4 lessons from magicians on process improvement and change

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Jeff Cole

What do magicians have to do with process improvement and change? This month, columnist Jeff Cole pulls back the curtain to reveal several things we can all learn from magicians.

Magicians annoy me. Actually they annoy me on several levels. Being in the process improvement business, folks like me want to know how things work. The most annoying thing about magicians is when you see a trick and for the next 72 hours can’t stop trying to reverse-engineer how they accomplished it…

What is it magicians know that the rest of us don’t, and how can we leverage that into process change?

Masters of illusion?

Trick #1: Keep it Simple

You could invest in the Criss Angel CDs wherein for a steep fee he reveals a number of his illusions. I’ve seen some of these. If you are a process professional, at the end you would look at the process whereby he fooled the audience and be somewhat amazed at its simplicity.

The overall effect may seem complex and the physical manipulations may take time to master, but at its core, the individual steps in the illusion can be somewhat basic. No impressive illusion is ever pulled off without the magician being very skilled at the fundamental blocking and tackling involved in doing a trick. Putting together a series of simple fundamental movements can lead to results that make people wonder how it’s done.

Knowing that genius lies in simplicity, take a look at your change management plan. In the PhD-level world of confusion surrounding us, many of the change-related problems lie at the grade school level. Is your plan full of high-falutin’ corporate buzzwords or have you focused on hitting the key fundamentals? Are you focused on the amount of activity or on the effectiveness of that activity? Behind the best illusions are simple, lean processes – how simple and lean is your process?

Trick #2: Practice

In one of his books, Penn Jillette speaks of the countless hundreds of hours he has invested in trying to make one simple movement look natural to an audience. Author Peter Senge has noted that one of the things American businesses seem to lack is practicing. Sports teams practice. Bands rehearse. Military teams do drills. Business people tend to slam a group of workers into a conference room, label them a team, and expect them to perform with the precision and skill of the Navy Seals. People who can’t even play their scales properly are trying to play Beethoven. Finding a safe place to pilot and hone your change agent skills and continually trying to improve those skills is vital.

Trick #3: Focus

One technique most magicians employ is distraction. They need to reach into their pocket for something but would rather that you didn’t see that. Thus, something much more interesting happens simultaneously, pulling your attention away from the pocket. The magician is expert at directing your focus where he or she wants it.

In process change, we fight a similar battle of focus. The cacophony of white noise and information overload that every worker is faced with daily serves as constant distraction. In a recent column I discussed Change Blindness - a phenomenon wherein people are so distracted they fail to see rather major changes to their environment. We need to focus our audience on a stellar execution of the few key fundamental aspects of the process change plan. All the while fighting a 24x7 battle against the distractions in the workplace.

Trick #4: Shattering Expectations

Comedy writers use several formulas, one of which is a 180. They take you down a certain path of logic and in the punch line hit you with a 180-degree switch. It’s been said that you laugh in part because your expectations have been shattered. The amazed feeling you get when a magician pulls off something that breaks every law of nature you have studied since childhood can also be due to expectations being shattered.

In his 1970 classic Future Shock, Alvin Toffler discussed how having shattered expectations can cause people to cycle through a change acceptance curve (homes will always increase in price, big auto companies will always be around, there will never be hostile attacks on US soil, my job and 401K are safe, etc.).

How is your process change shattering expectations in the workplace? The more your future state process varies from what people are comfortable with, the more shock you’ll have to deal with in your change plan. Are you ready to help escort the organization through that fog of change?

All in all, there is a lot we can borrow metaphorically from our friend the magician. Whether you’re trying to make waste disappear, saw a budget in half, levitate sales figures, or pull higher productivity out of a hat, keep in mind these few fundamentals!