Leadership Lessons From Burning Man

Think the annual arts fest in the Nevada desert is nothing more than a week-long bacchanal? Think again. It's a a master class in how to create awesomeness.

It’s easy to dismiss Burning Man as nothing more than a bizarre hippie love-fest that takes place deep in the Nevada desert every year the week before Labor Day. But doing so misses the fact that it’s an amazingly successful enterprise--and, as such, has a thing or two to teach about how to inspire creative people and create a great product.

Since it first began 25 years ago, Burning Man has grown larger every year (if you ignore the slight dip in recession-scarred 2009). It’s grown so much that this year, for the first time ever, the organization had to cut off ticket sales early, for fear of finally hitting the 50,000-person limit authorized by its federal land-use permit. And those tickets aren’t cheap either--they now cost an average of $300 a pop.

Granted, Burning Man's overall intention is not to create a "product," per se. (Not one for trite labels, it calls itself an "experiment in community.") But its growth numbers--in terms of customers and revenue--are ones any business could envy. So how does Burning Man do it?

It starts with culture

One of the first things to understand is that Burning Man isn’t actually just a festival. In many ways--in keeping with its mission--it’s actually more of a town. In fact, it's the 11th largest in Nevada during the one week of its existence. The horseshoe that makes up "Black Rock City" (named for Black Rock Desert) gets delineated into "blocks" and "neighborhoods" where attendees (dubbed "participants") set up their camps--often elaborate compounds complete with sitting areas and play areas in addition to tents, yurts, and RVs. The "town" even has its own post office (send a letter and it will reach its destination, complete with a "Black Rock City" cancellation mark), as well as an airport.

As a result, many of the people who choose to go to Burning Man do so not just for the revelries and the festivities but simply because it’s a place they like to visit, like the Eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, Las Vegas, or the Poconos.

And they like to visit it because of the overall atmosphere. It’s one of the friendliest towns you will ever come across. Most camps have an open-door policy. You’re welcome to stop in at any abode. Most people are also inordinately helpful. Other Burners will happily help you set up your camp or install your art piece. And it’s amazingly safe for a town of 50,000, many of whom are partying for seven days straight. If you’re a woman, you can walk home at 3 in the morning with little fear of harassment. Brawls are basically unheard of.

So how does Burning Man produce this culture? It’s a mix of top-down instruction and horizontal transmission. The organization itself produces a Survival Guide that spells out the ethos of the place and the guidelines that make it work. And the organizers, in all their communications, consistently reinforce the event’s ethos. But truthfully, the most powerful part of the cultural transmission happens from person to person.

The group I joined when I first started going consisted of some guys who had belonged to one of the hardest-partying clubs in college. And yet these same guys were the ones who diligently instructed me on the importance of--and firmly held me accountable for--picking up and packing out every piece of trash larger than a sequin so that, after all Burners went home, the desert would be as pristine as it was before we all showed up.

How does this happen? Ultimately it comes down to the fact that Burning Man does a phenomenal job at communicating how the culture contributes to the overall experience. And since participants value the overall experience, they work hard to adhere to the cultural principles. And equally hard to pass those principles on to newcomers.

Add a dose of trust and positive reinforcement

The other key component of how culture gets transmitted is through positive reinforcement, which itself is often bathed in a dollop of humor. There are no forbidding or bureaucratic signs at Burning Man telling you what you can and cannot do. Instead, where needed, signs are erected to remind attendees of things they might not know or might forget--but those signs are generally friendly and playful, like this one (right) reminding people not to bring their bikes (the main form of transportation) into a communal tent.

Organizers also imbue a huge amount of trust in the community. Volunteer Burning Man Rangers do patrol the town, but they’re there more to be of help than to lay down the law. Mostly, the organization communicates an attitude to the Burners that it trusts them to adhere to the communal rules and help propagate them.

All of which comes down to a fundamental principle of human nature: People want to be inspired, not lectured. They tend to respond better to humor and gentle reminders than they do to dictates or presumptions of guilt before innocence.

Motivate with autonomy

Unlike many festivals, Burning Man itself provides nothing more than the overall infrastructure—the city grid, the port-a-potties, the Rangers and other volunteers who keep the town running. But everything else is provided by the participants--the massive techno dance clubs, the yoga classes, the works of art, the merry little vehicles sailing across the desert, the makeshift restaurants, the seminars on technology and sustainability, the circuses, the chill spaces. Burning Man creates none of it. It all comes from the participants.

And the things the participants provide, which vary from year to year, are endlessly delighting and mind-blowing. A party bus outfitted to look like a giant rubber ducky. A “Mant Farm,” a three-story high human version of the old ant farms. A go-kart retrofitted to look like a fighter jet. A vaudeville performance. A violin solo deep out on the Playa. A lounge-like oasis on the edge of the desert right where you'd need a break. A fire garden. A seminar on lucid dreaming. A bulletin board where people are encouraged to leave jokes (sample: “I saw a wino eating grapes. I was like, 'Dude, you have to wait a while.'"). A pirate bar where the occasional ninja shows up to wreak havoc (per the Internet meme). Even the 40-foot, eight ton rocket ship that has since taken up residence on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. You can spend seven days on the Playa and still not see all the marvels and wonders participants bring to the place.

So how does Burning Man get people to create such marvels? Not by command and control. The organization simply sets a few guidelines, mainly for safety purposes, and then gives attendees permission to let their imaginations run wild.

Not everything is a hit, of course. Every year there are any number of installations, performances, and activities that just don’t seem to hit the mark. But there are many more that overshoot it far more than if Burning Man had given specific instructions about what it wanted created.

This is a secret that organizations that successfully harness the imaginations of their creative people have long known: You can’t order creativity. You can only create the conditions for it to blossom--mainly by setting certain prescribed boundaries and then giving your creative people a great deal of autonomy to execute as they see fit.

Reward people with appreciation, rather than money

Burning Man has a "no money" policy. Everything participants bring must be shared with other participants for free. (For an explanation of why, see "Decommodification" under the organization’s Ten Principles.)

So whether you just bring a set of hula hoops for people to play with, or a massive dance club costing tens of thousands of dollars to set up and run, you have to shell out all the money (and sweat equity) yourself, with no hope of ever recouping a dime for your troubles. Why would anyone do that, you might ask. The answer lies largely in Daniel Pink’s latest book Drive, which examines the science of human motivation (and how businesses often get it wrong).

Pink explains that you can’t motivate creative people with money. Certainly, you have to pay them enough to live on, he says, and pay them comparably to their peers so they feel appropriately valued. But after that, Pink explains, tossing more money at a creative person doesn't produce more creative output.

Instead, Pink says, creative people simply want the latitude discussed in the previous section (autonomy), as well as the opportunity to do something really well (mastery) and the opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves (purpose). And that’s what Burning Man provides.

No matter how whacky the thing bouncing around in your head (a party bus shaped like a duck, whowouldathought?), it will find a home and appreciation at Burning Man. And, more importantly, you will feel like you are doing your part to contribute to the overall experience. In fact, it's not unusual for newcomers--even those who felt slightly trepidatious about the whole enterprise to begin with--to leave the event toying around with ideas of what they might create to bring back the following year.

Much of the above probably sounds like common sense: Trust people and they will usually live up to that trust. Give people creative freedom, and they will surprise you with what they deliver. And indeed, it is common sense. And yet many organizations nevertheless fall down on one or more of these principles--structuring rules and regulations around a presumption of guilt on the part of employees, rather than treating them as trusted members of a community, or by offering only money rather than latitude in the effort to drum up creativity.

Burning Man, however, is a living example of how, when an organization lives by that sometimes not-so-common common sense, great things ensue.

[Images: Courtesy of E.B. Boyd; front page image by Mike Q. Victor]

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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33 Comments

  • Rubi Ahmed Tanvir

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  • Bones

    Nevada Girl, you seem to have alot of mis-information about BurningMan.   As a Wharton MBA grad (since educational credentials appear to be relevant to you) who  this year attended his 7th burn with none other than 1 other Wharton MBA, 2 Stanford MBAs, 5 Harvard MBAs, including the grandchildren of Dag Hammerskold, first Secretary General of the UN and another who is a former John McCain lieutenant, the former CEO of a technology company that was acquired for $100M, and an FBI Special Investigator assigned to the DEA, Im confident that I can say your statements about attendees are well off the mark.  I have yet to find these orgies you mention, despite 7 years of attendance.  As hahndro points out, many of the greatest minds in Science and the Arts are regular attendees of BurningMan, including the founders of Google, Paypal & Tesla Motors as well as Sting for example.   

    One of the most beautiful things about those who attend BurningMan is that they are not judgmental-everyone is free to be who they want to be.  They may fear their God, but I dont ask, and neither does anyone else-its not for me to say what is appropriate behavior in their belief system or in yours.  I have a saying about BurningMan-"Those who go know".  You clearly do not.  

  • hahndro

    I find the ignorant generalizations about orgies and hippies humorous. As a long-time attendee, I can tell you that many of the greatest innovators in our country attend this event regularly, including some of the pioneers who developed the internet, pioneers in medicine, biotech, high tech, etc. In short, the entire innovative class of california and the country is well represented.

    Next time you write a little smear post about the "idiots" spending $300 to go, just remember that those idiots include, quite literally, the inventors of the internet networking protocols without which you couldn't even write your little diatribe posts. We're talking about guys now in there 60s and 70s that developed TCP/IP and founded the EFF and go out there with interesting technology-oriented art projects every year.

    A simple persusal of the highly sophisticated art-projects out there should be enough to understand this. One of the art projects this year was a laser-based clock developed by Berkeley physicists. Basically the lasers mounted on a tower would sweep accurately like a clock hand (seconds hand as well as minutes and hours) accurately to hit 12 dials around the inner perimeter of the city, creating the largest clock in the world. You can argue that this is pointless or wasteful, but you certainly cannot argue that they are "idiots."

  • Albert Chu

    Good analysis on how B/M grew so quickly, so successfully. Interestingly, these principles are the same for social media --- to grow your social community, you should also be "start with culture (or espouse a vision, point of view), add a dose of positive reinforcement...", etc. 

  • Professor M.S.Rao

    Fantastic!

     

    Professor
    M.S.Rao Author of 9 leadership books including ‘Spot Your Leadership Style
    Build Your Leadership Brand’

     

    Blog: http://profmsr.blogspot.com Where Knowledge is Wealth

    Speaker
    Wiki: http://speakerwiki.org/speaker...

    LinkedIn: http://in.linkedin.com/pub/pro...

    �Asz`�i�cline-height: 21px; color: black; ">Instead, Pink says, creative people simply want the latitude discussed in the previous section (autonomy), as well as the opportunity to do something really well (mastery) and the opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves (purpose). And that’s what Burning Man provides.
    No matter how whacky the thing bouncing around in your head (a party bus shaped like a duck, whowouldathought?), it will find a home and appreciation at Burning Man. And, more importantly, you will feel like you are doing your part to contribute to the overall experience. In fact, it's not unusual for newcomers--even those who felt slightly trepidatious about the whole enterprise to begin with--to leave the event toying around with ideas of what they might create to bring back the following year.
    Much of the above probably sounds like common sense: Trust people and they will usually live up to that trust. Give people creative freedom, and they will surprise you with what they deliver. And indeed, it is common sense. And yet many organizations nevertheless fall down on one or more of these principles--structuring rules and regulations around a presumption of guilt on the part of employees, rather than treating them as trusted members of a community, or by offering only money rather than latitude in the effort to drum up creativity.
    Burning Man, however, is a living example of how, when an organization lives by that sometimes not-so-common common sense, great things ensue.

  • Linda Rooney

    Wow. If all these burners would take this ethos back to wherever they live the other 51 weeks of the year, we'd have another 50,000 against big government. My bet is that most of them have a whole different belief system when it comes to politics. But I could be wrong.

  • hahndro

    hah, there is plenty of government and bureaucracy there, believe me. There is every kind of department you would find in a real city, including a DMV. If anything the event has become significantly more bureaucratic over the years as it as has accommodated more and more people. But I guess its obvious that you can't have "small government" with 300 million people.

  • doug@snowshoepublishing.com

    LOTS of good points made by everyone and guess what. . .most of you are right to some degree. The gentleman who said there are no leadership lessons. . however. . .is talking out his tooter.

    CASE IN POINT.  ..you've got 45 people. .. .2000 disassembled dome parts (and lots of machinery and tools). . .and you need to build a dome. . you need team leaders. . .you need teams, shifts, experts, time management. It could take 8 hours, or it could take 4 days. When our leadership skills were lacking. . it took 4 days. By year 3 of our trek to the desert. . it took 8 hours. The difference was leadership. . team-building and so on. And then, once the camp is together. . every group meal, every party, every outing on the art car. . .all require leadership skills, decisions, etc.

    In response to the other input. . .Burningman is a whole bunch of everything. It is debauchery. . .but it's also friendship in love. I'm sure there's satan worship going on. . .but there's also church and people coming to the Lord.

    There's healing going on. . .and there's damage.. . .

    There's a whole lotta everything. .. .. 

    Doug Johnson
    Snowshoe Publishing

  • Zorba

    gosh NevadaGirl...how can someone as young as you get so cynical so quickly? I'm hardly a liberal, fairly conservative in fact, God-fearing, an admirer of Edmund Burke, voted for Reagan...but come on..."freaks"..."party of liberals"...."these dirty people"..."these morons". I mean, if anything, these folks are libertarians or maybe anarchists....but liberals? Most if not all of the people I came across were from the West Coast and the West in general, very kind and generous in spirit, self-reliant types, lots and lots of legitimate artists...I missed the orgies and the drugs, although I'm sure they can be had at B/M. My only pb with B/M is that it has simply gotten too big. When I went, 15 years ago, it was barely manageable...now with 6 times as many people there's no way they can maintain a quality program and weed out potential trouble makers. Already I'm told, original burners are coming up with alternatives to Black Rock City. Scale poses specific problems of its own, and unattended it will derail the B/M project, for sure.

  • NevadaGirl

    Yes, I may be young, but I’m not stupid. Belief in God-fearing ways, restraint, and not degrading your body with debauchery, meaningless sex, and drugs is not cynical – it’s common sense. “Burners” (as they are called) strong anti-social behavior elicit a strong pro-social (i.e., responsible) response – hence the strong language of my post.  Yesterday, one of them, about my age, came up to me asking for money so that he could get enough gas money to “go burn”…he smelt of urine and patchouli, and obviously hadn’t bathed in days. Clearly, these people are of the same caliber as the 1960s hippie movement and are equally revolting…no matter how you package them .

  • Zorba

    Well, by gollly, I'm 72 and truly stupid in that I'm too trusting, I guess. I've also come to understand that people do change over time. That young man smelling of urine and patchouli today could be a very good geologist or biologist tomorrow. Our 15 second judgment is just that a 15 second judgment, not an indictment for life, NevadaGirl! As far as the 1960's are concerned, I was a bit too old back then to be a hippie, and military service got in the way. My first wife, though, was an authentic hippie which didnt prevent her from becoming a fairly renowned physician and surgeon, as well as a pretty good piano player. She also smells nice....no urine or patchouli. She's also a staunch Republican, by the way, but not of the Tea Party variety....and not a follower of Betty Boop, aka Ms. Sarah Palin. Finally, God-fearing is not synonymous with humorless. My pastor is a jolly guy, probably gay, and a wonderful person. He's living proof that you can adhere to an intentional and serious life and yet not be a pill to himself and others.

  • NevadaGirl

    OH PLEASE! As a Nevadan from Reno, NV (the town that gets
    deluged by these freaks every year), a UNR MBA student, and a conservative, this
    is hardly a study in leadership. It’s just a massive party of liberals who
    engage in orgies (lots of drug use, drinking, and sex) -- all the while
    proclaiming that it’s “about the art.” BS! Oh and as far as leaving nothing
    behind the size of a sequin: that’s a lie too. I used to work as a clean-up
    volunteer with the Bureau of Land Management in NV. The amount of trash left
    behind by these dirty people is astonishing (the trash included needles,
    condoms, and broken booze bottles). What cracks me up about these fools is how
    much money they spend to “live free:” $300/ticket x 50,000 people = $15,000,000.
    Then, there’s the cost of going: for example, I talked to a Wal-Mart employee
    yesterday who told me that a guy spent $8,000 yesterday on hard liquor so that
    he could have a free bar at Burning Man. Another example, a single mom (who is
    always complaining about how broke she is) that I work with spend over $100 to
    have neon feathers woven into her hair for the event (I know because I asked
    her). I can certainly think of better uses for that money in these hard times
    (I spent $100 on school books for this semester). If anything, IMHO, the only
    good thing about Burning Man is how much money these morons drop into my city
    each year….but as they say….a fool and his money….

  • Zorba

    Nice article, except the premise is completely off. There are no leadership lessons to be gained from Burning Man. Burning Man and what it stands for is the antithesis of capitalist economics and the Corporate model as we understand it today in America. Burning Man in fact is a TAZ  (or temporary autonomous zone) anathema to a Corporate mentality brandishing notions of control, submission, power, and hierarchy...no matter how subtle (yes, all of this exists in Silicon valley, kids!). To pretend that anyone can extract a "lesson" from the festival and project it into the world of work is simply ludicrous. It is also incredibly naive and potentially dangerous for the unknowing soul who tries it. Do go to Burning Man and enjoy it for what it is. And forget about your work life, any "lessons", or the trappings of our ever so anesthesized society. Zorba (BM '98)

  • Wize Adz

    It's worth mentioning, though, that not everyone goes to Burning Man.  They're a self-selected subset of the population.

  • joseph Coplans

    the author, and with terrific insights about BM, did miss one important point: The emotional motivation for Burning Man's success, the very desire for everyone to create a kind, open, and really, LOVING atmosphere is result of the true nature of what people want. Yes, it's a creative city, a dazzling world, but people go to burning man to express love and joy and beauty about the true nature of people, and celebrate a world that does is entirely antithetical to how society works in every way (after you pay a fee, ha ha, of course). It's proof that the hurting, the harm, the flip-offs on the street, the depression people go through as a result of financial pressures and because of how complex the world is, goes away for a week. There is nothing to accomplish. There is no goal. There is no economy. There's only love.

  • Mary Pratt

    What's really strange is that you've added "creative" descriptor to people who are not motivated by money.  I don't think Dan Pink (or Dan Ariely, who has done a lot of research in this area), say *anything* about *only* creative people.  They are just talking about people. And not even necessarily educated people.  I believe some of Ariely's experiments took place in MIT and then in rural India as well.

  • Lisa

    Christine,

    In theory and to a great degree, in fact, you are correct about the rewards the participants lend to both the festival and to each other.  However, you have a relatively sophomoric view of the base from which the creativity and participation spring.  Many burners mistakenly underestimate the degree to which the festival organizers toil in order to put on this event.  It's a 364 day labor of love which includes dealing with federal and local government, construction/architecture and operations management, financial planning, budgeting and obtaining grants for funding art...logisitics, safety and on and on. 

    I don't claim to be part of the organization and have never attended (some day I'll be able to pull it off), but know a great deal about event planning and recently watched a documentary about what goes on behind the scenes.  You should watch it.