Thursday, August 09, 2018

What unicorns and narwhals tell us about innovation

My lovely wife and I were returning from a long car trip, having one of those wide-ranging conversations about everything and nothing that consumes time during long periods of interstate driving.  The topics were shifting and free-flowing, when suddenly she asked the question:  what's the difference between a unicorn and a narwhal?  After all, they both seem a bit mysterious and they share the uncommon attribute of possessing only one horn.  I liked the question so much I promised on the spot to write a blog post about her question.

The answer, as it turns out, is relatively easy.  Unicorns combine features like a single horn, fantasy and equine nature in a single package that is meant to appeal to a defined population - young people who enjoy fantasy.  Would the unicorn work without the horn?  Probably not, because then it's just another horse.  Narwhals are almost as rare as unicorns of course, and have a single horn (really a tooth), but there the comparison ends.  Narwhals seem more like walruses or large seals, relatively large, amphibious animals that few people have seen or understand.  Narwhals lack fantasy and aren't featured in many stories. You won't find too many stories of magical narwhals flying in to save a damsel in distress. They don't seem to have large fan clubs or venture capital companies describing startups using their name.

The real difference between unicorns and narwhals?  I think it's in the packaging.  Unicorns combine a number of features that appeal to a segment of people and incorporate fantasy or magic.  Narwhals don't.  So ends the lesson.

But it's the features

But there's an interesting perspective to take away from this.  Both unicorns and narwhals share an important and rare trait - they have a strange single horn (or tooth).  This makes the unicorn look fierce and the narwhal look slightly ridiculous, but that's beside the point.  Both have a singular feature that makes them unique in their environments.  And as we all known, features matter.  After all, nearly every product you buy is presented not as a solution, but as a long list of features.  Better screens, faster processors, lower emissions. 

This is what so many innovators get wrong about new products and services.  They focus on the solitary feature - faster processors, better user interface, more application support - and lose sight of the fact that consumers appreciate features (as far as they understand them) but value a total solution much more.  A "unicorn" feature - one that really stands out and is unique in the market - is great, but in the grand scheme of things it may make a product more difficult to use or more difficult to adopt, even though it seems differentiated.  What people love about the unicorn is the total package - the mystique, the fantasy, all of which is augmented by the horn.  When you stick a horn on a small whale, no one really cares.  It's the entire package that matters.

Solutions and Benefits

Unicorns and narwhales are also illustrative of the difference between market pull and technology push.  Innovators who follow a market pull strategy, using innovative methods and tools to understand the needs and desires of customers to help shape a product, discover wants and needs and try to fulfill them.  On the other hand, innovators who follow a technology push strategy often highlight specific capabilities and features they believe a customer needs, whether they've asked or not.

In this regard, a unicorn is like market pull - finding out that people love magic and fantasy, and adding just a few unusual features (a horn on a horse) to make it seem unusual.  A narwhal is like technology push - sticking an outsized horn on a rarely viewed and mysterious sea creature, that few people understand or care about.  In most successful innovations, it's not the features that win the day.  Most consumers don't understand nuances like operating system versions or processor speeds.  They care about the total solution and how it fits into their lives.

Who knew that two mysterious and potentially magical creatures could tell us so much about innovation?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:52 AM


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