Innovation's Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail

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Most books on innovation make it sound as if successful innovation is the end result of a carefully followed recipe. But the simple fact is that when it comes to any new venture, failure is the surest horse to bet on.

Respected pastor and author, Larry Osborne, explains how understanding this dirty little secret behind innovation can bring both stability and creativity to organizations, especially those with teams of people that focus on innovation, creativity, new ideas, and ...

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Innovation's Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail

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Most books on innovation make it sound as if successful innovation is the end result of a carefully followed recipe. But the simple fact is that when it comes to any new venture, failure is the surest horse to bet on.

Respected pastor and author, Larry Osborne, explains how understanding this dirty little secret behind innovation can bring both stability and creativity to organizations, especially those with teams of people that focus on innovation, creativity, new ideas, and problem-solving. Using the wisdom and principles found in this book, you will be free to lead dynamically without causing uncertainty or insecurity in your organization.

In Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret, you’ll learn:

  • How to foster innovation’s most powerful igniters and accelerators while avoiding the most common killers of innovation
  • How to recognize and break through ceilings of complexity and competency
  • The six pitfalls of growth and what you can do to avoid them
  • The three questions every leader needs to ask before launching any new endeavor
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  • Innovation's Dirty Little Secret
    Innovation's Dirty Little Secret  

Product Details

Meet the Author

Larry Osborne is a senior pastor at North Coast Church in northern San Diego County. North Coast is widely recognized as one of the most influential and innovative churches in America. Osborne speaks extensively on the subjects of leadership and spiritual formation. He’s a frequent consultant to non-profit and business leaders. His books include Sticky Teams, Sticky Church, The Unity Factor, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe, Spirituality for the Rest of Us, and Accidental Pharisees. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Oceanside, California.
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Read an Excerpt

Innovation's Dirty Little Secret

why serial innovators succeed where others fail

By Larry Osborne


Copyright © 2013 Larry Osborne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-49450-8



The One Thing Leadership Gurus Will Never Tell You

Innovation has a secret, a dirty little secret.

Those who extol the necessity of innovation seldom mention it. They try to sweep it under the rug or tuck it away in the closet. They ignore it in the hope that it will just go away. Yet its shadow looms over every attempt we make to break out of the box and try something new.

Make no mistake. If you have dreams of blazing new trails or championing major changes, this dirty little secret will smack you upside the head before you're done. You can't avoid it. It's the dark side of the creative process.

What is the dirty little secret of innovation?

It's simply this: most innovations fail.

They always have. And they always will.

It doesn't matter whether we're talking about a new product, a new program, or a new process. It can be a new company or even a new church. When it comes time to start something new or make a major change, the surest horse you can bet on is the one called Failure.

You'd never know this if you listen to the people who write and speak about leadership and innovation. They often make it sound as if out-of-the-box thinking, burn-the-boats risk-taking, and gutsy leadership are all it takes to win the race and rise to the top.

But despite the great press and sizzle that surrounds the idea of innovation, the fact is that most attempts at innovation and major change crash and burn. Even organizations and leaders who are famous for cutting-edge, innovative strategies have a far longer list of failures than successes.

Now I'm not saying that all of our great ideas are doomed to failure. I'm not saying that change and innovation are too dangerous to try at home. And I'm certainly not suggesting that change and innovation are unimportant or unnecessary.

No, the pundits are right. If we fail to innovate and change, we eventually will lose the race. We'll fall to the bottom of the pile and slide into organizational irrelevance.

But that doesn't change the truth that innovation always carries significant risks. Failure is far more common than most aspiring leaders realize and far more likely than the zealous advocates of innovation are willing to admit.

In fact, failure is an integral part of the change process.


Imagine for a moment that you had tons of money to invest when the combustible engine was first invented. Now imagine that you also had the foresight to grasp how profoundly it would alter the way we live, spawning new industries and radically changing our global culture, creating new pockets of enormous wealth.

Since you couldn't know which specific businesses would rise to the top, you probably would have "wisely" invested as broadly as possible in as many of the new automotive companies as you could find.

But if you had done this, you would have gone flat broke. Rather quickly, because almost all of the innovative startups in the automobile industry went belly up.

The same is true of the airline industry. While manned flight has profoundly changed the way we live, if you had invested money in all of the early airline companies, you'd have nothing to show for it today. Most of them went under. Very few made any significant profits.

Ditto for the internet. It's an understatement to say that the internet has changed everything. But those who jumped in too quickly and invested in everything that looked remotely promising lost everything.


As always happens, innovation's evil twin showed up to crash the party. Despite its game-changing potential and all the talk about a new economy with a new set of rules, the old rules prevailed. And most of the bleeding-edge early adopters and the first-to-market companies (the darlings of the investment community) crashed and burned.


So if failure is such an integral part of innovation and change, why even bother with it at all? Why does something so wrought with pain and disappointment get such good press?

One reason is the influence of a niche industry that has become big business. Billions are spent each year on seminars, training events, and books that promise success to leaders (and pretty much anyone else) who are willing to take a big risk to try something radically new.

If you want to fill a room, sell lots of books, and charge up the troops, it's counterproductive to point to a high failure rate. In fact, it's a guaranteed way to cut down on sales and limit speaking engagements. So no one talks about it. Instead, the motivational gurus focus on stories of against-all-odds success and ignore the many casualties along the way.

A second reason why innovation gets such good press is that most failures aren't all that spectacular or important. We never hear about them because they aren't newsworthy. A huge percentage of new initiatives never even get off the ground, and among the few that do, many crash and burn with little fanfare.


Because if these failures aren't connected with our company or our employer (or something that makes the national news), we aren't likely to notice them.

The same holds true for new businesses, church plants, and other startups. There are countless failures. Think of the trendy new clothing store in the local mall. It used to be a Chinese takeout. Before that, it was a boutique wine shop. Each of these changes represents a failed dream, a likely bankruptcy, and a ton of heartache and soul searching. But if it wasn't our dream, our bankruptcy, or our heartache, we aren't likely to have noticed.

A third reason why innovation gets such good press is simply human nature. We don't like to think about negative things, even if they're inevitable. How many people do you know who adequately plan and prepare for their death? The odds that we will die are astronomical. But most of us would rather not think about this inevitability—at least not right now.

It's the same with failures of innovation and leadership. They surround us. But we'd rather not think about them. We chalk up the failures of others to foolish ideas, bad planning, or inept leadership. We think we are different. We can't imagine the possibility that the changes we champion and the great ideas we have just might not be so great after all. We're sure that our ideas will succeed where others have failed.

This helps to explain why the dirty little secret of failure remains such a well-kept secret. Motivational gurus don't want us to think about it. And even though failure is incredibly common, most of these failures don't hit close enough to home to notice. On top of that, we'd rather not think about it—or plan for it. It's not as exciting and sexy as dreaming and thinking about our latest idea for the next big thing.

Yet that raises an important question, the question that drives this book: how is it that some people and organizations seem to defy the odds?

How is that some folks successfully innovate and change time after time? How do they overcome their failures? How do they maximize their successes? What is it that sets them apart? What do they know—and what do they do—that others don't?



Why You Shouldn't Trust Everything Innovators Tell You about Innovation

Some innovators are one-hit wonders. They're like a band with a catchy tune that goes viral. They score a huge success and then are never heard from again.

Consider the infamous "pet rock." In 1975, Gary Dahl and his friends sat in a bar grumbling about their high-maintenance pets. Out of their grumbling, Dahl came up with the idea for a new pet—a pet rock. It would never need to be groomed, fed, or cared for. It would never get sick, disobey, or die. When Gary took his idea to market, it proved to be incredibly popular, selling more than 1.5 million units. Unfortunately, that was the last great idea he had. After the success of the pet rock, Gary's ideas weren't so successful.

Sometimes an innovation succeeds because it's so novel and off the wall that it gains instant notoriety. But the problems with this kind of innovation are that it's hard to repeat, it doesn't take long for the novelty to wear off, and it's usually easy to duplicate. So it seldom translates to long-term success.

I once read about an innovative high school basketball coach who came up with the ultimate end-of-the-game play. Trailing by one point, with only a couple of seconds left on the clock, his team had the ball out of bounds. With one player stationed near the basket, he had the others run to the free throw line and suddenly drop to their knees and begin barking like dogs at the top of their lungs. As the other team turned to stare in disbelief, the ball was passed to the one player left standing under the basket. He caught it and easily made the game-winning shot.

Now that may be a great example of thinking outside the box (and barely within the rules). But I guarantee you, no matter how innovative and successful the coach's ploy might have been the first time, it had little chance of succeeding the next time the two teams met.

Some innovators and innovations are like that. They perfectly fit the time, place, and situation. They're incredibly successful. But it's a one-time deal. It can't be pulled off a second time.


There is another kind of innovator at the opposite end of the spectrum. These folks aren't one-hit wonders. Instead, they pull off multiple innovations and major changes seemingly without a hitch. They are what we might call "serial innovators."

When you see them from a distance, they appear to defy the odds. They seem to be immune to failure. But that's just not true. The truth is that they are just like the rest of us. They head down plenty of dead ends. They have lots of failures.

But they also have a special genius that keeps their failures from becoming fatal. And it's not what most people think. Their success is not found in their ability to avoid failure. It's found in their ability to minimize the impact of failure.

They have learned to fail forward—or at least sideways. They seldom fail backward. And even when they do, they know how to navigate the choppy waters of a failed innovation in a way that preserves the long-term credibility of their organization and leadership.

We'll see how they do that in a later chapter. But first, let's take a look at why it's incredibly difficult for most of us to learn much from these successful serial innovators. Contrary to what we might expect, many of them are clueless as to how they pull it off.

If you ask them for guidance on the topic of innovation, many of them will give you terrible advice. They will tell you to do all the wrong things. It's not that they are trying to mislead. It's not that they are frauds. The problem is that they are "unconscious competents." They do all the right things without being aware of how or why they do them.


When you ask an unconscious competent for the secret to his success, he'll tell you what he thinks he does, not what he actually does. It's similar to what a natural athlete does when he picks up a ball and instinctively makes the right move or throws the right pass.

Unconscious competents see and do things at a subconscious level far better than most of us could do with months of practice and preparation. They also usually have no idea that much of what they see and do is foreign and unnatural to everyone else. Which explains why they make great teammates, but lousy coaches.

I remember as a young man reading an article by one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He claimed that hitting the ball was relatively simple. All you had to do was watch for the spin of the seams to determine what kind of pitch it was, and then you just hit the ball based on the spin.

So I went out and tried his advice. It didn't work. I had no idea how the seams were spinning. I couldn't even see the seams. In fact, I could hardly see the ball. It was coming at me way too fast.

Not long afterward, I heard another former player being interviewed on the radio. He said he couldn't pick up the spin of the seams either. When he tried, the ball ended up in the catcher's mitt. Yet he was still able to hit a baseball well enough to have a lengthy career in the major leagues.

The truth is that despite what one of the greatest hitters of all time may have thought, his ability to hit a baseball involved far more than simply picking up the spin of the ball and hitting it. It also demanded incredibly quick hands, great balance, proper weight transfer, arm extension, an accurate knowledge of the strike zone, and a host of other things I could never get the hang of. But all of these things came so naturally to him that he hardly noticed them. Instead, he credited his success to something that actually had very little to do with his success.

Many of the most innovative and creative leaders do the same thing. Because they are unconsciously competent, they spout clichés about believing in themselves, taking huge risks, and making wild leaps of faith.

All the while, the real key to their success is not found in any of these things. It's not found in taking massive risks. It's not found in radical leaps of faith. What enables them to succeed is their instinctive and unconscious ability to know which risks are worth taking and what to do when things don't go as planned. But if you ask them to describe how they do it, they credit their success to something unrelated.

It dawned on me years later that the superstar who claimed that hitting a baseball was a relatively easy task still failed to get a hit more than 65 percent of the time. To this day, that statistic gives me a warped sense of encouragement. It reminds me that hitting a baseball—like successful innovation—isn't nearly as easy as some of the experts make it out to be.


Fortunately, there is another class of serial innovator. These are the innovators who are successful at innovating time after time and also know why and how they are successful. They are what I call "conscious competents."

Unlike unconscious competents, these innovators are self-aware. They know what they are doing and why they are doing it. And unlike the theorists and researchers who study and write about innovation, but have never pulled it off themselves, they know firsthand the nuances of innovating and leading change in the real world.

Ironically, conscious competents, while they are successful, are seldom "Hall of Fame successful." More often than not, they have more in common with a professional golfer's swing coach than the top money winner on the PGA tour. A good swing coach is almost always an excellent golfer in his own right. But unlike the superstar on the tour, the swing coach had to work a little harder at mastering the fundamentals in order to make the cut.

Frankly, that's my own story. Though I've had a great deal of success in my chosen field, these successes came neither quickly nor easily. In fact, during my first three years at the church I pastor, attendance increased by a total of one person. For those of you who are mathematically challenged, that's one-third of a person per year. Inspiring indeed.

During that time, just about every innovation and change I instituted failed. Along the way, I paid more than my share of "dumb taxes." But I also learned not to make the same mistake twice. And I carefully watched and learned as others made mistakes. I learned the fundamentals.

Eventually, the church took off. From a small group meeting in a high school cafeteria, we grew into one of the largest churches in America, gaining a reputation for innovation, organizational health, and national influence.

Then a strange thing happened. A steady stream of nonprofit and for-profit business leaders began seeking my advice. Seeing our growth and the success we had handling the many transitions that came with it, they asked for help navigating the choppy waters of their own rapid growth, looking for counsel as they sought to innovate and make major organizational changes of their own.

Excerpted from Innovation's Dirty Little Secret by Larry Osborne. Copyright © 2013 Larry Osborne. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Part 1 HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY....................          

1. MOST INNOVATIONS FAIL....................     17     

2. UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENTS....................     21     

3. IT'S ALL BETWEEN THE EARS....................     27     

4. EXIT STRATEGIES....................     33     

Part 2 IGNITING INNOVATION....................          

5. BEYOND AVANT-GARDE....................     41     

6. INNOVATION'S MOST POWERFUL IGNITERS....................     47     

Part 3 ACCELERATING INNOVATION....................          

7. WHY MISSION STATEMENTS MATTER....................     55     

8. A BIAS FOR ACTION....................     63     

9. A RESPECTED CHAMPION....................     71     

10. PLANNING IN PENCIL....................     78     

Part 4 SABOTAGING INNOVATION....................          

11. THE HIGH PRICE OF FAILURE....................     87     

12. GROUPTHINK....................     96     

13. SURVEYS....................     103     

14. PAST SUCCESSES....................     109     

Part 5 BREAKOUT DECISIONS....................          

15. WHEN YOU'VE HIT THE WALL....................     119     

16. BREAKING THROUGH....................     127     

17. CHANGING THE RULES....................     134     

18. CHANGING TRADITIONS....................     141     

Part 6 WHY VISION MATTERS....................          

19. THE POLAROID PRINCIPLE....................     149     

20. CREATING AND SUSTAINING VISION....................     156     

Part 7 A LEGACY OF INNOVATION....................          

21. IT'S NOT ABOUT US....................     165     

Acknowledgments....................     173     

Notes....................     174     

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 19, 2013

    Innovation.  It's what creates repeatedly successful leaders.  Y

    Innovation.  It's what creates repeatedly successful leaders.  You know the one's I'm talking about.  The leader who has success again and again and again.

    What is it that sets that kind of leader apart from the ones who have one good idea, or maybe two?


    And when you understand it, you have the potential to become a serial innovator.  But gaining an understanding isn't as common as you'd think.

    Innovation's Dirty Little Secret is Larry Osborne's newest book, digging deep into the intricacies of innovation, helping us understand it better.  From the very beginning, Osborne sets up up to gain insights into the concept of innovation that most leaders never grasp.  To start off, the first four chapters deal with creating an exit strategy.

    Wait.  What?

    An exit strategy may be the most important part of understanding how serial innovators succeed continually.  Knowing when something isn't working, and having the ability and the courage to abandon it when it isn't working is a key element to creating repeat successes.  Once you have an exit strategy in place, you are free to lead without fear, knowing that if something doesn't work, you can redirect your focus easily.

    With that in place, igniting innovation, and creating an atmosphere where it accelerates is relatively easy.  It still requires effort and work to keep things flowing, but it's much easier to come up with great ideas when you accept that many of the ideas you have aren't the great ones.  You can be more relaxed, knowing that you can let go of mediocrity and focus on greatness.

    Osborne directs his attention next to some of the things that sabotage innovation, and how to regain momentum when you stumble.  And finally, to wrap things up, he spends a couple of chapters discussing the idea of vision, and how it relates to mission and innovation.  These are perhaps the most important chapters in the book, and are regrettably short.

    Although the idea of innovation is not a concrete concept, and is instead more abstract in nature, Larry Osborne has helped his readers to understand the idea more fully.  Easy to read and full of excellent insights, Innovation's Dirty Little Secret is a book that will seriously help you reach the next level in successful leadership.Disclosure of Material Connection: 

    I received this book free from Cross Focused Media as part of their Cross Focused Reviews blogger review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2013

    This book provides some good common sense advice for leaders in

    This book provides some good common sense advice for leaders in the corporate and church world. Thus, pastors can learn from this book. But there is a caveat. I write this review as one who served as a former military officer and currently serving as pastor. At times I am uncomfortable with some of the language that is used because it can draw attention away from the true nature of the Church.

    The good sections in this book regard the “business” end of leading in the church. Thus, most of the ideas are corporate oriented, very practical and useful. From that perspective, Chapter “Have and Exit Strategy” and “Why Vision Matters” are most useful for church leaders. Chapter questions focus the reader on application.

    Observing pastors for many years, I find that when we plan something, it is obviously the best, maybe “God’s will.” But such presumption can not only hinder current plans for the church, it can blind us to faulty logic and dead ends. 

    “Have an Exit Strategy” offers a planning alternative to avoid dead ends and cramping future plans in church activity. The best advice is the subsection: “Never Make a Change When You Can Conduct an Experiment.” As the author notes, “Unfortunately, this is a hard concept for many leaders and organizations to grasp” (p. 35).

    Another helpful insight comes in the “Igniting Innovation” section, namely the difference between artistic and organizational innovation. “The unfortunate byproduct is confusion: it encourages leaders and organizations to take risks and behave in ways that are perfectly appropriate for artists, but foolhardy for leaders of organizations” (p. 44). Thus, something looks flashy, innovative, challenging may not be the solution for the pastor, church leaders. Good advice for church leaders.

    Part 4 (“Sabotaging Innovation”) in the book shows the negative aspects of leadership pitfalls and failure. Sometimes in churches we are blind to the destructive effects of leadership failures. One of the weaknesses of the chapter is that the focus is on failure, but within the Church, there is another critical factor: forgiveness and restoration. This does not excuse or worse encourage leadership failures, but it is the heart of what the Church is. Interestingly in contrast the Part on Breakout Decisions highlights that the “two new keys to reaching the current culture: authenticity and compassion” (p. 125). 

    The “Champion” mentality seems to contradict the earlier advice: avoid the “curse of hype” (pp. 90ff.). As for pastors serving congregations, this book leaves a gap in leadership. Hence my recommendation is a qualified good read. Because… the business side of decision making (even mission statements and vision statements) consumes the the reader’s attention. Much good insights for leaders. So, for the reader, enjoy, learn, but keep that secondary to that which is most important.

    Thanks to Zondervan for a preview copy for an unbiased review.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 13, 2013

    In his book, ¿Innovation¿s Dirty Little Secret,¿ Larry Osborne i

    In his book, “Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret,” Larry Osborne is hard hitting and heart-hitting. This was the first business book that I have read that deals with leadership including church leadership and innovation. So, in fact, it was a blessing to me. I had nothing to compare it with but it really got me to think more about organizational innovation including my own church home in Atlanta.

    Mr. Osborne’s message is helpful to put into perspective why certain innovators succeed and why others fail. A full chapter on “Why Mission Statements Matter” really took me to another level in my quest for understanding mission statement purpose and vision. Mr. Osborne certainly has covered what to do when you hit the wall as a leader. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to know the other side of what others say about the subject of innovation. And, in particular, to pastors and church leaders.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2013

    I am raising and educating my children, and that often requires

    I am raising and educating my children, and that often requires a certain level of innovation: if something’s not working, I’ve got to change it. Learning to innovate, to think outside the box, is an important skill for homeschooling moms.

    However, there is one fact about innovation that the success gurus never mention: most innovation leads to failure. Larry Osborn, a very innovative church leader, knows this and has written Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret: Why Serial Innovators Succeed Where Others Fail to explain how to increase your chances for successful innovation. ...For business, non-profits, and even church and family life, Innovation’s Dirty Little Secret has many helpful ideas about people and change. However, even though the author is a pastor, I cannot recommend his attitude for churches and families. Read my complete review at Tea Time with Annie Kate

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 4, 2013

    Some books have it, and this is one.  "Innovation's Dirty L

    Some books have it, and this is one.  "Innovation's Dirty Little Secret" is replete with leadership insight and a good mix of wit.  I was first introduced to Larry Osborne through the book Sticky Teams (another one I highly recommend), and "Innovation" is an excellent addition to leaders intent on expanding their insight.

    What makes successful innovation elusive is multifaceted.  Some people are against innovation.  Some kill it inadvertently.  Some chase away natural-born innovators to their own detriment.  But most importantly, innovations sometimes fail.  Larry describes these behaviors and facts, and provides a way out.  He demonstrates through well-told stories, common sense, and the wisdom of others that innovation and innovators can be tapped to empower organizations.

    Not all great leaders are innovators, but they know how to mobilize these gifted people.  In the words of Osborne, they use their "position, power, and influence" to catalyze the creative, and this helps to develop an environment of growth and health.  Leaders need to understand who innovators are and what they do to comprehend how their presence causes businesses and churches to flourish.  This is just fascinating stuff.

    Like most of the books that I value and return to (I have already returned to various sections of this book several times), this one has phrases and practices you can implement today to help move your organization to either the next level or to better health.  He lists questions you need to be asking your leaders and priorities and practices you need to adopt.

    If you lead an organization and are needing help in getting unstuck, this book should be in your hands.  5 out of 5 stars.

    I received "Innovation's Dirty Little Secret" in exchange for a review.  I was not required to give a positive review, nor was I compensated in any other way.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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