Book Review: How to Kill a Unicorn: How the World’s Hottest Innovation Factory Builds Bold Ideas That Make It to Market.

This blog entry was originally posted in December, 2014.

9780804138734I knew I would like this book when, quite early on, it had the guts to tell Emperor Post-it that he had no clothes.

I don’t know about you dear reader, but if I took all the Post-its used in supposed brainstorming meetings that I attended and lined them up, I’m pretty sure they’d go to the moon and back. And while I’m all about divergent thinking, the psychologist in me could never quite embrace the belief that papering the walls with colored Post-its was the only productive method of brainstorming.

With How to Kill a Unicorn, I finally feel vindicated.

Indeed, author Mark Payne blames a 1948 book for initially championing the “quantity v. quality of answers” method that is probably solely responsible for decades of booming Post-it sales. But it turns out that at least one study in this century (Nemeth, Personnaz, Personnaz, & Goncalo, 2004) found that the traditional embrace-all-ideas method of brainstorming is actually inferior to a debate-and-criticism-allowed method. So, Post-it sales might be about to tank. You heard it here first. Sell that 3M stock now!

But the above brainstorming tidbit is worth remembering as you read Unicorn, because Mr. Payne poses that, given the pressures for companies to innovate in order to maintain growth, too often financial caution is cast to the wind in favor of “the unicorn” – Mr. Payne’s embodiment of the magical next-big-thing mirage, the product of can’t-miss innovators.

Mr. Payne is one of the leaders of Fahrenheit 212, a leading innovation consultation firm. In their efforts to assist scores of industry giants (and at least one tiny craft distillery), Fahrenheit has developed a method of forcing an uneasy marriage between the creative and financial sides of a company – a partnership he calls “Money & Magic”. This is where the traditional Post-it brainstorming goes out the window. Rather than create unicorns first and then pass the subsequent financing details and headaches on to the company bean counters, the Money & Magic method gets both sides to the table from the beginning, and makes sure the Magic is tempered by the rigors of business realities, with the Money side asking questions such as “how could that be made with today’s technologies? Where’s the competitive advantage?”, etc. Mr. Payne notes – not surprisingly — that these make for some spirited discussions. The Magic side of the table might see their Money counterparts as a total buzz kill, but the big picture is that if the magic-bred unicorns fizzle into the ether later down the line, the entire business has wasted time and resources. Asking the Money questions early on will better assess which Magic offerings have legs, and which might not be destined to live happily ever after.

Unicorn is filled with famous and not-so-famous Money & Magic brand innovation examples: Starbuck’s. Sanyo. Coca-Cola. The Tuthilltown distillery in upstate New York’s Hudson Valley. And my personal favorite might be those of Progressive Insurance! Yes, that free-spirited Flo and her company have some real innovators, and the company is more than successful at delicately straddling the fine line between price leader Geico and service leaders State Farm and Allstate. And the real story and advantages of Progressive’s Online Rate Comparison and onboard Snapshot monitor makes for an interesting Money & Magic win-win.

Unicorn is a fine resource if you have reason to believe that your innovation ideas are on fire in January but aren’t really innovating anything months later. Maybe it’s time for the Money & Magic to come break bread at your table. In preparation, dust off the notes from your debate class, and clean and load your unicorn gun. And don’t be afraid to use the latter on whoever walks into the meeting with an armload of rainbow Post-it pads.


Nemeth, C. J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M., Goncalo, J. A. (2004).  The liberating role of conflict in group creativity:  A study in two countries.  European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, 365 – 374.

Payne, M. (2014). How to kill a unicorn: How the world’s hottest innovation factory builds bold ideas that make it to market. New York: Crown Business.

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