Does magic have a role in design and innovation?

I’ve been reading Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, in which police constable Peter Grant stumbles upon the world of magic. As a wizard in training he starts service in a special unit of the Metropolitan Police and attempts to make sense of the esoteric and weird world of magic. Along the way he, and we, learn there are rules of what can and can’t be done, ways in which the physical world interacts and reacts. In other words, as Arthur C Clarke’s said, “magic is science we don’t understand yet.”

As an anthropologist, I am familiar with the interplay between magic and science and the seemingly divergent realms of rational scientific process and causality through magical association. Often the lines between them are not so distinct as we might like to believe that they are. The same holds true In business, where the belief that following certain (rational) processes, steps or frameworks will, by (magical) association, lead to desired results.

For example, many start-ups are following frameworks that espouse forms of quick launches and learning along the way. This can be, and often is, a powerful tool for surfacing and testing business assumptions without high investment. However, the basic process is not by itself a formula for success. I experienced this first hand last December as a customer of one of these start-ups. I was drawn in by ads on Facebook for a custom made product I was sure my sister in-law would like. After some consideration, and an emailing the company with a question, I ordered the product. It was early in the month, and I confirmed that placed my order several days in advance of their advertised cutoff date to receive in time for the holidays. After a few weeks, I started to wonder why I had received no word of the product, and my emails to the company went unanswered. I then noticed that the company’s Facebook page had filled up with unhappy posts from customers like me, wondering what black hole their orders seemed to have fallen into. As the saga evolved, it became clear to me that the company had followed this start-up playbook, and had certainly validated market desire and willingess to pay for their product. What they hadn’t done was work through the actual process of execution and delivery. The magical association of cool product with “see if people are interested” got them as far as finding they had a product people would buy…but didn’t get them the rest of the way toward understanding the broader context of customer expectations and how to appropriately deliver the overall experience.

Our brains long for simplicity, and the assurances that if we follow certain formulas we will get expected results. For better or for worse, the world is messy and complicated. Processes help provide frameworks for navigating this complexity, but they are not magic spells. Rationally, we need to have a view of the entire ecosystem into which a solution will be placed. That ecosystem includes the end users and the environment of usage, as well as the knowledge of the organization which will be building and implementing the solution, agencies who govern the space, and a myriad of other factors. This is not just a challenge for small startups. According to Gartner “While exercises are designed to experiment and ‘fail fast,’ those that do receive approval for implementation involve a level of complexity, scale and business change ramifications that may not have been considered in the initial planning stage.”

Does this mean there is no room for magic in design and innovation? Perhaps not magic by association. The key to using magic is to look for it as inspiration. A few years ago, the design firm Ziba created a promotional video that articulated a new way to transform shipping, through a personal, handheld device that would place a unique mark on packages, connect to mobile apps, and enable frictionless sending of packages. The firm was showcasing their creative thinking and challenging viewers to think about a standard, admittedly boring process in an entirely new way. If they, or anyone else, were then inspired to go down the path of making the solution real, they would find a long path of execution in front of them. This path would most definitely need frameworks and processes to work through, as truly introducing entirely new ways new way of marking and tracking parcels would eventually need into account the regulations and infrastructures already in place with postal and package carriers. But by presenting a vision of what a future world could look like, magical inspiration can propel actions that then take into account all the steps required for execution, and the to navigate the entire ecosystem to get there. Dreaming it isn’t the same as doing it, but it is often the first step on the road to something truly new and different.