Graphic showing a unicorn laying down in a dark forest

Mark Payne: 'How to Kill a Unicorn'

Innovation is the one area in product design where you can guarantee that everyone will at some point get it wrong. But, says author Mark Payne, it doesn't have to be that way.

For most of us it's easy to see that the world of innovation is uneven, fraught with upsides of glory and success, while the downsides are risk and failure. But for Mark Payne, it is more than that: it is "one of the most dazzling manifestations of forward-leaning human imagination", while simultaneously being "one of the most broken practices in modern business". For Payne, who is the author of a superb new analysis of 21st-century innovation 'How to Kill a Unicorn', it's not a matter of simply getting it right or wrong, it's a matter of life and death. Possibly more important than that.

Payne tells me that the conversations he hears about innovation describe a world where not only is failing acceptable, but where it is "normal, natural and noble". At Fahrenheit 212 (an international innovation consultancy that boasts a client list with Samsung at the top), where he is head of idea development, "we weren't prepared to accept that, at least not without trying to figure out why it had to be that way". Payne tells me that a helpful analogy is that of the Wright brothers. "Before they came along, we would have said that crashing to the ground is normal and natural, the result of human attempts to fly. We look back now and say that wasn't the nature of flying at all. It was a flaw in the methods we were using to fly."

The basis of Payne's approach and the theme of his book is what he calls Two-Sided Innovation. "It took years of struggle and our own failures to get there, but we did. Sharing the insights and methods that emerge from that work is just the natural next thing." One of the delivery methods through which Payne is spreading the gospel is his new and intriguingly titled book.

In the world of engineering management there are many, many books published on a daily basis, and there is no single topic addressed more than that of innovation. Titles for such disquisitions range from the juicily tempting to the incredibly boring. But of one thing you can be almost certain: there has never been a book about innovation with the word 'unicorn' on the cover. The title is attractive and intriguing, with the illustration that of a pinata constructed in the form of a mythical single-horned equine quadruped. So what's it all about?

"Early in our innovation process are ideas that I like to call unicorns." These are ideas that are beautiful to think about, but practical and profitable only in an abstract imaginary world because "they are at odds with our clients' capabilities, financial models, asset base, timeframes or risk thresholds". Payne says that we are all after big, fast, practical ideas that can deliver profitable growth. But "letting go of the ideas that have no sight-line to becoming reality in the defined time horizon is an important part of getting there. Unicorns aren't real," says Payne. "A company can't hitch its plough to a unicorn."

In other words, the key to success is the tough love of the reality check. But once we have decided that our project is realistic, the question is what do we do next? For Payne this is simply a matter of uncovering what he calls the transformational questions. "The answers come easy once that is in hand. Transformational questions are questions that root around the very nature and purpose of a given product or human experience and put it in a light in which it hasn't previously been viewed. In a way, you could say Apple is a string of breakthroughs from a single transformational question: how can technology become more humanistic?"

Payne says that this was a key transformational question in Apple's development because technology and humanity had, until that point, been perceived as being opposite. "Apple's competitors had largely been fixated on Moore's Law and how to make technology more powerful and affordable. Transformational questions create competitive separation from rivals who are what working on the same questions they always have been. Change the question, change the future."

While it is tempting to think that there are market sectors or organisations in which innovation is simply not necessary, Payne says that he has never seen an organisation "where innovation can't work, only where conventional methods don't work. Conventional methods tend to ask businesses to subvert questions of strategic fit, technical and operational feasibility, profitability and risk, asking business leaders to suspend judgement about commercial attractiveness or burning cash and time. Organisations that are less culturally wired toward innovation have lower tolerance levels for half-baked ideas that don't have a well articulated connection to the realities, assets and risk tolerances of business".

This being the case there is surely no point complaining that the more traditional companies simply "don't get it". According to Payne you have to flip this philosophy and ask them what it is they do get it. "Typically what they get is a tangible proposition rather than vague leaps of faith. Two-sided innovation is about solving the needs of the consumer and the needs of the business in real-time, which means understanding what the company needs, not just at the endpoint, but along the journey."

The idea of a two-sided approach to innovation fits in need neatly with the author's own career path. "I've always had a two-sided life, straddling creativity in business, studying economics and college, but designing t-shirts to earn my beer money." He says that if ever there was a pivotal moment it was when his band had an audition with Sony only to find that they played terribly on the day: "so the rock star dream was clearly a unicorn." A couple of years at Saatchi & Saatchi gave him a taste of big companies' innovation methods and struggles. "Innovation struck me as a spectacular mating dance of art, science and business. The alchemy was irresistible to me."

History has proved that alchemy was one of the great blind alleys in science, while zoology has shown us that the nearest we get to a unicorn is the narwhal. And yet through such imagery Mark Payne is able to take us on a journey that might mean you could collect the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. *

'How to Kill a Unicorn' by Mark Payne is now out in paperback from Nicholas Brearley, £13.99

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