Mythical Innovators – The Innovation Matrix

Note: This is part of a series of posts explaining the individual parts of The Innovation Matrix. See this post for a description of the full model and what can be done with it.


In the last post, I discussed the three stable states in the Innovation Matrix. These are the places where Innovation Commitment is roughly equal to Innovation Competence. The consequence of this balance is that for firms that are Not Innovating Very Much, Fit for Purpose and World Class Innovators, the returns to their innovation efforts should seem about right.

It’s not the same story for the firms at the other two corners – firms that are either Bewildered or Unicorns. Firms can’t be Bewildered for too long because with no Innovation Competence, they are seriously overinvesting in innovation. If they don’t make progress and improve their competence, then they will eventually give up.

On the other hand, it would be great to be a Unicorn wouldn’t it? You don’t invest any effort into innovation, and yet you’re still very good at it. Well, you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true…


One of the insights that got me thinking about this Innovation Matrix is the fact that I keep running across firms that are actually reasonably good at innovating, even though they don’t put a lot of effort into it. This seemed like a paradox.

And it leads to a question: if firms can be pretty good at innovating with no effort, can they be also be great with no effort?

I don’t think so, and that is why this square is named for a mythical creature – the Unicorn.

The Accidental Innovators may be in a position where they have to do new things just to survive, or they have developed a culture that supports experimentation, or they are good at learning. Experimentation and learning from failure are two of the elements of Innovation Competence, and it’s possible to do these without explicit processes in place to support them. And some organisations are naturally good at generating, selecting, executing and diffusing ideas.

It’s the other components of Innovation Competence that are pretty hard to come by without trying. Doing both incremental and more radical innovation at the same time takes conscious effort, because it’s really hard to do. You don’t automatically have an innovation portfolio. And it’s hard to practice multiple types of innovation without making an effort.

That’s why Unicorns are mythical – they don’t exist.

Innovation Strategies

The main issue here is to avoid magical thinking. I was talking with Michael Raynor today, and he said an interesting thing: innovating in established firms is a solved problem, but the reason that more firms don’t do it is because it’s really hard. The analogy that he used is that anyone can run a marathon if you do the following things: run 20 miles a week for six months, doing at least four days a week, slowly ramping up the mileage. If you do this, you can run a marathon. If you don’t do this, you probably can’t.

It’s the same with innovation. To do it, you have to put in the effort. Because it’s hard work, most firms don’t.

If you expect to innovate without commitment, you might as well go to the forest looking for unicorns. It will be an equally productive use of your time.

PS: Michael gave a terrific talk today at PARC’s Power of 10 Conference – more on this next week.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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13 thoughts on “Mythical Innovators – The Innovation Matrix

  1. A question on Unicorns:
    What of people/firms that are in a (perceived) stable environment? Firms that are entirely capable of innovating in spectacular ways, but are under the impression that there is absolutely no need to commit resources to innovation. Would these firms qualify as Unicorns?

    • Good question Mathieu. I think the issue is that those firms may well be capable of innovating, but they’re not. That’s why I think that even if a firm hits this square for a bit, it’s only temporary.

      • Although this begins to wander away from the core purpose of this model, I think that perhaps a third axis, representing something akin to success or viability, could be added.
        With this axis it could ( perhaps via a heat-map of some description) be shown that it is entirely possible for a firm to be and to remain Unicorn or Bewildered; but that doing so does not always lead to success.

      • (apologies for the double post)
        I mention this because although a firm may not find continuing success as a Unicorn, that does not necessarily mean that they will wander limping into one of the other characterizations. They may very well attempt to continue as a Unicorn, convinced that there is no need to innovate, right up until the moment that they keel over into bankruptcy.

        • Well, I think the point is that it is nearly impossible to be a Unicorn in the first place. If you look at the definitions of Innovation Competence, it will be really hard to actually do all of those things without having at least a minmal level of innovation commitment. I think that you’re essentially saying that this is an unstable position, and I entirely agree with that.

          • What do you do with all the horse-poo (since you obviously don’t have unicorns) ?

            • Use it as an example to fertilize budding entrepreneurs; to help them and their start-ups blossom and grow

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