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Strandbeests: Lessons on Innovation, Patience & Humor


I am at the beginning of a large, multi-year project at work. I have always enjoyed building new things. In fact, I have a patience challenge when it comes to the necessary responsibilities of stewarding things that are already well established. That being said, the prospect of the bold new initiative simultaneously fills me with optimism and dread. The opportunity to fill white space with something wonderful is energizing. But what if I can't make the reality match the vision?

I have a new hero who inspires me to embrace both the excitement and the inevitable reality checks that accompany innovation. He is Theo Jansen, a Dutch Renaissance man who is equal parts artist and scientist. For the last 25 years, he has been evolving his Strandbeests (literally, beach animals), wind propelled kinetic sculptures that move with animal-like grace. Jensen has said, "Within the next 20 years I want the animals to be independent from me, so they take their own decisions -- when to walk on the beach, what to anchor themselves against during storms or when to move away from the water."

After many years of experimentation, the beests are fantastical and intricate and still fashioned from ordinary materials that can be found at a hardware store. Theo talks about them as though they are animate, indicating that he expects to create beests in the future that can reproduce. Of course, they already have. People flock to see them and to create their own. The beests are reproduced every time they inspire a viewer.

strandbeest evolutionThere's a lot to learn from Theo when it comes to tackling business innovation challenges like mine. Innovation begins with a vision for what success will look like. Theo has held fast to his vision for 25 years while improving his beests through incremental innovation. This "evolutionary history" of the beests at the Peabody Essex Museum exhibition in Salem, Massachusetts shows how he has continued to reinvent them over time. The earliest beest wasn't much more than a box with four legs. Every generation has introduced new ways for the beests to adapt to changing wind and terrain challenges. Theo has continually cannibalized older beests to create new ones, much like successful innovators preserve the elements of their successful experiments while being willing to do away with the parts that don't serve their objectives.  If you watch the video at the top of this article, you'll see just how far he has come.

I had the opportunity to chat with one of the gallery assistants at the Peabody Essex exhibit and asked if Jensen actually believes his beests are animate. Much of what I've read about him in the past indicates that he might. The assistant, having met him, indicated that while Jensen is passionate about evolving his beests, he knows they are machines. Perhaps, though, his showmanship underscores the importance of engaging others in your story if you expect to achieve successful change.

Jensen has accelerated his vision by publishing his secrets -- with the result that makers around the world are hacking their own. He's sharing the DNA so "reproduction" can happen. This kind of collaboration is necessary for business success as well. Networking with others who've worked on similar projects can both fire up your inspiration while sparing you from wasting time on dead-end efforts. Sharing what you're doing inside your organization helps you build an army of advocates who can help promulgate change.

My project won't involve PVC pipe -- the main material in Jensen's beests -- but it will require patience, persistence and collaboration to achieve. I'll let you know when I get there.

strandbeest driver

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