The Magic of Innovation

One of Arthur C. Clarke’s most famous sayings is his Third Law, which states that: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

I suspect that most of us have experienced a feeling of magic using a piece of technology. I  remember my first experience of a WiFi connected laptop and dialling 2580 on a mobile phone and getting a text back with the track name via Shazam.  More recently, I discovered the wonders of  CityMapper.

Many of the first hand accounts of observers of earlier technologies such as the television, radio (aka Marconi’s Magic Box) or electricity feature references to magicians and the supernatural. ‘That must be magic’ is our instinctive response to experiences that appear to up-end the laws of nature.


The Philips genie makes new technology magic via Vintage European Posters

But if Clarke’s dictum highlights the magical feeling that comes with “any sufficiently advanced technology”, does it ignore the motivational power of magic in the quest for commercial innovation?

Magic as motivation

Magic is the beating heart of  technologists, designers and innovators. Magic animates their imaginations and provides the benchmark against which they try to redefine an existing experience, or invent a new one.

The long history of driverless cars in science fiction and, increasingly, in reality neatly illustrates ‘magic as motivation’. Driverless cars are a response to the congestion, accidents, and drudgery that define driving cars. Driverless cars promise accurate and relaxing travel that is liberated from the imperfections of humans and their cities. The innovators behind driverless cars (and it’s not just Google) understand the current limitations of automotive technology and have used a magical imagination to inspire the re-invention of car travelling.

Put it another way, magic is a means of inspiring and organising our attempts to re-invent the world we inhabit.

But if the desire to innovate is motivated by a question like: “what if cars could drive themselves?”, the quest for innovation should also characterised by questions of experience.

Rather than just asking ‘what if it existed?’ we could also ask ourselves “what would it feel like?”

Magic as feeling

In recent years, brand-, user-, and product experience have become key ways to think about how a business designs and delivers something meaningful and relevant to its customers. Often, when the word ‘experience’ is used in this context it’s qualified with words like seamless, delightful, simple or intuitive. Normal people rarely use words like seamless to describe their experiences but they do perceive, or feel, seamlessness.

We could simplify our language, and significantly raise our level of ambition, by aiming to create magical experiences through products, services or brands.

A company’s offering is only ever as good as the worst bit of its customer’s experience (be that product, support, distribution, packaging or communications). The ambition to create a magical experience recognises this reality and pushes for the same degree of focus across each and every area of a customer’s experience.

Magic creates products and services that are experienced not consumed.

It has become a commonplace in  business that the focus needs to be on experience. Magic is a simple, if ambitious, way of organising to achieving that goal.Magic creates products and services that are experienced not consumed.

Here are FIVE ideas for making it:

1. Magic is the innovator’s talisman

Magic is a lofty goal but the sort of experience that your customers are seeking. Challenge yourself and your teams to ask ambitious ‘what if?’ questions that will force a redefinition of existing product or service experiences or the creation of new ones.

2. Focus on the feeling

Your customers won’t know the functional specifications or the back office operations that deliver the experience but they will recall how it felt. Work from the customer experience backwards into the organisation – asking at each step what the ‘magic should feel like?’ before focusing on how you will deliver it.

3. Hire a magician

If Harvard Business School can do it, so can you. Magicians are experts in understanding the persistent beliefs that exist amongst their audience and how to work with them. They are also good at streamlining or updating old tricks – they know what makes a minimally viable trick. Such simplification is at the heart of great customer experience. Know what your minimally viable magical product is.

4. Understand and then break rules

Magic works from an understanding of rules. Rules that govern how we understand and perceived the world around us. Understanding first how customers understand their world and environments is crucial before attempting to remodel their way of perceiving or interacting with them.

5. Magic needs repeating

Just as the magician continually hones their tricks so they jibe with the world of their audience, so an innovative company must work to continue to instil magic into their customer experience. As the environment changes so will customers’ expectations and relationship. Remember, magical feelings emerge when the laws of the universe (or, in this case the status quo of business) appear to have been upended, even if only momentarily.