing philosophy high. To outwit competitors, top management officials ought to become resilient with their organisation vision and mission. Hence, driving the growth agenda home. This can be beneficial to all its clients/customers. Thank you for the insight on magical innovations! Richard Gudoi Gid'Agui. Kampala,Uganda.
    Staff should be encouraged to be innovative at work and should be rewarded for making mistakes. Failure just like success has to be rewarded in today's era of innovation.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SME(India) Private Limited
    A magician tricks by hypnotizing the audience to make others see what in fact is not something real as nothing stable is created. Corporate innovation, on the other hand, is an exercise towards producing new items or drastically improving the existing ones to an extent consumers cannot imagine and hence they get delighted. Thus while a magician throws dust in our eyes, the innovator cannot do so to his advantage for the quality of the product/service will get revealed sooner or later. If you cannot innovate to create something of intrinsic worth, you would be attempting to dupe in the way a magician does.
    Hence innovation does produce magical effect but not in the sense attributable to a magician. Far from that.
    • Mary Welsh Schlueter
    • Chief Executive Officer, Partnership for Innovation in Education
    Great article. As always, entrepreneurs see things "differently" not because we want to, but because many of us are masters (or dilettantes) in many different fields. We see congruencies, parallel opportunities that can be exploited using a different set of lenses. "Magical" Innovation is a great way to put it, but there isn't much magic to innovation. Ben Franklin said it best about how 99% of your time is spent doing the hard work, which prepares you to recognize that 1% of "lucky" inspiration. Perhaps we can talk soon? We (Partnership for Innovation in Education, nonprofit 501c3) have three NSF grants that teach and apply abstract STEM concepts to K-12 students using case-based learning, and I'd love to chat further about how HBS can work with Harvard's School of Education (our partner). Thanks! Mary (HBS MBA 92A) 513.378.8370 mobile
    • jhon devera
    • SEO Head,

    An innovation can really do things in matters of minutes but the innovation itself sometimes take a lifetime to achieve. I highly appreciate the site kindness in sharing this content and reading it is very worthwhile.