The Phoenix and the Unicorn

Unicorns have many aspects. Well, two actually. One shows a mythical horse-like creature with a great big spiraling horn on its head and, oh yes, magical powers. The other is...

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October 3, 2019
New York

It's the latter Unicorn startups that have captured our imagination in the last few years: with scores of young graduates wanting to join them, droves of aspiring entrepreneurs dreaming of becoming one, and stockpiles of middle-aged employees wondering how unfair it is that they never had a chance to join that movement.

We all want to be a Unicorn so bad. The truth is, however, that most of you reading this book will never become, found, or work for one.

Personally, I’m exhausted by the heaps of Unicorn stories that reared their pointy heads in the press for the last couple of years. Worse, I have often been thoroughly underwhelmed when I visited these companies during the course of my career. Of course, you can’t but help admire these entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and try out entirely new business models. Some of these amazing stories can profoundly inspire us. But this interest also seems to have created an explosion of the Unicorn phenomenon, fueled by the billions of dollars of venture capital. And, sadly, this has somehow deflated the magical status of these mythical creatures.

But most of you reading this blog work for traditional companies in traditional businesses. Most of you have to cope with company structures and mechanisms that force you to abide to ALL the laws of physics and economics. There’s very little magic dust there, am I right?

Don’t worry, I'm not in 'Unicorn Denial'. But I have recently become obsessed with another type of mythical animal. One that, in my opinion, is far more interesting than the fabled Unicorn. Let me introduce you to the Phoenix, the subject of my upcoming business book 'The Phoenix and the Unicorn: The Why, What and How of Corporate Innovation' (out in Q1 2020). According to Greek mythology, this long-lived bird has the ability to cyclically regenerate itself: it burns itself down and then rises from the ashes of its former self. I absolutely love how it is capable of renewal and transformation. It’s also a bit of a showoff, typically depicted as dying in a fierce show of flames and combustion, to then be reborn stronger than before.

I have spent the last years travelling the world and talking to organizations of all sizes who want to understand how to survive, and thrive, in times of radical technological change. Typically, they are corporates who want to understand new technologies and business models. And they’re all trying to grasp what they can do when their market or business is disrupted. Most of them loved the Day After Tomorrow metaphor, and a lot of them chuckled at the 'Shit of Yesterday' concept. Most of all, because they completely recognized it as their own; they were dealing with the latter on a daily basis, and it kept them from really focusing on radical transformation.

Most companies didn't ACT on their Day After Tomorrow, though. They all loved the theory and wanted to be informed. Sometimes they even secretly liked getting a little spooked by stories of disruption, just like they did with horror movies and haunted mansions when they were younger. But the depressing truth is: at the end of the day, very few of the companies that heard my stories, changed anything.

I’m pleased to tell you that there were exceptions to this rule, too. These 'rarest of beasts' started to tackle the subject of disruption and radical transformation with both zest and intelligence. They mobilized the right people, invested in technology, and experimented with radically new ideas, concepts and business models. They toiled to create a new future for themselves, and their companies. Thanks to some of those, I had front-row seats to the miracle that is the rebirth of a Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the old, and coming out stronger than ever before.

Don't get me wrong, I do have a lot of sympathy for the Unicorns. But what I want this book to convey is: 'Don't give up on the dinosaurs, just yet’.

That’s why I wrote a book about the Phoenix. It's about understanding what is happening in a world of constant change. It’s about observing and trying to learn from the Unicorns. But primarily, it tells the story of how you can REALLY act on your Day After Tomorrow, and how you can apply innovation as an antidote to radical change. I won’t just zoom in on WHAT you need to do in order to innovate, but also on HOW to make innovation a reality in your organization. I will share what I have learned from my global safari to hunt down the rarest of beasts - the Phoenix.

It is my dream that - if you are working in a traditional business, or in a traditional market - 'The Phoenix and the Unicorn' will offer you the inspiration, the guidance and the courage to transform, to reboot, and to become the Phoenix in your market. It is my dream that it will help you "Live long, and prosper", as the Vulcans would have it.

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Peter Hinssen
Peter Hinssen
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October 3, 2019
New York