There's a guy in a black suit and bolo tie in the high desert of northern New Mexico who's trying to make magic. Or "magicness," as he sometimes calls it, betraying his inner consultant. His name is Marshall Monroe, and he's got big-time magic cred, having dreamed up out-there theme-park attractions for 14 years at
Magic, Monroe observes, "is an action of moving from the ether into reality, a transformation. Something that never existed suddenly appears." The result is something we recognize immediately. "You leave a show, or use a product, and say, 'That was just incredibly awesome!' As humans, we understand when that happens—it's touching us in a sensory and intuitive way that crosses a threshold." Like, say, when we hurtle at 55 mph into a pool of water and, you know, live.
Do you believe in magic? (In a young girl's heart? If the music is groovy?) It's tempting not to. For as often as big-company CEOs espouse bromides about innovation, there's still a global shortage of pixie dust. Too much of what passes for creativity turns out to be small-scale rip-offs and design tweaks. (When we went from two to three razor blades, that was a "wow!" moment. By five blades, the thrill had passed.)
Monroe is no household-name guru; his firm, Marshall Monroe Magic, is a solo shop headquartered in an orchard. But his thinking, sometimes eccentric, is nonetheless an antidote to sameness and safeness. Everything he knows about business he learned in amusement parks, creating experiences that made people's hearts move faster—or, better, just moved them. And what he knows is this: We gain advantage only when we embrace risky breakout ideas. Our survival depends not on sticking to what works but on making leaps that let us predict new challenges and seize on new opportunities. In a connected world, he says, "magic is all that's left."
Monroe is a mechanical engineer, so what makes his work more than flimsy rhetoric is a concrete methodology that turns magic into a discipline, a blueprint for hardwiring magic- making into organizations. He has applied this at, among other clients, the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency (which makes sense if you accept that September 11 ultimately was the result of a failure of imagination).
It starts with the "omnilateral audit" (yes, consultant-speak again), a set of questions that help leaders understand where they are and where they might head. So ask yourself: What would Tom Hanks in the movie Big think about what you're doing? Would the late industrial designer Raymond Loewy love the look of it? (These get at the basic expression of an idea.) Would you invest your own money in this vision? Would Michael Milken? (That is, does it make financial sense?) Is it better just to buy a product, or acquire its manufacturer, than to reinvent it in-house? (What's the competitive landscape?)
Step two: Take stock of your ideas, classifying them by "order of innovation." Monroe calls the first, safest order "blue-door creativity"; for some people, he explains, getting out of the box just means painting their door a color other than brown—that's as much risk as they can tolerate. A higher order of innovation forces us to change strategy, but not the whole business. In the highest order, of course, are the truly transformative ideas—the ones that make you think, "Hey! I could lose my job for this!" Like creating a school that works like a trade show, where students visit teachers in booths and choose which ones they want to learn from. Monroe actually worked up that one with architects at the Albuquerque firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini. "Most of our clients present us with problems of today," says principal Dale Dekker. "The ability to make those leaps from what is to what could be, that forces us out of our usual approach."
Actually making the leaps, of course, is another matter. When transformation is required, Monroe says, "you have these kicking-and-screaming" moments. "Anytime you move from one state to another, you have a class of people who are so excited they can't believe it, and another class who think the world is coming to an end—which in a way, it is."
A few years back, Monroe helped New Mexico governor Bill Richardson create a film and digital-media industry out of whole cloth, playing off the state's existing scientific and artistic communities. Coming up with the magical vision was one thing, but the real trick was getting buy-in for various economic incentives from legislators, media, and the public. It took months of advertising and old-fashioned jawboning, much of it by Richardson himself, to sell the story. "Making magic," deadpans Eric Witt, Richardson's director of legislative affairs, "is a lot of hard work, in my experience."
Which is to say, there may be nothing magic about it.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.