I like baseball. I can’t tell you the number of times I have spent the afternoon listening to a game and hearing the announcers expound on batting averages and on-base percentages as I puttered around the house. As someone with a background in quantitative analysis, I understand that the chances of a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning by a player that has not hit a home run in the major league are small. However, in my mind’s eye, I can see the event happening and even believe that because I am listening that it will occur. This example is one form of magical thinking. Magical thinking occurs when we attribute a causal or synchronistic relationship between actions or events that can’t be justified by reason and observation. The current business environment means that innovation and magical thinking are often intertwined. Innovation without the ground game of implementation and continuous improvement is magical thinking.
Innovation, by definition, represents a substantial deviation from the thought processes of the past. For example, Scrum and Extreme Programming (XP) are seen as innovations when compared to waterfall software development. Both are considered revolutionary, and when (and often if) adopted required substantial organizational transformations. Organizational change is rarely easy; therefore, innovations are rarely adopted whole, but rather reflect step-wise transformations. Kent Beck in Extreme Programing Explained, Second Edition (2005) exposed the values of improvement and baby steps. Once an innovation is identified it need to be implemented and then improved upon. Believing that an innovation in its own right will change or save any organization is simply magical thinking. Any innovation is only useful if it is USED and delivers value.
Even today, organizations consider Scrum, XP, and other Agile frameworks to be innovations under the “if it is new to me, it is new” mantra. Regardless of the difficulty defending that definition of innovation, any organizations that think that they can “adopt” Agile without addressing implementation will up-end the status quo causing disruptions and dislocations. The Agile transformation fails because the bridge between innovation and value is defined by some sort of magical thinking. Several years ago I was having a drink with a friend on Broadway in New York City. The friend was describing a new innovative development framework his firm was adopting. When I asked how it was going to be implemented, I was told that the CEO had mandated its use AND because it was so cool everybody would want to use it. That was the whole implementation plan. Simply put, he had fallen prey to magical thinking. Within six months both the framework and he were not with the firm. Agile thinking has reinforced the idea that getting quickly started, generating feedback and then reacting to the feedback reduces risk and generates value quickly. Unless you have the luxury to implement an innovative idea, concept or product in a new organization without a past, just hoping that something will happen won’t generate change.
In 1932 Frank Whittle was granted a patent for the turbojet. Using the current state and predictability attributes noted in Innovation and Change, the turbojet was certainly not business as usual and could not be predicted from past events. Whittle’s work was an innovation; however, due to testing and development issues, the RAF dismissed the idea prior to World War 2. The introduction of the jet fell to others. Innovation did not translate to competitive advantage because of a failure in implementation. Innovation is an important step on the path to competitive advantage; however, it is simply a step. Unless innovation is combined with an implementation, we are just dealing with magical thinking.