Revisiting Magicians & Process Change

Jeff Cole

I’ve written this in the past but it bears repeating -- Magicians annoy me. Seriously. Because I will be up until 4 a.m. trying to reverse-engineer the impossible nonsense they did right before my eyes. And when I finally do figure out what they did, the gimmick or technique is often so obvious in retrospect that I am annoyed yet again.

So what is it we who are driving process change have in common with magicians (beside we are probably annoying some people…)? What are magicians doing that amazes people and how does any of this help me with my next process change? 

It’s all about focus. Hey – look over here! Magicians are a sneaky lot in general and very adept at the art of misdirection.   Everything a magician does is on purpose and nothing is done haphazardly. Half their battle is getting you to look left while they are doing their dirty work off to the right.      So what?     In process change, focus is important too.  We are trying to provide a very clear direction (vision) to the desired state. We are also fighting through the blizzard of words and images blasted every waking moment at our co-workers – trying our best to get them to focus on our change message. Thus, nothing we do to gain that focus should be haphazard or random. Our communications plan should well thought out and include multiple ways of attracting people’s attention and focus. 

The mind fills in the gaps. That stand or table the magician is using is probably not as thin as you believe it to be. That’s not really his shadow behind the curtain and he didn’t really even get in that box just now. He’s relying on your mind to scroll forward to what would logically make sense as your brain fills in the gaps. Brains are really good at filling in gaps – either right or wrong.        So what?     You’re going to roll out a process change. People know it’s coming but you’ve not yet briefed them. It’s easy to forget that each person impacted by this change will have automatically made some assumptions as their minds fill in the blanks. So when you announce it, it will be better than some anticipated, worse than some others figured, and for some it will be spot on. To reduce the stress and help people architect the right picture in their minds, we should be communicating throughout the project and not just at the end.

Bullet-Proof. Some tricks involve real danger. Others look dangerous but absolutely aren’t. In many tricks where you are asked to select something, it doesn’t matter at all what you select because the magician has “outs” for all possible choices.   When a master magician is lurking around his unmarked warehouse on the outskirts of Vegas designing and rehearsing his next major illusion, he is anticipating all possible ways it may fail. He is error-proofing and working very hard to ensure he doesn’t look like an amateur when he gets up on stage.     So What?     Lots of things can go sideways on you in a change rollout. It’s best to use a tool like an FMEA (Failure Modes and Effects Analysis) in advance as part of your planning process. Every minute in planning thinking about “What might go wrong and how can I mitigate that risk?” can save you hours of reactionary frustration in the live rollout.

So that’s what we in the world of process change have in common with magicians. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I need to go work on making the remainder of my wife’s chocolate cake disappear…