How to Motivate a Team to Pull Off the Impossible

How to Motivate a Team to Pull Off the Impossible

These life-size origami installations are built by creative leaders at IDEO
Joerg Student
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We’d been working 16-hour shifts to install our art piece, a series of 10 larger-than-life, undulating, mechanical origami flowers. It was our first big build at Burning Man, and it took way longer than we expected to set up. After days, the flowers still weren’t working. Then came a torrential rainstorm.

As soon as the rain stopped, we got on our bikes to survey the damage. We saw the flowers on the horizon: droopy and sad-looking. Then, suddenly, they started illuminating, one after the other—opening up, blooming. To this day, we still don’t know how they came to life. But the sight was exactly what we had envisioned. Better even.

Blumen Lumen, FoldHaus Collective's first project.

That was 2014: the official start of FoldHaus Art Collective. Since then, our art installations have become bigger and more audacious. Shrumen Lumen, five massive, origami mushrooms, followed in 2016 (they’re now on exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum), and we most recently built a five-story tall, geodesic sphere covered with 42 origami shells called RadiaLumia.

Each project takes months to design, prototype, and build. Which means I often get asked: Why do you spend your nights and weekends doing this when you have a fulfilling day job as a creative leader?

For me, it means that I get to work with a bunch of other creative types who pitch in to build something beautiful that’s bigger than what any one of us could do on our own. I get to work with my hands in a way that’s rare in my day job, and every project stretches my own sense of what’s possible.

And because FoldHaus projects are always a group effort, we need to broaden the question: Why do any of us—between five and 30 volunteers contribute to our projects on any given weekend—give up sleeping in to solder? Or skip the beach to code LED patterns? As one of the leaders of the group, I have learned a few things about what it takes to build a strong community and take a bold vision from a Post-it to the Playa.

Here are the 5 principles that have helped this team pull off increasingly ambitious projects:

RadiaLumia's final form, debuted at Burning Man 2018.

1. Set an audacious—and contagious—vision

Drawing in a team requires not only that you love your idea, but that others do, too. After all, if you’re asking them to volunteer their time, they’ve got to be pulled in week after week, when they could easily be at the taco truck.

Blumen Lumen was a hit because everybody loves flowers. With the Shrumen Lumen, it took some convincing—many worried about associations with 'shrooms at Burning Man. This year, I made sure to test out the RadiaLumia concept with a few key members of the team, so I knew I had broad support. The buy-in worked, and has yielded our biggest team of volunteers by far.

The bottom line: Pressure-test your idea early—before you get too attached to it—so others will want to join up and help you realize the vision.

2. Stand on your own shoulders

Leading people to a grand vision is impressive only if you can actually pull it off. Ladder up from where you (and your team) actually are to where you want to go. And, acknowledge that it may not all happen at once.

Even before our Blumen Lumen, we built three shade structures for Burning Man. One was a disaster, but we learned from it. Now, we ensure that we are leveraging all we mastered the previous year to create the next installation. People are drawn to us because of our bold vision, but they stay with us because they know we have what it takes to make it happen.

The bottom line: Learn from previous outings that you can get over the mountain, so you can ask people to stretch and meet a new challenge.

Folding the origami pieces looks easier than it is.

3. Make it accessible

Part of the fun of leading a creative team is building camaraderie and community. But that can be constrained if a project requires too much specialized knowledge. Ensuring that part of the project is achievable by those without technical or unique skills is key to drawing a crowd when you need it.

On all of our projects, a big part of the effort is folding the plastic origami pieces. That requires pure manual labor, and anyone can be trained to do it, so we hosted all-hands-on-deck build parties every weekend leading up to Burning Man.

The bottom line: If you want to draw a crowd, create easy ways for people to participate without specialized expertise.

Making RadiaLumia a reality required many steps, including the configuration of 42 individual LED controllers.

4. Leave room for individual passions

When people are motivated to do something, get out of their way and let them go for it. Given the freedom, teammates will create something together that’s more amazing than what a single creative leader could pull off. Set the vision, then let people self-select into groups to get it done.

With RadiaLumia, no one person knows everything that’s going on at every given moment, which is kind of scary but also amazing, because it’s coming together despite—or because—of that!

When we shared the vision at the kickoff meeting in February, there were a bunch of people who’d only just met. Within minutes, they were already troubleshooting light placement. By the end of the afternoon, they’d demonstrated a cool light show—on day one! We now have several self-directed teams that are loosely connected, but working independently.

The bottom line: If you create a compelling enough vision and rough guardrails, you’ll create the conditions for people to self-organize in a way that will surprise you.

The (dusty) installation process at Burning Man.

5. Embrace ambiguity

The beauty of large-scale creative endeavors is in all of the unknowns. Try to remain flexible about who realizes the vision (and how).

Each year there are moments of extreme uncertainty. Weeks before installing the Shrumen Lumen at Burning Man, the origami kept getting stuck when we tried to pull the stems over the steel substructure that would anchor them to the ground. This was completely unexpected and took two weekends to debug. (Spoiler alert: We fixed it, but not without panic!). Troubleshooting is part of the process.

The bottom line: Expect the unexpected, and look for the beauty and lessons in it rather than the difficulty.

One of the most rewarding parts of FoldHaus is that while I may set the vision, once we pull off a communal project, the whole team feels immense ownership and pride. Being able to share both the process and the result is what makes the late nights and desert rainstorms worth it.

See RadiaLumia come to life at Burning Man 2018.

Also: We’d love to hear about your ambitious team efforts, at Burning Man or elsewhere, using the hashtag #MakerArt.

Special thanks to Amy Bonsall for her massive help crafting this story.

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Joerg Student
Joerg Student is passionate about exploring the intersection of design and engineering to elevate the human experience.
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