What Burning Man Teaches us About How to Set Up and Run Our Organisations
Philip Pryor 2016
In 2014 I went to Burning Man * …
It was shocking, amazing, thrilling, frustrating, tiring and most of the time overwhelming in its creativity and fun for people from 18 months to 81 years.
It is true, there is a lot of nudity – mostly overweight men who should know better, riding bikes with their ‘gear’ carefully aligned on the bike seat – possibly for maximum exposure, I’m not sure. And yes, there are drugs – not in your face smoking pot or people popping pills or shooting up – there are way too many police around for that. I guess it’s about the same level as you’d see in any night club anywhere in the world. I talked to a couple of police as they were getting a coffee in the Centre Camp and asked them what differences they saw between this ‘city’ of 70,000 people and any other city of the same size. Their reply was it was much easier and much better behaved, and then one of them muttered something about…”probably due to all the drugs people are using…”
If you want to dance to lot to techno music-this is your place. The bloody stuff starts up at 6.30am and goes around the clock to about 6.30am. Sometimes they even overlap! There were so many DJs and dance venues and Art Carts driving around all going doof, doof doof – it was overwhelming.
If you are a pyromaniac then this is your nirvana; from 10 metre high eight legged mechanical octopus from hell spouting flames into the sky, to 30 metre high sculptures being burned, to a tuba player shooting out flames from his tuba in time to the New Orleans band in which he was playing.
If you are allergic to being hugged by complete strangers, this place will drive you insane. They just do it all the time. Either get over it or don’t go!
However, none of the above is any of the real reasons to go.
The place is one huge social experiment. It works and it is fascinating. For one week, there is a culture of openness, giving, caring and “non-judgementalness” that is quite extraordinary. People are genuinely friendly, open and wonderful. One guy lost his iPhone somewhere out on the playa (the desert area where all the amazing sculpture and art work sits) and it was back at his camp before he was! He had put a screen shot message on the phone saying something to the effect of “If you find this phone could you please return it to camp X and I’ll be really grateful”. It worked.
No money is used or needed. People will come up to you out of the blue and offer you anything from a sticker, a necklace, a massage, food, or a slug from their bottle of vodka! The various camps offer a startling array of workshops, events and programs, from the finer points of spanking all the way through to TED talks and everything in between. Our camp made fresh bread every morning and gave it away to as many people who wanted it. On the last day we gave out bread constantly for 5 hours. Those who received it loved it. In many ways we got more joy giving it away – it was a huge buzz. At night we would go out to other camps that ran bars with music or performances and it was all free. You just needed to take your cup along with you (so they could pour you a drink).
And then there is the playa… OMG and I don’t mean the teenage “OMG” spouted every 5 seconds in a situation where “golly” would perfectly suffice. I mean the OMG that makes you stand stock still in awe for a full minute! The imagination and creativity is simply overwhelming. I rode my bike around and went silent in awe at the brilliance of, not to mention the humour and originality. For example, there is a phone booth in the middle of the desert signed “Talk to God” and sure enough when you pick up the phone, God is there and s/he really can see everything!
The art was so inspiring and yet, it was very ‘Buddhist’. So much of the art will either not be seen again, or it will be burnt. It’s not called Burning Man for nothing. And it’s all free. People come and build huge, 20-30m high sculptures made of steel and wood taking months if not years to design and months to build, only to burn them down at 5am watched by thousands of people. Hugely famous DJs (who of course I have never heard of) come and play. Anyone with a bike and the constitution to get up at, or stay up till 4.30am can go and immerse themselves in music; ensuring their future hearing is truly and properly compromised.
So, what can we learn from Burning Man in how it is run and organised? It is not random, anything goes chaos. It is a highly organised rule-bound organisation that rebuilds itself (with 70,000 people from all around the world) every year with a clearly defined and predictable culture. This is a culture that is incredibly creative, innovative, warm, trusting and fun.
As I walked around, the level of organisation is incredible. The place is laid out as if you are on a huge clock face. Addresses are something like “7.15 and D”. I won’t even bother to try and explain it here but once you get your head around it, it works just fine.
And then come the rules… As I wondered about, I heard so much talk and discussion about anarchy being the necessary state of being, and how important freedom is, and how none of us should be encumbered by rules and ‘government”. Yet the reality is that the place only works because there are really, really strict rules that are really, really strongly upheld and believed.
For example, you might think you don’t litter. You have never come across anything like the concept of not littering till you have been to Burning Man. They have a thing called MOOP – Matter Out Of Place. This is based on the belief that Burning Man should leave no trace. So not only is there not a scrap of litter, there is not a scrap of anything. Everything that’s not dust gets picked up, from the tiny bit of tinsel off your exquisite costume, to a tiny piece of plastic insulation from wire you used to construct your camp, to the corner of scrap of paper, is all expected to be picked up (and it is). The aim is that there should be, literally nothing except dust and foot prints left. I’ve heard they check every camp site for MOOP. If any is found you are relegated to a much less desirable place to camp next year. They do take it seriously! A new verb “to MOOP’ was formed.
And then there are the toilets. So much of my life when I have been in the bush or out sailing, a quick pee over the side or in the nearest bush is just fine—not at Burning Man. There is to be no water/poo/pee/dishwashing/shower run-off of any sort to go into the desert. Consequently, there are huge numbers of porta loos everywhere. Even out at the edge of the desert, one would stumble over a porta loo or two sitting there just waiting for someone to use them. I was amazed. Everyone conformed. I never once saw anyone pee in the open. I saw many other things happening right out in the open, but in all cases, all liquids were strictly contained.
None of this is a coincidence; they actively and consciously work at maintaining their culture. They are extremely clear on their values and beliefs and the rules required to maintain them. These are discussed, talked about and the importance of them is clearly known and understood. The vast majority of people who maintain all this, do it for free. And they re-create this same culture year after year.
New people (called Virgins) are indoctrinated into this culture actively and consciously upon arrival (don’t ask) and this is reinforced by the crowds and volunteers every day.
There is clearly something in Burning Man that normal society (real Burners call it the Default World) can learn from it. I’m not sure everyone in society at large is suddenly going to ride bikes through dust storms wearing leather chaps and nothing else to explore the next dance craze. But maybe our communities and organisations could take something from how they run and maintain their community with a very conscious culture of openness, trust, fun and environmental awareness.
There is something about the expectations we have of people. Perhaps if we actually expect people to be honest, caring and generous and truly follow this through to all levels, then just maybe people will do that. The people at Burning Man really do live their beliefs and they don’t waver – to the point of insisting that even mega-wealthy big shots who try and bend the rules, or don’t think it applies to them, have to follow the rules. I never saw one incidence of violence or aggression. The worst was someone saying a sarcastic comment about someone else at 3am. There were some stories of things being stolen. However, our camp had no locked doors anywhere.
Burning Man, at the very least, shows that when people are given the chance to be generous and open and trusting they are – what an amazing community that would be to live or work in!
I don’t know if they know this, but they are using almost pure cybernetics. By providing a core set of rules (in cybernetics we call this constraints), a space for creativity and innovation is created that produces far more than anyone can predict, yet avoids the undesirable things they don’t want to happen.
If they can do this with 70,000 strangers of all ages, backgrounds and nationalities in the middle of a dust bowl in Nevada, then why can’t we do this with our organisations and businesses?
For me, who is not that interested in dancing to music that has two notes repeated over and over again at ear shattering volume, it is still so worth going. The art, the people, the warmth and for a short time being in a community of honesty and free expression is just priceless. Oh and you have to like dust. If you and dust do not get on, then you will struggle. It’s bloody dusty and it gets everywhere! If you can put up with that, then you’re in!
Burning Man is an annual gathering that takes place at Black Rock City—a temporary community erected in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.
Business Advisor, Strategy Expert, Mediator and Culture Change Expert. Philip is the Principal of Morphthink Pty Ltd which assists family leaders design and implement strategies to successfully manage their businesses and families. Contact: Philip@morphthink.com
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