Innovation Spirit Animals

How 5 Mythical Beasts Can Help You Tackle Real-World Challenges


Meet five spirit animals from Foossa’s innovation menagerie: Ouroboros, Chimera, Kitsune, Hydra, and Trojan Horse. More than just mascots, each mythical creature embodies a mindset and a methodology for solving social and business challenges. Together they enhance our strategic toolkit for creative action. Let’s learn more about these spirit animals:

1

Ouroboros

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ouroboros#/media/File:Serpiente_alquimica.jpg

The Ouroboros is a snake or dragon eating its own tail. It symbolizes the circle of life and the cycle of time. The mythical Phoenix, reborn in its own ashes, is an analogous spirit animal.

Ouroboros teaches us to revive, revise, and recontextualize old concepts and wisdom. Innovation in fields like agriculture and medicine will require us to reawaken ancient practices along with developing new methods and technologies. For example, scientists have recently discovered that an ancient Anglo-Saxon potion can kill a contemporary superbug.

Ouroboros reminds us to look backwards as we can move forward with innovation. It explains why the same classic stories get told over and over again with new embellishments. Ouroboros is the impulse behind retro music and fashion. As the Cylon Number 6 said in Battlestar Galactica, “This has all happened before and it will happen again.”

How does Ouroboros manifest in our work?

While designing Happy Mango, a new kind of alternative credit rating service, we incorporated social references in the process of determining a user’s credit worthiness. In other words, friends or colleagues of credit applicants vouch for their trustworthiness through the Happy Mango platform. This kind of social reference for determining credit worthiness is not a new concept. In fact, it comes from a previous era where small local banks banks were the norm, long before we had FICO scores or online banking platforms. Lenders would consider personal character references from prospective borrowers to help determine their credit worthiness. We have taken old practices and brought them back in a new digital context.

Learn more about Happy Mango as well as other examples of the importance of looking backwards to innovate in this video of my keynote at the Impacto conference in São Paulo last December. The presentation is in English after a brief introduction in Portuguese.

2

Chimera

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chimera_(mythology)

A Chimera is a hybrid beast with parts from multiple animals. Chimera combines and remixes disparate elements. It echoes what Steve Jobs said in a 1996 Wired Magazine interview: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

Chimera is the spirit animal of the cronut, the spork, the skort and the Swiss Army Knife. One of my favorite comfort foods, Japanese curry, is a Japanese interpretation of the British navy’s version of Indian “curry.” It is a culinary chimera serving up multiple cultural influences on a single plate.

Chimera is also an act of curation. It is what makes a collection of things and a team of people greater than the sum of their parts.

Chimera works at the scale of cronuts as well as at the scale of countries. Nation-builders like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew and Japan’s leaders during the Meiji Restoration embraced the spirit of Chimera as they built their own modern state institutions based on models drawn from various other countries.

3

Kitsune

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inari_%C5%8Ckami#/media/File:Inuyama_inari_1.jpg

In Japanese folklore, Kitsune (“Fox”) is a trickster figure, a transgressor, and a misfit. Kitsune is analogous to the Coyote myths in Native American traditions or Loki in the Norse pantheon. Kitsune is a shapeshifter, changing from fox to human female form and back again, transgressing fixed ideas of gender and species.

Misfits like Kitsune bend and break norms. This is the source of their charisma and power. Kitsune teaches us that breakthrough art and innovation require us to know the rules; break the rules; and then make new rules.

Kitsune is a rebel with a tune. Some of the greatest musical innovations emerged from misfits and marginalized peoples: jazz, hip hop, flamenco, house. The list goes on and on. The vibrancy of rock, punk and grunge comes from their misfit edge.

Kitsune is the spirit animal of outliers and disruptors. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign was full of Kitsune spirit.

Related Reading: Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Philips have written a book called The Misfit Economy, in which they examine various sub-archetypes of misfits and explore lessons that these misfits can teach conventional organizations and entrepreneurs like us. Check it out.

4

Hydra

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lernaean_Hydra#/media/File:Singer_Sargent,_John_-_Hercules_-_1921.jpg

The Hydra is a many-headed aquatic monster from Greek mythology. If one of its heads gets cut off, two more grow back in its place.

Hydra is the genius of decentralized and strategically redundant networks. It is the resilience of the hive mind. Hydra-like groups have the ability to multiply, regenerate, and mutate rapidly.

Hydra is the logic of open source systems. More heads are better than one. It is the peer-to-peer logic that powers Bitcoin and BitTorrent. This ability to multiply and regenerate is what allows the Pirate Bay and other torrent sites to spring up again soon after they are shut down. Hydra is also the evil genius behind terrorist organizations made up of independent cells that wreak death and destruction across geographies.

On the side of good, we have The Awesome Foundation. It is very much a Hydra organization as well. It is not a traditional philanthropic foundation, but instead it is made up of nearly 50 independent chapters united under a shared identity and a simple set of common principles. I am a trustee of the New York chapter. We forward the cause of awesome in the universe through $1000 (or local equivalent) monthly microgrants to projects related to the arts, education, media, or community engagement. The Awesome Foundation started with a few friends in Boston, but with its decentralized Hydra structure, has spread quickly in the last 5 years into a worldwide movement.

Related Reading: Hydra in our terminology is analogous to Brafman and Bekstrom’s starfish in their book about the power of leaderless organizations.

5

Trojan Horse

As the story goes, Trojan Horse was a ruse that allowed the Greek army to sneak into the city of Troy. In the context of innovation, we can think of the Trojan Horse as a way for getting a foothold somewhere and using that foothold to gain a favorable strategic position.

Trojan Horse is a kind of gateway drug. It gets you in the door.

At its worst, Trojan Horse is a crude bait-and-switch con job. At it’s best though, it’s all about patient, sly seduction. It’s a progressive reveal rather than a sudden ambush.

As design and strategy consultants, we often tap into the power of the Trojan Horse. Clients will hire us for something like a visual rebranding or a website design, but then we realize we need to work with them to solve a much bigger problem or a different one altogether. The initial project is our Trojan Horse, it starts the relationship, it gets us in the door, but once we are in, we sometimes need to adjust the scope of a project in order to best be of service.

In a recent Tech Republic article, Tony Bradley discusses “Microsoft’s Trojan Horse Strategy to Rule the World.” No longer able to maintain an operating system near-monopoly in today’s environment, the strategy is to get Microsoft applications on rival platforms as a way to maintain its market dominance.

For Amazon, the Trojan Horse was books. Amazon started up as an online bookseller, and from there they built themselves up into “The Everything Store.” Books were just the starting point to build the Amazon brand and supply chain, preparing the way for the company to expand into more and more product categories.

What is Medium’s Trojan Horse strategy? They started as a platform for medium to long-form prose. With the recent interface design updates, users can now publish Medium stories from the mobile app, and the affordances have changed to accommodate shorter-form content as well. This makes Medium feel more like a social network. Will it go head to head with Twitter and Facebook? What sort of Chimera will Medium become?


How would you integrate these five innovation spirit animals into your practice? Do you have your own innovation spirit animals?

Let me know at ls@foossa.com. I look forward to hearing from you.


All images were sourced from Wikimedia and are either Creative Commons licensed or in the public domain.

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