How The Seemingly Chaotic But Wildly Successful Fringe Festival Makes It Work

This has been an explosive summer--markets in turmoil, cities in flames, politics in meltdown. So it's a relief to enjoy and learn from an explosion of a different sort--the explosion of creativity taking place this August in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The festival, a one-time icon of artistic rebellion, is now the largest arts gathering in the world. It is also an entertaining case study in the power of grassroots innovation and open-source creativity, a positive symbol of how unchecked human energy, shaped by a few simple rules, can unleash truly amazing results.

The annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a dawn-to-dusk display of artistic talent, was born in 1947, when a few gate-crashers decided to perform on the fringe of the world-famous Edinburgh International Festival. Nearly 65 years later, the once-fringe dwarfs the main event. This year, the three-week gathering offers nearly 42,000 performances of 2,542 shows hosted by 258 venues and featuring 21,192 performers. This massive creativity has become big business. A recent study concluded that the Fringe generates more than $225 million in annual economic activity for Edinburgh and the Scottish economy.

Paul Gudgin, the Fringe's artistic director from 1999 to 2007 (and who now advises festivals around the world), calls the event "the world's greatest artistic incubator." Every year, the best-received dramas and musicals get scooped up for runs in New York, London, and other major cities. Winning the festival's most prestigious prize, the Foster's Award for comedy, often called the Oscar of comedy, can be a fast-track ticket to stardom.

But the Fringe is more than performance art. Is a colorful symbol of the performance of open-source innovation. Making the Fringe come to life is a massive business challenge in terms of both creative decisions and logistics. Who gets to perform? What's the right blend of comedy and drama, music and theatre? Who performs in which venue? Who markets each event? Yet here's the amazing part: No one is in charge of the Fringe, certainly not in the conventional sense of that word. The festival's small full-time staff doesn't decide who performs or where, and doesn't influence the overall mix of performances. "There is no artistic guru, no committee, no guiding body of any kind," Gudgin explains. "Yet an extraordinary cluster of performers turns up every year to move the mix in a new direction."

So what makes the Fringe function? A carefully designed "architecture of participation" that blends wild-eyed creativity with the spirit of unblinking competition. The organizers curate the largest and one of the most influential arts gatherings in the world by making the festival as compelling as possible to as many participants as possible--and then letting the participants themselves decide what happens.

"The analogy with [open-source] software is interesting," Gudgin says. "In the arts, everyone wants to be the curator or the creative director. At the Fringe, we have to be the exact opposite. Our job is to get the circumstances absolutely right, to sell the whole experience, to make it as inviting as possible to anybody who could possibly contribute. We can't curate new ideas into existence."

Essentially, the Fringe is a self-organizing system governed by the self-interested calculations of four key constituencies: the performers, the venues, the audience, and the press. Any troupe or individual artist is eligible to perform; the challenge is to persuade one of the 250-plus venues to host your show. There is a well-understood hierarchy of venues in Edinburgh--certain theaters have more status than others--and different venues use different criteria to evaluate performers. Once you're in, the challenge is to persuade visitors to attend your show as opposed to one of the hundreds of others taking place at the same time, and to persuade the critics that yours is a show worth reviewing.

"You have to hit the ground running at the Fringe," Gudgin says. "The audience has to make so many choices so quickly--you have to be a true standout if you want them to choose you. But if you can make your show work among the shows at the Fringe, chances are it'll work in the wider marketplace."

But the real genius of the Fringe--and its key lesson for business and innovation--is not which kinds of shows work, but how the entire festival manages to work, and to get bigger and more important every year. The Fringe's architecture of participation pivots around a crisp answer to that age-old dramatic question: What's my motivation? The staff has a keen understanding of the reasons why so many artists are so eager to present their best work in Edinburgh. They understand the rules of attraction that make the Fringe a magnet for top-flight performers.

For some, it's important to be part of an occasion bigger than themselves. "Real artists are artists to the core," Gudgin says. "To be even a small part of this extraordinary gallery, with tens of thousands other performers, means something."

For others, it's important to embrace competition in its purest form. "If you're a true athlete, you want to be at the Olympics," Gudgin says. "Even if you know you're not going to win the gold medal, you want to see where you rank against the peers. The same goes for the performers who come to the Fringe."

Finally, and perhaps most universally, the Fringe presents a one-of-a-kind chance for performers to make a splash, turn heads, be discovered. "You rarely make money in Edinburgh," Gudgin says. "But you can make your career. We've got thousands of journalists at the festival. You have a better chance of getting your work reviewed here than anywhere else in the world. This is a proving ground, a way to raise your profile, a place to get noticed."

It's not hard to connect what works every summer in Edinburgh to what works in organizations of all kinds that are hungry for innovation and new energy--an architecture of participation through which head-to-head competition leads to group collaboration. To make your organization as competitive as possible, maximize the opportunities for your people to collaborate with as many smart people as possible outside your organization. To maximize the effectiveness of this grassroots collaboration, encourage participants to compete with each other--and learn from each other in the process. To maximize what you learn from the process, minimize the natural leadership instinct to control what happens among the participants.

The job of the Fringe staff "is to do the absolute minimum necessary to make this event happen," Gudgin says emphatically. "The worst thing we could do is to decide what kind of festival Edinburgh should be, to engage in what I call programming through the back door. My most important responsibility is to make sure that the people who decide what the festival should be are the artists and the audience. What we have to do at all times is to make as few rules as possible."

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

[Image: Flickr user -RobW-]

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