Stop Searching for Unicorns and Find Your Zebras

There’s been a lot of talk about unicorns in business the last few years, with the mythical beasts even being used as metaphors for those perfect employees we all covet and desire. The ones with the fancy resume and impressive credentials, who sell themselves as having the ability to single-handedly transform your company with their creative thinking and big ideas.

Newsflash: Unicorns don’t exist.

In European folklore, the unicorn was commonly described as a wild, woodland creature whose magical horn could heal illness and render poisonous water potable. A symbol of purity and grace, it could only be captured and tamed by a virgin. The appeal of the unicorn was its rarity — it symbolized something that was unattainable.

I get it. The struggle to find good, creative talent is real. But we live in the real world, and it’s fraught with numerous asymmetrical threats to your business on any given day. If you want to solve real-world problems, start by looking for real people who approach problems in a different way. Don’t look for unicorns, look for zebras.

Here are three reasons zebras are the new unicorns.

1) Zebras are fast and agile. Each zebra has a distinctly unique black and white stripe pattern, meaning no two zebras are exactly alike. The horse-like equid is the ultimate example of asymmetry in both the animal kingdom and the business world, and not just because of its stripes.

Asymmetry occurs when two things of unequal size interact and transform each other. Defeating a larger, established competitor requires solving problems in a different and unexpected way.

Zebras run in a zigzag pattern, constantly changing their positions to outsmart predators, and their sudden, powerful rear kicks, can take down much larger, stronger animals, such as lions. The lion is inherently bigger and stronger, but it doesn’t always win.

Muhammad Ali famously anticipated his opponent’s next moves by “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee,” dancing around the boxing ring, thrilling crowds with his quick, scissor-step shuffle. Like the zebra, Ali used unconventional tactics to win, both with unpredictable movement, but also with words — strategically taunting his opponents both inside and outside the ring, ultimately mentally exhausting them and breaking their concentration.

In today’s corporate climate, startups are shaking up entire industries, forcing companies to rethink their business models or die.

Businesses have to be agile, constantly shifting position, anticipating threats, and thinking asymmetrically to outsmart the competition.

Zebras run in a zigzag pattern, constantly changing their positions to outsmart predators, and their sudden, powerful rear kicks, can take down much larger, stronger animals, such as lions.

2) Zebras are natural collaborators. Unicorns are not team players. Think about it: have you ever seen more than one unicorn? They’re imperious loners accustomed to being the center of attention. Zebras, on the other hand, are natural collaborators, congregating in large herds and remaining in small family groups known as harems for years.

They’re also known to mingle with antelope herds to defend against predators.

Globalization and technological innovation have forced businesses to work differently, and stronger collaboration across organizations is more important than ever before. According to data collected on executives of more than 20 companies over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more.

Aspen Institute’s Aspen Youth Entrepreneurship Strategy Group included collaboration as one of the elements of the entrepreneurial mindset.

Despite the stereotype of entrepreneurs as brilliant loners tinkering in their garages, the most successful business leaders had help. Think Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. As businesses face unprecedented disruption, your old competitors could soon become your partners, and employees who collaborate can give your company a strong advantage.

3) Zebras are not that special. Unlike the unicorn, with its air of superiority, the zebra is the original workhorse —a resourceful pragmatist whose stripes serve a useful purpose, from camouflage to bug repellant.

Zebra employees are not specialists, they’re generalists. They have metaphorical stripes, combining a variety of skills and wearing different hats, with the ability to quickly jump from one role to the next. From a biological standpoint, zebras have a more generalist appetite; they range more widely than many other species, even into woodlands, and are often the first grazing species to appear in well-vegetated areas.

When environmental conditions change, generalists are able to adapt, but specialists tend to fall victim to extinction much more easily. They are not bound by what they think they have to do, so they are opportunistic, wandering, and experimenting. One of the benefits of this is that you can be first to market, given that you are adaptable and flexible.

Zebra thinkers approach problems without regard for their qualifications to solve them, or for their strength in relation to the proposed difficulty. They are just accustomed to attacking problems of any kind, regardless of background or title.

In a newsroom, the most versatile journalists by far are arguably the general assignment reporters, not those with specialized beats. At my firm, less than ten percent of employees have a standard “agency” background. Instead, we hire journalists, artists, designers, and marketers who can all wear many different hats. But in order to find the zebras within your ranks, you have to be willing to think asymmetrically about your organizational structure. Tear down divisions, promote from within, let someone unexpected tackle a big problem. That’s how to identify the zebras you might already have.

So stop wasting your time looking for the unattainable. Like the unicorn, the perfect employee doesn’t exist, and if you spend too much time on a search for something shiny and new, you’ll miss the zebras that could already be in your midst — hiding in plain sight.

Alexander Jutkowitz

CEO of Group SJR, Truffle Pig and Colloquial

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Stop Searching for Unicorns and Find Your Zebras