Chaos Behind the Magic

“It’s like magic!” a woman says to her family as they sit. “How do they find our table?”

This week I read a fascinating article about Disney’s MagicBand1. The post is packed with gems of revelation, but the big idea centers on the completely “frictionless” experience that MagicBand wearers enjoy before and during their time at the park. Here are a few snippets:

If you’re wearing your Disney MagicBand and you’ve made a reservation, a host will greet you at the drawbridge and already know your name—Welcome Mr. Tanner!

This is by design. The family entered a matrix of technology the moment it crossed the moat, one geared toward anticipating their whims without offering the slightest clue how.

It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please.

I marvel at what Disney has accomplished—their work is truly groundbreaking. What struck me even more than their innovation, though, was the raw (albeit brief) look at how difficult it was for the MagicBand team to make the vision reality.

First, the idea started in 2008 but didn’t become tangible (or “lurch off the work bench,” as the author puts it) until 2010. Even then, the idea took “two years of grinding work transforming a scripted prototype into a real-world performance, then another 18 months rolling it out in the park”. Public tests began in 2013, 5+ years after the initial idea was communicated. Revamping the entire structure of visitor flow at a theme park is no small task, but the MagicBand timeline helped reset my perspective on what it takes to craft something truly great—a concept that serves as a challenging contrast to Silicon Valley’s ‘move fast and break things’ mantra.

Beyond the timeline, though, the author reveals what the team experienced day-to-day:

Tucked away in a vestibule behind the glass, within earshot of those unsuspecting visitors, were 30 or so designers and engineers arrayed at makeshift desks, highly stressed and occasionally hung over from a night spent drowning their frustrations.

“It was just weeks and weeks of long days and traveling to Orlando,” says one consultant who worked on the project. “At the end of day, the only thing to do was drink with the team.”

The room they shared was maddeningly cold because they couldn’t turn off the AC…and messing with that thermostat was tantamount to sending a cash cow to the slaughterhouse. So to make up for it, Disney staffers offered mountains of sweatshirts and blankets and gloves from the park’s many gift shops. Despite the conditions, the work inched forward.

It took one engineer six months to get the tear-away channel just right: It had to be easy to tear, but it couldn’t inadvertently come apart.

Yesterday I was explaining our ‘marketing department’ at The Iron Yard to someone and they were understandably a bit surprised at how far we’d gotten with very little infrastructure, one full time person and two part-time contractors. We’ll be a full-time team of five soon (thank goodness), but all of those hires have happened in 2015. Success hasn’t appeared because anyone is a super-human, we’ve just worked hard, smart and constantly.

I have a tendency to look at great work and project its grandeur on what I imagine is happening behind the scenes. I know now from experience (and examples like the MagicBand) that what goes on backstage oftentimes looks less like the final product and more like a smaller-than-expected team “grinding it out” for a longer-than-expected period of time. I can’t help but picture the Wizard of Oz frantically pushing buttons and pulling levers behind a magnificent external production.

As he often does, Merlin Mann summarizes these types of thoughts in singular, pithy statements (this truism is one of my favorites):

Creative work only seems like a magic trick to people who don’t understand that it’s ultimately still work2.

1. You can read the full story about Disney’s MagicBand on Wired.2. You can read this quote in Merlin Mann’s essay, The Problem with “Feeling Creative” on 43 Folders.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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