After two years on eBay’s Disruptive Innovation team, I feel that I can safely draw parallels between “innovation teams” and unicorns. The comparison may be more apt than you expect.
1) they are supposed to magically cure ills
Both unicorns and innovation teams can supposedly bring you back from the brink of death and are generally a panacea for all that ails you. While innovation teams can help aspects of your public and internal image and process, nothing is a cure-all.
2) everybody wants one
Of course everyone wants one, who wouldn’t want a stable of shining unicorns and a team of innovators? As if to say, “we’re so good at what we normally do, we’ve got resources to spare on even MORE incredible stuff!”
3) you can waste a lot of time trying to catch one
Unicorns are elusive, as are truly innovative product managers, engineers and strategists. The best way you can attract unicorns and innovative employees is to find the very first one, then showcase how well that unicorn innovator is treated and what a big pasture with yummy grass you’ve given it. Those of like mind will come out of the woodwork, from many different lands. Don’t bang your head looking in all the “right” places, often those who have been successful in the past with your company are precisely not the people you want helping you build the future.
4) they are really just horses with an extra horn
When the day is done, unicorns are just horses with a horn, and an innovation team is still a team filled with employees who are still people. 90-95% of the “regular” work in managing a team, planning for its future, and staffing it will be the same. Yes, your innovators may be geniuses in their own right, but even geniuses need the right budget, equipment, resources, dedication to process, checkpoints, incentives, and objectives. Neglecting an innovation team filled with unicorns is perhaps more damaging than having no team at all. Because seriously, who punches unicorns?
5) they don’t do any real work plowing the (existing) fields
Even though unicorns may be just horses with horns, they are not trained to plow fields. Yes, if you train their initial enthusiasm into a workable energy, they can be tremendously productive, but probably in their own separate fields. You didn’t catch unicorns to saddle them next to your existing horses in your existing processes, but you also didn’t grab them simply to show them off. It will take time for you to find how the unicorns of your innovation team work with your existing business process. Do they first plow small fields your trusty Clydesdales will then later enlarge, or sow? Are they vehicles you can ride on, offering your executives a slightly farther view because of the new elevation?
BONUS – everybody expects rainbows to shoot out their end
You want both your unicorns and your innovation team to crap gold coins and litter the ground with promissory notes. These are expectations, but they don’t come without hard work and dedication. The care and feeding of both these mythical creatures is not something to be ignored.
If treated properly, and given the opportunity to interact with Real Business Problems, innovation teams can shoot rainbows for your company. If relegated to the “shiny shiny”, sowing fields distant from any Real Work, you will be impressed by their flowing hair and sparkling teeth, but don’t expect any leprechauns to be vying for your pot ‘o gold.
Questions and comments, jeers and jest always appreciated.
If you can think up additional parallels, please post them as a comment!