Posted by: rolfsky | August 6, 2008

5 reasons why innovation teams are like unicorns

Unicorn Sign

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!



  1. Uh, Rolf, what about the fact that unicorns don’t exist? I’m glad you didn’t try to draw a comparison there.

  2. @jsk I figured that I didn’t want to jinx it for myself!

  3. He he, love the unicorns 🙂

    I’ve lead many innovation teams over the past years and I recognize everything you say here. Especially at a large corporation innovation teams are difficult to maintain and be successful. There are always unrealistic desires for pots of gold. But I also saw many unicorns catching the light of the moon because it makes them glow very nicely. And then failing to see where the rest of the company horses were galloping at 😉

  4. You are so right!

  5. […] August 8, 2008 Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: innovation | Great post from Rolf Skyberg on why innovation teams are like unicorns « Rolf Skyberg based on his experience as part of eBay’s disruptive innovation […]

  6. Starting the day will a little reminder cloaked in a smile is good. Thank you for both.

  7. […] eternal truths of humans Carrying on my selection of “5 items” to put nicely in a list, here are 5 eternal truths of humans in the world. This is the first post in a series leading up to […]

  8. Hey Rolf
    It’s a great comparison. But there is one thing I don’t agree with. The fact that everyone wants an innovation team. The greatest thing would be to have an innovation comopany! get talent all around people who have a broader vision of their work and while they do their everyday job think about better ways to do it, new ways to do things, more effective ways to work and even new things your customers want. It is true that it takes time to find an innovative person, but all it usually takes is being able to listen, most companies ahve very innovative people inside and don’t even know it.

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