Why Good Magicians–and Good Leaders–Have a Plan B

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In card magic, there are a number of secret moves, or “sleights,” that all self-respecting magicians must master. I still remember spending hours, days, and weeks practicing maneuvers like the side pass, the Elmsley count, the glide, and many others. I got fairly good, although my professional magician friends can run circles around me. I was a pretty good amateur, but I was never a master.

Among the sleights is a category called “forces.” These are moves where you give a participant a seemingly free choice in picking a card, but in reality you control which card they pick. And within this category, there are two general types of forces:

  1. Those that are 100% guaranteed and will work each and every time, without fail. The downside is that these forces sometimes look a little convoluted and unnatural.
  2. Those that rely more on psychology and perfect timing on the part of the magician, and work most of the time, but success isn’t guaranteed. The upside is that, when these forces work, they look completely natural.

We’re going to talk about the second category here, because it’s a category that parallels the world that you, as a leader, face every day.

See, the question that’s probably going through your head—and the question that goes through the magician’s head—regarding category #2 is, “What happens if they pick the wrong card?”

In other words, “What happens if the plan doesn’t work?”

The answer depends on what kind of a magician you are. If you’re a bad magician, you get flustered, start sweating profusely, and tell the participant how stupid they are because they did it wrong.

If you’re a good magician, however, you already have a Plan B. In fact, you have several of them. Some of the options are:

  • switch to another trick that doesn’t require you to know which card they’ve picked
  • have them use the card they did pick as a “selector” card to then force the original card
  • have them look at the card and return it to the deck, at which point you control the card to a place in the deck where you can glimpse it to find out its identity and then proceed as if they had picked the original force card

Note that in none of these options is the participant made to feel like they screwed up or did something wrong.

Now, think of the participant as your customer or client. You want them to take a certain action, you expect them to take a certain action. That action could be:

  • returning a signed contract to you by a particular date
  • placing the same order they’ve placed, like clockwork, every month for the past six years
  • inviting you to bid on their latest project

But what if they don’t? What if they do something different? What if they pick the wrong card?

Do you have a Plan B? Do you have several of them? In other words, do you have options?

A good magician knows the craft so well that he or she can improvise a solution. Do you know your craft—your industry, your products, your basic skills—so well that you can lead a “wrong card” situation to a successful solution? And can you do it without making the customer feel like they did something wrong?

To put it another way: When it comes to your job as a leader, are you a pretty good amateur…or are you a master?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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