This is where the magic happens

We were running a ‘campaign room’ event last week when someone used the phrase “so this is where the magic happens”. He meant it in a positive way. People were there to do some thinking on an important issue. He was hoping for a breakthrough – to come away from the day with fresh insights and agreed actions that didn’t appear possible at the start.

We liked the phrase so we’ll ‘steal it with pride’. Magic can be associated with trickery, using smoke and mirrors, trying to fool others. But we like to think of it as getting surprising results, achieving a bit of a wow - and getting those results while having fun, maybe even some excitement at the moment it all happens.

Of course, it’s not really magic. The magician has knowledge, skills and an ability to work with the audience. You may have seen Penn and Teller, the well-know US pair who have made a career from doing some great magic and then showing people how they did it:

They reveal the secrets. Other magicians don’t like it. What’s interesting though, is that even after you’ve seen how they do it, it’s still impressive. They manage to keep the ‘wow’ because now you really are impressed with their skill.

You could try and learn some of their tricks. But why not also learn how to apply the same disciplines that they do in creating the magic? You need to:

  1. Ponder – what is the concept, what do you want to pull off, what challenges do you face in making it work? Is it new (no-one has done this before) or is at a fresh take on something others have already seen before?
  2. Plan – think of the steps needed to make things happen. Look at the problem from a variety of perspectives until you can see what to do. Build on what has worked before – or steal with pride from what you’ve seen others do. Include some fresh ideas for doing things differently.
  3. Pilot – try it out. Experiment with different approaches to get the tricky bits working well. Get feedback from others to get a sense of what impact you’re going to have.
  4. Perfect – learn from what works and what’s hard. Refine your thinking. Be sure things are robust before you commit to going any further.
  5. Practice – you’re confident that it will work, now you need to get ready for the first show. Rehearse the routine as many times as needed to make it look effortless and compelling. Look in the mirror and be honest with yourself – is it good enough?
  6. Perform – it’s the big first night. Get into the right frame of mind. Be confident. Remember what you’ve practiced. Enjoy!
  7. Praise – the audience loved it. Smile and acknowledge the cheering.

You can apply these same principles at work: in developing a new product, in improving customer service, in reducing costs while maintaining quality. You can also use these steps to improve your own performance. Or to get your team working better together.

You never know, others might think you’ve worked a bit of magic.

Challenging conversation coming up?

It’s one of the hardest things to do in business. You’re not happy with something and you need to decide how you are going to intervene. It means having a challenging conversation with someone – your boss, your colleague, your customer.

This is where your skills as an influencer really come to the fore. Where your contribution can make a big difference. What you choose to do will have implications; for the immediate situation but also for future relationships. How you deal with it will also affect how you feel about yourself either as a leader or a part of the organisation.

In these situations, we often recommend to people that they draw on the options in the diagram below.

This draws largely on the relational work of John Heron with elements from Richard Beckhard’s work on achieving change.

It offers you a number of choices in deciding how to influence the situation.

The first choice is whether to intervene or not. If you have no or little chance of controlling what happens, it may be best to park the issue and wait to see what emerges.

Where you think you have a chance of making a difference, you have a choice between two sorts of approach: facilitative or authoritative.

Facilitative conversations can involve being:

  • supportive (eg showing empathy, looking for opportunities to help where that would help resolve things)
  • catalytic (eg allowing or enabling alternative actions, asking powerful questions like “what would you do if you couldn’t fail?”)
  • cathartic (eg lending a listening ear, trying to understand root causes, asking what they are feeling).

Taking an authoritative stance entails:

  • informing (eg providing relevant data)
  • prescribing (eg telling the person what to do)
  • confronting (eg drawing attention to unwanted behaviours).

While there is no single best approach (you should consider the pros and cons of each), starting with a facilitative intervention can be a good way to build a collaborative solution to the problem where the other person feels empowered to make changes.

Avoiding an early rush to prescribing can help avoid heightening tensions (but can also be the best way to quickly resolve issues that would otherwise get out of hand needlessly).

Usually the hardest choice is to confront and how to do it. If you can muster the courage, the goal should be to avoid either pussyfooting (and not dealing with the issue) or clobbering (and coming down too hard). A well-proven method is to:

  • start what you say with an ‘I…’ statement (to get across how you are feeling about the situation or how it is having an effect on you)
  • followed by some humour (eg perhaps making light of yourself having done something similar) or, if that is hard to imagine, at least some humility (“I’m not perfect either”)
  • finishing with a question which aims to draw the person you are confronting into a constructive dialogue (eg “is that how you see it?” or “what could we do to improve

If you’re interested in personal coaching on these techniques (perhaps rehearsing a difficult conversation you’ve got to have), email us on

Get a WOW from your reports and presentations?

Our Brilliant Thinking course helps you make a big impact with your presentations and reports. You can find details here.

All the places on the April course are now taken. If you’re interested in places on future courses in June, September and November, please email us at letting us know which months would be good for you to attend.

A productive and thought provoking course which made me think about how I think. I will definitely make the effort to put it into practice (especially if I know you will be ringing to check on my progress!). I liked the way it all came together at the end for me, when I had a chance to put the ideas into practice on a real presentation I was working on.
Claire Lilley, Senior Policy Adviser, Which?

An academic at a structured thinking course? I suppose the slight fear might be not so much 'embarrassing bodies' as embarrassing minds. However it was fantastic. Great people, 2 days of mental stimulation and fun. I've already helped others with the new skills I learned! I am puzzled why we don’t teach thinking skills at Cambridge.
~ S
tephen Peake, Senior Lecturer in Climate Change and Sustainability, Open University / Judge Business School

The best course I have been on in the past 5 years.
~ Ahmed Mohamed, BT

Want more good ideas?

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Here is a round-up of some of the recent entries.

Polaroid passions

We were dismayed a couple of years ago to learn that Polaroid instant cameras were being discontinued and the special film for them was going out of production. So we’re delighted that a new consortium has brought them back to life.

I remember when my parents bought one like this around 1975. The magic of the film coming out immediately followed by putting it in a metal jacket to warm under your armpit to help it develop (the instruction booklet told you to). It was leading-edge for its time.

Amazingly, they are still hugely popular more than 40 years after being launched.

Why? The quirkiness of how you use it, the look and feel of the paper, the white border around the picture, the way the image emerges in front of your eyes, the fact that you have something permanent in your hands (would you rip a photo up as easily as delete a digital one?).

Photographers, artists and designers experiment with heat or chemicals to create interesting effects as the picture develops. They are de rigueur for certain fashionistas in the media industries. We even take them to client events as everyone enjoys using them to help build a record of the time together.

It’s not easy to come up with products and services that will command this amount of affection and loyalty across generations (people will now pay for film that costs more than £1 per shot). But the passion around Polaroid can inspire us to be different, to be useful, to be memorable and to offer some fun.

Obscuring changes the picture

The work on Kings Cross station carries on apace.

A bit of covering and suddenly a different view – radically so in certain lights!

What we obscure matters.

Selling science sustainably

The New Scientist magazine offers some interesting observations on the recent debate about climate change science in its lead editotrial ( and main article ( These:

- reaffirm the basic conclusions of the science on the causes of climate change

- propose sustainability as the big overarching theme of our time (of which climate is a part) - warn against an ‘anti-human stance’

- insist that the scientific and public debate should be balanced with all evidence given fair weighing and treatment (and that doom mongering has the opposite effect to that desired by those who do it)

- highlight that governments wanting detailed forecasts of the possible impacts on their own countries has led to many questionable forecasts of what climate change will lead to (especially short-term over the next 10-20 years)

- take a positive view of the Earth’s ‘nine lives’ in being able to accommodate mankind (even though the article points out that three of the boundaries have been crossed already).

It’s a shift from a lot of the positioning and language around selling the science of climate change and sustainability that has been to the fore over the last few years.

Most of the thinking around helping humans change (whether as individuals or for organisational life) stress the need both to understand what is really going on now and to find a positive way to plan for the future.

It’s a message for us all in everything we do to be honest about what we know, what we don’t know, what we think might happen and what we can start to do to make things different.

Modern contrasts

In less than hour from rural calm to urban chic.

Contrasts and contrasting assumptions about Modernity…

The ubiquitous Post-It

The Post-It is everywhere (here in a hip converted factory as part of the Shoreditch House private members club in east London).

Yet its ubiquity, as a tool for facilitation and managing the thinking at meetings, means that it is no longer a fresh way to work in many contexts. It sometimes attracts opprobrium. Increasingly so.

We have a pad of post-its with the words “oh no, not another learning experience” printed on the top of each!

Yet, the alternative stuffy Boardroom-style meeting is tolerated despite its low utility.


Is your strategy working?

Finding a taxi around Elephant and Castle in south London has often proved hard.

Until yesterday, when one came along the road as I stepped out of a meeting. Chatting to the driver, I mentioned the challenge of finding a cab there. He said he went up that road regularly every day. Having dropped a passenger in central London or the City, his strategy is to return to the King’s Road in west London via Blackfriars Bridge and Lambeth. And it works. He never has any problem “making his money”. Other cabbies, he said, often sit on ranks in the City for half an hour waiting for a fare to come along.

Everyone needs a strategy. If you are a high-tech company, are you going to licence your IP, provide a service or become a product company? If you are a hospital, how are you going to continue making life better for patients in the face of funding pressures?

Without a strategy, achieving your goals is just luck. How is your strategy working?

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Make sure your change is an improvement

Changing polarities

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