[New Rules] What Can You Learn from “Burning Man”?

Burning Man , that once a year event around the US Labor Day holiday where 50,000 mostly strangers set up an instant community in the Black Rock Desert area of northeastern Nevada evokes a couple, at least, of reactions.

For people from the North American Pacific West, it’s another mostly ho-hum event in which people learn, laugh, love, work, and have fun. For the balance of the continent it’s an example the of type of thing that makes the West so weird and frankly so inviting.

But like another instant community event in the West that also works well – the annual AIDS LifeCycle fundraising ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles – Burning Man has some valuable lessons for anyone managing teams or organizations.

If instant communities of 3,000 – 50,000 people can work well as groups of strangers, those of us who work in sustaining organizations should have it easy.

Here’s five things events like Burning Man and AIDSLifeCycle teach us to do with teams and organization

  1. Be clear and articulate your purpose. While Burning Man and AIDS LifeCycle employ mission statements the important thing [Disclosure : I’m not a big fan of fancy formal mission statements: they frequently end up being a mismash without soul or teeth ] is that both are crystal clear regarding who they are, and what they are about. And they live their missions through these statements.
  2. Have crisp obligations by setting clear boundaries and rules that are connected to either your purpose, or how you choose to operate. Whether it be based on principles (Burning Man ) or rules of the road (AIDS LifeCycle ), be transparent.
  3. Consequences for your actions. In both cases, behave badly and you’re bounced (as in, it’s not appropriate that you continue being a part of the community.)
  4. Have fun. Engaging work – as Carol Dweck notes in “Mindset” –  is tremendously satisfying, and most people experience that level of engagement as “fun.” Make being engaged and having fun part of the experience: it’s a much more productive and high performing place than making it drudgery.
  5. Learn as you go. Both organizations build upon their past, much more so than many companies and firms with which I’ve worked. Post mortem for these types of communities is not a dirty word – it’s what you do to build on success.

Various Burning Man (live and taped) web cams can be found for those who want a taste of the event without the dust of the desert. Here’s just one .

[Updated 9/2/2009 : I thought a little more about what can learn from things like Burning Man, and on points #1 and #5 Susan Mohrman ‘s research for USC’s Center for Effective Organizations with self-directed work teams kept coming to mind. Self-directed teams don’t, it turns out, get much help by having people tell them how to do things. What is helpful is that senior management tell them what (not how) they want them to do – goals and outcomes, not process. While perhaps counterintuitive, setting clear directions and boundaries to performance is helpful, not distracting, for teams and groups. The mistake that most organizations make is that it’s a “one pass”: mention once and pass on mentioning it again. Things don’t work that way: like talking to children, it’s an iterative and repeated conversation .

New Rules is an occasional set of writings focused on changes in norms, culture, or ways of navigating work, organization and careers. More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.