Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Where Does the Magic Come From?

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Clarke's Third Law

In my career, I have at times run a successful project, built a high-performing team, or conducted a stunning class. Each time, though, I knew that my technology seemed like magic even to me, because I didn't really know how I did it. I do like to succeed, so perhaps I should be content with success alone. But I always worry:

"If it's indistinguishable from magic,
how do I know it won't go away next time?"

The Double Bind

When I worry, I'm reluctant to change anything, no matter how small, for fear that the magic will flee. I feel trapped between the fear of losing the magic by change and the fear of losing the magic by failing to change - a classic example of the trap known as a "double bind" (damned if you do, damned if you don't).

Double binds often result in paralysis or ritualized behavior. For example, I'm often called upon to improve meetings, but then find it difficult to persuade my clients to change anything about the meeting. "If we move to another room, it might not be as good as this one." "If we don't invite Jack to the next meeting, we might need something he knows." "If we change the order of the agenda, we might not get through on time." "If we vote in a different way, we might make a poor decision." "We must order our donuts from Sally's Bakery or we won't have a successful meeting."

The "Magic" of PSL

I'd find this behavior even more frustrating if I hadn't experienced the same double bind myself–for example, when faculty considers some potential improvements to our Problem Solving Leadership workshop (PSL). Over the years, lots of people have experienced what they call "the magic of PSL," and we're proud of that. But each time we consider a change, someone raises the fear that the change might make the magic disappear. Fortunately, each time we do this, someone is able to prove that the magic is not tied to the factor under consideration.

For instance, we've worried about changing the hotel or city where PSL is held. We do attempt to find magical sites, but then we remember that many PSLs have transformed mundane hotels in mundane cities into magical sites. This proves to us that the magic can't be in the site, and frees us from that double bind.

Or, we've worried about changing the faculty who teach PSL. We certainly don't choose faculty members at random, but every faculty member has led many, many magical PSLs. So the magic can't be in any particular faculty members.

Or, we've worried about the combination of faculty members. We don't choose our co-training teams at random, either, but all combinations experience magic. So the magic can't be in the faculty combination.

Again, we've worried about the materials we use. We certainly don't choose materials at random, but we do change materials from class to class, and each class deviates from the "standard" materials in a variety of ways. Indeed, there is no single item of material that's in common between the very first PSL (back in 1974) and the most recent one. So the magic can't be in particular materials, either.

Breaking the Bind

The same approach can be used to break other double binds - by finding a counter-example to match each objection:

- "If we move to another room, it might not be as good as this one." "Ah, but remember when they were painting this room and we met downstairs? We had a good meeting then."

- "If we don't use Microsoft Project, this project might fail." "Could be, but we did project X with other tracking software, and we did a fine job."

- "If we change to a new version of the operating system, we might have crashes." "True. But we had a few crashes the last time we upgraded, and though it was some trouble, we dealt with them."

- "If I clean up that code, the system might fail." "That could happen, but the previous three times we cleaned up some code, we caught all the failures in our technical reviews and regression testing. So let's do it, but let's be careful."

The Effective Use of Failure

What can you do if you don't have a counter-example and can't create one in a safe way? In that case, it helps if you can demystify the magic and understand its underlying structure. To do this, you need examples where the magic didn't happen. In social engineering, as in all engineering, failures teach you more than successes.

For instance, the PSL faculty became more aware of the source of PSL magic by observing a few times that the magic didn't "work." Usually, people come to PSL voluntarily–but not always. Once in a while, someone is forced to come to PSL to be "fixed," but people who have been labeled as "broken" may resent the whole experience, and may not feel much PSL magic at all.

From these rare failures of PSL magic, we have identified one key component of the magic of PSL:

People are there because they have chosen to be there.

Curiously, the same component works in creating magical meetings, magical projects, and magical teams. When people are given a choice, they are the magic. Or, more precisely, they create the magic.

When people choose to attend a workshop, to participate in a project, or to join a team, they plunge themselves fully into the experience, rather than simply going through the motions. Consultants can thus have a "magic" advantage over employees: They always know that they've chosen this assignment, so they can always throw themselves into it without reservation. Employees can have this choice, too, but they often forget–just as some consultants forget when they feel forced to take an assignment out of economic necessity.

Keep this in mind the next time you choose an assignment. If you feel forced, you won't do your magical best. You won't have access to the magic that lives inside of yourself.

Do You Want to Experience the Magic of PSL?

Esther Derby, Johanna Rothman, and I will be leading another PSL (Problem Solving Leadership) March 16-21, 2008, in Albuquerque, NM.

PSL is experiential training for learning and practicing a leader's most valuable asset: the ability to think and act creatively. PSL is the gold standard for leadership training, and I'm thrilled to be teaching again with Esther and Johanna.

See <> for the syllabus. If you're interested, please send Esther an email, [Esther Derby <>]. We'd love to have you help us create some more magic.


Unknown said...

"People are there because they have chosen to be there."

I agree, this is the magic to many endeavors.

I once led a "class" on experiential learning in a church on a mid-week evening. The attendees marveled at how well my (their) exercises went. They were afraid that when they tried to same exercises with other people that they would be miserable flops.

I told them of the magic. The exercises worked because they wanted to be present.

These people were to lead exercises in homes on mid-week nights in rooms of people who wanted to be present so badly that they gave up a weeknight at home in a busy life. Of course the exercises would work - they had the magic.

dgc said...

"People are there because they have chosen to be."

I learned that lesson the hard way - by experience. My managers ask me often enough about the "magic" in the in-house training I do for them. They are convinced I have some secret mumbo-jumbo tricks I am jealously guarding.

Many times managers force staff into a class I teach. I learned quickly that many did not want to be there, believing they already knew the material or that they didn't have the time or for any other reason they might think of

So the rule I set up for my managers is that when I teach a course I need to have the list of attendees ready with enough time so I can talk to them beforehand. The pre-talk allows me to determine if the person signed up really wants to be in the class; it helps me in many other ways too: managing expectations, finding out what people are interested in relating to the subject matter. If someone doesn't want to be in the class or doesn't have the time they are excused.

One of the worst classes I led had 4 out of 16 attendees who didn't want to be there. It really hurt the class for everyone.

My courses get a lot of very positive feedback. But I know it isn't me that is the entire source of that positive experience. I also get lots of good suggestions on ways to change things up because people are energized. I am always looking for ways to improve things and have learned to be fearless in trying new things.

My managers however are still looking for that rabbit up my sleeve. Maybe it would help if one of them actually sat in on a course. But naturally they tell me they don't me to teach them anything - that is except for my magic tricks.

There must be magic tricks.