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Why do certain product and service experiences seem to have that undeniable “ wow ” factor , while others disap- point customers ? Perhaps there ’ s no better place to turn to than the world of magic . Below , Stefan Thomke and Jason Randal consider that leading magicians are constantly under pressure to come up with new “ effects ” that wow audiences . They have to innovate frequently and rely on a systematic way of doing so .

The late science-fiction writer Arthur C . Clarke once famously said , “ Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic .” 1 Clarke , a prescient futurist , was right . New products like the iPhone can indeed seem like magic , and companies have long been trying to unlock the secrets of that wondrous quality . Why do certain product and service experiences seem to have that undeniable “ wow ” factor , making them all but destined for success , while other items – even those that might boast superior technology and a glut of features – somehow lack that pizzazz , relegating them to languish on store shelves ? The difference has less to do with catchy advertising , and everything to do with the innovation process itself .

For a better understanding of that , perhaps there ’ s no better place to turn to than the world of magic . Consider that the leading professional magicians are constantly under pressure to come up with new “ effects ” ( often under very tight budgets ) that will result in a magical , or transformational , customer experience . As such , professional magicians can ’ t just be innovative on a whim ; they must have a systematic way of doing so . In essence , they must do what managers have to do in their organisations every day – derive creative solutions to difficult problems . But how exactly can they ( and their organisations ) become more innovative and deliver magical product and service experiences that consistently exceed customer expectations ?
Our intent is to reveal a process of creation that is common to both the “ tricks ” that awe a spellbound audience , such as the “ disappearance ” of the Statue of Liberty ( an early illusion introduced by David Copperfield which may have involved “ moving ” the audience rather than the statue ) and the products that give customers unforgettable experiences . Indeed , all attempts to create something new , whether an experience or a product , share a process of creative work that should begin with a deep understanding of what needs to be solved , fol- lowed by how to solve it , how to hide the solution , and how to sell the experience . We don ’ t pretend to have all the answers to those difficult questions , but we can provide some novel and practical insights that we have taught to more than one thousand executives . 2
What ’ s the Real Innovation Problem ?
Some professional magicians spend considerable time deciding where they should be applying their skills when creating new “ effects .” They are constantly asking themselves , “ What ’ s the real problem that I ’ m trying to solve ? How do I even think about this particular problem ?” Magicians essentially source innovation in two ways : from the top down and bottom up . Top down begins with a fresh idea or question : “ Wouldn ’ t it be amazing if … we could saw a tiger in half , make Dave Letterman ’ s coffee cup move across his desk all by itself , or pour any cocktail named from an empty glass ?” Bottom up begins with an existing routine , method , or gimmick that is drawn upon , utilised , or improved . If a sleight-of-hand “ deck switch ” is necessary for a card routine , and it can ’ t be accomplished using existing cover , the magician must invent an alternate “ no switch ” method , provide adequate cover
1 . Arthur C . Clarke , Profiles of the Future . Henry Holt & Co ; Rev Sub edition , March 1984 . Casual references to the word “ magic ” or “ magical ” are extensive in business practice . However , few , if any , businesses have studied the field of magic to extract some of its most important insights . 2 . For a much more detailed description of the concepts discussed in this article , see Stefan Thomke and Jason Randal , “ Innovation Magic .” Harvard Business School Note 612-099 . that seems reasonable , or utilise some clever misdirection .
The best innovators in business always allow for sufficient time for defining an innovation problem before proceeding with any project . When Walt Disney was planning Disney- land in the late 1940s , for instance , he didn ’ t rush into solving the specific problems of just another amusement park – how many rides to have , what was the minimum number of parking spaces , what kinds of food to offer in the concession stands , and so on . Instead , he concentrated on solving a much larger , general problem “ top down ”: how can Disney provide visitors with a magical customer experience ?
Unfortunately , problem definition is often the most under- rated part of the innovation process , and many companies give it short shrift . Managers and engineers can ’ t wait to do the “ real work ” of developing solutions . They don ’ t realise that defining a problem is perhaps the most important part of the innovation process . Savvier companies have learned to spend the proper attention to problem definition way upstream in the innovation process . They carefully observe customers , learn from lead users , and tap into other sources of information that help them frame the problem correctly . Moreover , from the start they are also very aware that part of the “ magic ” of a successful product occurs when it goes beyond just meeting needs or when it solves problems in unexpected ways to enhance the total customer experience .

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Consider Apple 3 . The consumer electronics leader is known for many things – innovative products , stylish designs , and savvy marketing , among them – but perhaps the company ’ s greatest strength is its ability to get to the heart of a problem . As CEO Steve Jobs once explained , “ When you start looking at a problem and it seems really simple …, you don ’ t really understand the complexity of the problem . And your solutions are way too oversimplified . Then you get into the problem , and you see it ’ s really complicated . And you come up with all these convoluted solutions … That ’ s where most people stop .” But not Apple . The company keeps on plugging away . “ The really great person will keep on going and find … the key , underlying principle of the problem and come up with a beautiful elegant solution that works ,” explains Jobs . 4 .
Doing , Hiding , and Selling
Innovative magicians have learned to break a project down into three fundamental components : how to do it , how to hide it , and how to sell it . In business , most managers associate just the first item – how to do it – with product development . But , as we shall see , the other two tasks can also make or break the success of any innovation .
How to Do It
Innovative magicians are skilled at using two top-down and bottom-up methods of innovating and switch between them whenever a project is stuck . Similarly , the company IDEO , for example , has amassed a “ Tech Box ” of hundreds of unrelated parts – everything from special fabrics to oddball toys to electrical gizmos – that designers will rummage
3 . Stefan Thomke and Barbara Feinberg , “ Design Thinking and Innovation at Apple .” Harvard Business School Case 609-066 . 4 . Steve Levy , The Perfect Thing : How the iPod Shuffles Commerce , Culture , and Coolness . New York : Simon & Shuster Paperbacks , 2007 .