10 Great Qualities of a Unicorn Innovator
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10 Great Qualities of a Unicorn Innovator

I'm often asked, "What makes a great innovator?"

The short answer is there's more than just one thing. There are ten, in fact.

The great news is that everyone can learn these qualities and master them quickly to become a Unicorn Innovator.

And if you've never come across a Unicorn Innovator, let me assure you that they do exist. They'll be the first to tell you that they weren't born with special powers. Instead, they have developed specific behaviours that they consistently do that have transformed them into the unicorns they are today.

In this post, I want to unpack these qualities and behaviours with you, so you too can become a Unicorn Innovator. I'll also share some examples of who these mystical unicorns are.

Let's start sprinkling that magic dust now. The top 10 qualities are:

1. Predictive

Gathers & deciphers data into solvable questions.
The more data we gather and decipher, the more insights we discover.

Unicorn Innovator's collect data that enlightens their decision making. Insights can come from various areas, such as understanding how regularly a customer uses a product or service, the average spend of a 20-year-old customer, or the number of meetings a team leader conducts every week.

The Unicorn Innovator asks:

  • 'How can my data help solve this challenge? 
  • 'What questions do we need to ask that are underlying this challenge or issue?'
  • When a 'pain-point' is identified, the analyst can also ask, 'What data is disturbing us?' or
  • 'What data is grabbing our attention?'

Questions lead to answers
The Unicorn Innovator's next step is converting the frustration that they've identified into a question.

For example, The Unicorn Innovator's could translate poor sales into:

  • ‘Why are we selling less now than before?'
  • 'Are customers buying less of ours and more of our competitors?'
  • 'Are they buying less in general?'
  • 'What are we selling less of?'
  • 'When did customers stop buying?'

Unicorn innovator
Jeff Bezos - Founder of Amazon is a great unicorn innovator who excelled in this space. Bezos was a quantitative analyst before founding Amazon and much of Amazon's success is based on predicting what people will do next.

2. Future-minded 

Anticipate to innovate
Unicorn Innovators anticipate the future in order to innovate for the future.

They anticipate by scanning for emerging trends and selecting key drivers and uncertainties. These are then brought to life by constructing future worlds and designing innovative contingencies and future plans.

Unicorn Innovators do not predict the future; instead, they anticipate possible future scenarios.

From these scans, they then move onto identifying and selecting key drivers and uncertainties that may affect their organisation. This is the precursor to constructing fictional worlds based on these uncertainties and drivers.

Finally, Unicorn Innovators help facilitate the design of future contingencies and strategic plans.

The higher you climb, the further you see 
Foresight requires a fresh vision of what's coming up. The more you can use current and emerging trends, the further you can see into the impending future.

Constructing the future starts with imagining the future
In some ways, constructing the future involves becoming a science fiction writer. If you can imagine it, then other people can imagine it and create it as well.

By stepping up your imagination and applying it to the construction of future worlds, you can pre-empt and precede the competition.

Unicorn innovators use previous plot lines to know what worlds they need to create. This is called the scenario principle.

Tomorrow is not today
Today's business model needs to meet tomorrow's needs. Business models and strategies change in response to changing business and social environments. Thinking like a futurist gets you ready for these changes.

Once a Unicorn Innovator has created their future worlds, they need to think of the possible implications. This design stage's role is to help the organisation develop strategies to counter each anticipated future world.

Unicorn innovator
Reed Hastings - Co-founder and CEO of Netflix, Hastings who changed the way we watch TV and movies, created the Netflix unicorn by foreseeing the trend of subscription and streaming and consequently introduced a streaming service that disrupted the traditional cable industry.

3. Insightful

Observes behavioural interactions & unravels the underlying thinking to create insights.

Behavioural observation uncovers potential innovation 
Every behavioural interaction with a product or service informs us of whether or not it's achieving its function. It also indicates whether there's an obstruction or whether there's an opportunity.

Unicorn Innovators create value in the innovation process through insight creation. The insights they can create, through utilising behaviouralist techniques, come from studying their customers, consumers, and, at times, their co-workers' behaviours.

The Unicorn Innovator's power of observation is another valuable tool from which innovators can benefit.

The whole point of observation is to find out why people do things a certain way.

  • Is it out of habit?
  • Is it a formal process? Is it out of necessity?
  • Are others doing it?
  • Do they need to do it, or do they want to do it? 

Unicorn Innovators work hard to understand what entices people to want to do certain things—whether this is buying a product, using a particular process or avoiding a service.

Some of the core reasons people do something or buy something come down to needs. After needs, we have desires and aversions.

Unicorn Innovators adopt the enabling principle 
Unicorn Innovators help enable customers to use products in their best capacity.

Enabling is about understanding how to help people establish new habits to use our products and services. It's also about looking at reframing a situation so that there are fewer obstructions to completion.

While we can apply enabling techniques to our customers, we can also use them to improve productivity and resilience for our own workforce.

Enabling opportunities include:
• Communication
• Habit creation
• Framing
• Dealing with obstruction

Unicorn innovator
Richard Branson, is the founder of the Virgin Group, which includes more than 400 companies.

His unicorn innovation can be seen in his ability to disrupt traditional boring industries, such as music, aviation, and telecommunications, by introducing new business models and innovative ideas.

For example, Virgin Atlantic Airways disrupted the airline industry with its customer-centric approach and in-flight amenities, while Virgin Mobile introduced a new pricing model for mobile phone plans. his focus was on creating businesses that delivered products or services in a way that people wanted, versus the traditional approach.

4. Constructive

Creates functional solutions & ideas that are constructible & progressive.

Being logical, systematic, and mechanical is required for dealing with the problematic.

Unicorn Innovator's problem solving begins with being logical and defining our interpretation of a situation.

Finding the core functions leads to constructing a solution, be it a process, product, or object.

Unicorn Innovators work hard to understand how things work. Step inside a Unicorn Innovator's mind, and you'll discover the curiosity and a deep yearning to understand the 'how' of things and a desire to improve things.

Never shy of a challenge, they love the adventure of seeing how to build a bridge that gets people from A to B, how to make a car go faster, or how to propel a rocket into space.

Function precedes form
Defining a problem and devising a solution precedes how a solution will look. A Unicorn Innovator's functional principles involve defining a problem clearly and succinctly, identifying attributes of a problem, and systematically devising solutions.

Their functional principles include:

• Defining the attributes of a problem
• Defining and interpreting the constraints
• Clarifying the unknowns
• Deconstructing the problem into smaller parts
• Evaluating whether the solution can be constructed at the present time
• Defining any additional issues that need to be solved

Some conceptual, constructive questions worth considering include:

  • What could we add that will improve the effectiveness of the chosen product, process, or service?
  • What could we add that will improve the viability of the chosen product, process, or service?
  • What could we add that will improve the durability of the chosen product, process, or service?
  • What could we add that will improve the automation of the chosen product, process, or service?
  • What could we add that will improve the functionality of the chosen product, process, or service?

We need to build the solution to create the innovation
I really admire the ingenuity of Unicorn innovators. They not only work out a solution but also how to build the solution.

For example, designing a bridge to cross a gorge is a solution, but working out how to make it and the best way to build it - constructible. The constructible principle is often applied at the same time as the functional principle.

Unicorn Innovator
Melanie Perkins is the co-founder of Canva, a graphic design platform that has disrupted the traditional design industry. Canva's unicorn innovation lies in its accessibility, which allows anyone, regardless of their design experience, to create professional-quality graphics and visual content. Improving functionality while creating simplicity and automation.

5. Inventive

Taps into the imagination to stretch what is possible while maintaining function and appeal.

Beauty stimulates emotion and attracts attention
A beautiful innovation is one that is sensitive to users' feelings—imaginative yet functional and shapely while minimal.

Using the principles of aesthetics can give you the ability to attract people to your products or services. A good innovation draws attention, users, supporters, and raving fans. In some ways, it is similar to a powerful magnet.

We live in a world that is designed and engineered. The blog post you are reading today was created using computers that were 'designed'.

The building you are most likely sitting in to read this book was designed before it was built.

We can borrow another two core principles from inventive Unicorns. They are:

1. Sensing goes beyond knowing
We can know what a customer needs, yet, being sensitive to what a customer wants heightens the need to satisfy them.

This is what sets a Unicorn apart from an engineer who simply solves a problem. The Unicorn innovator understands the problem and the person.

2. What's possible today was impossible yesterday
Daring to think of new possibilities despite impossibilities takes imagination, creativity, and curiosity.

Unicorn innovators continually push the boundaries of what's possible—because they can.

Unicorn Innovator
Steve Jobs - Co-founder of Apple, Jobs was a pioneer in personal computing and is known for his contributions to the development of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Jobs understood the power of beautiful design and was one of the hallmarks to Apple's success.

6. Counterintuitive

Thinks laterally to create high quantity and high-quality ideas.

Radical thinking drives creative collateral
Thinking laterally enables you to create commercial concepts and strategies with high quantity and high-quality ideas.

Unicorn Innovators bring a level of abstraction to their thinking that results in lots of ideas and compelling, creative ideas that haven't been thought of before.

Turn the literal into the lateral
Turning the obvious into the intriguing requires being lateral. Thinking laterally allows us to see things differently, which enables us to communicate in different ways that intrigue and engage us.

To think more abstractly, you need to take your level of thinking higher than you usually would. The higher abstraction allows us to create reinterpretations of the concept we have and create more interest in our idea.

Quantity overrides quality
The more ideas we have, the more quality ideas we create. Unicorn Innovators know this all too well—that if you want good ideas, you need to create lots of them. Many will be ordinary, yet they will prompt brilliant ideas.

That's just how the creative mind works — through association.

In many ways, each idea is like a springboard to bounce off for the next idea. Behaviouralists call this process 'associative activation', which basically means ideas that have been evoked trigger many other ideas.

Less is more
The fewer the words, the less the confusion. The fewer the benefits, the greater the comprehension. The fewer the images, the less the distraction.

Unicorn Innovators know what to leave out. While this sounds remarkably simple, it can be frustratingly tricky until you get the hang of it.

The reason it's so hard is that we generally like the work we do. We also like the products or services we are promoting, and unconsciously, we want to tell the world about everything we do.

Unicorn innovator
Travis Kalanick - Co-founder of Uber, Kalanick created a ride-sharing service that has disrupted the traditional taxi industry and transformed the way people get around in cities around the world. Kalanick dared to ask what would happen if you let people drive their own cars as taxis.

7. Experimental

Validates which problems are worth solving, which ideas are most effective, and whether there's a market appetite.

Questioning forces you to look for answers.

Great innovators excel at asking the questions that no one else has asked before and attempt to find the answers to them.

Some basic idea-generating questions a Unicorn Innovator may use are:

  • Why is it so?
  • What causes this to....?
  • Where else does this...?
  • How does this...?
  • How long does this...?
  • What would I like to run an experiment on?
  • What would I like to learn, test, or improve?
  • I wonder what would happen if I...?

An insurance executive might ask the question, 'Why do certain people have health insurance with extras versus a policy without?' or 'Is it worth conducting an experiment of some sort?'

Guesses are invisible assumptions
Inferences are visible predictions that allow us to test our predictions. Guessing things takes up valuable brain space, and the results cannot be tested.

An inference or hypothesis is when we make an effort to write down our assumptions or idea to declare them as what we want to test.

Too many people in business make guesses about what might or might not happen with a potential innovation. Yet, they remain mental guesses in mind and are seldom acted upon because they are not declared and thus remain untested.

To create a hypothesis, simply fill in the blanks.

I assume__________________________________.
What conditions of__________________will trigger_____________________?
If I disturb ____________________, what will happen to___________________?
I predict _______________________________based on experience, current and past evidence or my intuitive hunch.

The greater the learning, the greater the experiment
A failed experiment is as informative as a successful experiment.

What's most important is the knowledge that is gained. The deduction stage of experimenting is similar to lawyers making their final conclusions to a judge and jury.

The big difference is that Unicorn Innovators don't necessarily have to win the case; they just need to conclude what will happen.

Unicorn Innovator
Brian Chesky - Co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, Chesky created an online marketplace that has changed the way people travel and disrupted the hotel industry. He validated his theory by placing ads in Craigs List to test if people were willing to rent out rooms or their houses for strangers.
As serial innovators, for each iteration of their business, AirBnB would test their latest idea on five people, get feedback, make improvements and test on another five more people.

8. User friendly

Tests usability & functionality and designs solutions to create seamless experiences.

Increasing usability converts frustration into satisfaction
Too often, a product or service doesn't meet customers' expectations and assumptions. There's a mismatch between the products' or services' intended function and the way it actually functions.

Unicorn innovators adopt UX design principles to identify, test, and redesign solutions to bring back customer satisfaction.

Great intentions don't guarantee great experiences
While a product or service creator may have the highest of intentions for their design, if the customers' assumptions and expectations don't match, we have frustration.

Anyone designing a new process, product, or service has an intention. It may be to work effectively and satisfy customers' needs or to make a client happy. Intentions, however, can be interpreted in many different ways. They are interpreted in different ways because of the filters we have.

This possible disconnect between a designer's intent and the impact on users is also compounded by the fact that messages often have a physical representation, be it a car or an online shopping process.

Unicorn Innovators ask designers or creators questions such as the following before building a product:

  • 'What are the intentions behind the product service?' 'Who is the intended user?'
  • 'When is it intended to be used?'
  • 'Where is it intended to be used?'
  • 'How is it to be used?'
  • 'What happens when it is not being used?' and so on.

It's human to err
We make slip-ups all the time. Testing for potential slips before we build and testing for actual slips as we build, gives us the rare opportunity to reduce financial slips later on. And prevent us from having to rectify the design to deal with customer frustrations and poor design.

Unicorn Innovators adopt a mindset that tests across a number of different areas. When testing, during pre-construction or when working with iterations, they may ask themselves:

  • Useable - 'How easy is it to use?'
  • Simple - 'Is it simple to understand or is the user overwhelmed with decisions?'
  • Logical - 'Is there a logical sequence, a place to start, or a way to turn it on or off?'
  • Intuitive - 'Is it natural to use?' 'Could a seven-year-old pick it up and know how to use it?'
  • Painless - 'Are there any components that create frustrations?'
  • Fool-proof - 'Does it prevent you from doing stupid things with it?'
  • Accidental - 'Does it prevent you from making a major mistake?'

Unicorn Innovators
Larry Page and Sergey Brin - Co-founders of Google, Page and Brin created the world's largest search engine, which has revolutionised the way we find information online and transformed the advertising industry. Their latest search engine algorithms are weighted heavily on user experience. Is the page fast to load? Does it create a great experience for the user? Is the information useful?

9. Industrious

Plans and prioritises activities, calculates ROI, systemises and delegates.

Every innovation is an implementable project
Manage the project, and you can manage the innovation output. No deadlines mean no innovation.

Unicorn Innovators adopt fundamental project manager principles to increase the success and speed of implementing your chosen innovation. Projects imply a start and finish and hence create a mental sense of completing a task.

Through sound management principles, Unicorn Innovators can turn the most intimidating and overwhelming projects into bite-sized activities that make the insurmountable achievable and enjoyable. They bring together brilliant ideas and expertise to facilitate completion.

If it can't be drawn, it can't be done
Having a visual plan for your project is a must. No visual plan means no project. Nearly every task you can think of has had a project plan with a visual component.

Visualising (or drawing) makes it easier for us to understand a complex issue. Scientists use models that are really visualisations to help explain complex situations. Unicorn Innovators use visualisation to simplify a project.

Project managers need to know how much a project will cost and when it will be done. This is best handled using a schedule. Even though scheduling may seem formal and constraining, it really supports you in getting things done. Scheduling is simply taking tasks, applying a time framework to them, including the people who are going to help, and the resources required.

Like NASA, which plans space missions in reverse, scheduling from the end result backward is smart. When a Unicorn Innovator doesn't know how long it will take, they make an educated guess. The more experience they gain, the better they meet the timeframes they set and truly understand how much time it takes to realise a plan.

The path to realising innovation isn't always smooth, so it's worth noting that accidents happen, and things don't always work out. The more flexible and responsive a project manager can be, the greater their chances of seeing a project through to reality. It is important to make sure that plans and schedules always include contingencies, for delays ranging from inclement weather and illness, to problems with supplies and cancelled meetings.

Project the potentials while monitoring the actuals
The Unicorn Innovator projects potential profits, percentages, and experiments with pricing all while remaining grounded in monitoring actual expenditures and incomings funds.

Early in my business career, I was drilled about the importance of projections and actuals. Unicorn Innovators need projections to see the potential. Yet, they need to keep track of the actuals so that they know how they are doing. They often use a dashboard that allows for both actuals and projections.

Creating projections starts with understanding your product or service and looking at the potential market.

10. Storyteller

Unearths what's remarkable about a product and crafts a story that creates interest & desire to use the product.

Shake up the status quo to snare market share
Nothing ordinary gains attention, let alone entices someone to buy.

Unicorn Innovators know that marketing is about challenging the status quo of products and services—what they stand for, how they're packaged, and the stories we tell about them.

Before you can sell an innovation externally, you need to internally sell the idea, whether to yourself, your colleagues, or a board of directors.

If it's not remarkable, it's not marketable
In today's overstimulated, over-communicated, message-inundated world, just because it's sales-worthy doesn't make it newsworthy. The Unicorn Innovator helps unearth remarkable products and services worth talking about and suggests remarkable ideas and improvements.

The remarkable Unicorn Innovator might start by asking:

  • 'What would be something remarkable about our product or services' visibility?' 
  • 'What would be something remarkable about our product or services' usability?'
  •  'What would be something remarkable about our product or services' advisability?'
  • 'What would be something remarkable about our product or services' physicality?'
  • 'What would be something remarkable about our product or services' automation?'
  • 'What would be something remarkable about our product or services' interaction?'

Notice that the questions are quite abstract with a high level of construance. This frees the mind for new ideas.

Many people say that marketing is about storytelling. The only problem is that anyone can tell a story. What makes someone want to keep listening is whether it's a compelling story. Find a story worth remarking about before you start telling it.

Other questions Unicorn Innovators ask are:

  • 'What's remarkable about the product?
  • What's remarkable about how it works, the impact it has, or what it looks like?'
  • 'What's remarkable about the costing model, the people we work with, or the design of our product?


There are ten qualities that make a Unicorn Innovator.

Anyone can learn these qualities and master them quickly to become a Unicorn Innovator.

The top 10 qualities are:

  1. Predictive - Gathers & deciphers data into solvable questions.
  2. Future-minded - Scans for emerging trends & creates contingencies to capitalise on them.
  3. Insightful - Observes behavioural interactions & unravels the underlying thinking to create insights.
  4. Constructive - Creates functional solutions & ideas that are constructible & progressive.
  5. Inventive - Taps into the imagination to stretch what is possible while maintaining function and appeal.
  6. Counterintuitive - Thinks laterally to create high quantity and high-quality ideas.
  7. Experimental - Validates which problems are worth solving, which ideas are most effective, and whether there's a market appetite.
  8. User friendly - Tests usability & functionality and designs solutions to create seamless experiences.
  9. Industrious - Plans and prioritises activities, calculates ROI, systemises and delegates.
  10. Storyteller - Unearths what's remarkable about a product and crafts a story that creates interest & desire to use the product.

I hope this helps and inspires you to become a Unicorn Innovator. Please let us know how you go. Why not check out our new Reinvention Club too.


Nils Vesk - Ideas with Legs

CEO, Keynote speaker, Consultant, Father, Author

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About Nils Vesk

He's the founder of Ideas With Legs.

His  clients call him a Reinvention Renegade. Nils Vesk is an international authority on innovation and the inventor of the ‘Innovation Archetypes Process’.

Around the globe, leading companies such as Nestle, HP & Pfizer turn to Nils to share his proven innovation techniques for formulating commercial insights, ideas, extraordinary customer experiences and irresistible products.

Nils unpacks the million-dollar innovation principles used to create rapid growth for the future.

Nils is the author of a number of books including "Ideas With Legs - How to Create Brilliant Ideas and Bring Them to Life", and "Innovation Archetypes - Principles for World Class Innovation".

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