Learning from Black Rock City. Managing Creative Chaos

How to structure the organization and decision-making in a community that promotes radical and active participation from its members? Burning Man and Black Rock City have been confronted with many organizational challenges with the exponential grow of their participants from 20 in 1986 to 69000 participants in 2014. If we refer to management theory, a big company means bureaucracy while a small start-up could be a flexible and adaptive to market dynamics.

Burning Man has managed to go beyond this assumption towards a yearly recreation of its organization. The conception of a semi-flexible structure allowed Burning Man to avoid over-organizing (constraining the essence of the event and the freedom that is promoted in the community) and overcome under-organizing (motivating member to contribute and not only to be spectators).

To accomplish radical inclusion – one of their ten principles, Burning Man’s organization is divided in different departments. The amount and objective of departments is a yearly self-reflection according to the experiences of the previous year and the self-reflection that is made by each of the participants in the groups. For example, due to the new trend of owning drones, a group called Remote control Black Rock city is in charge of the regulations and permissions related to these »vehicles«.

Besides a dynamic department structure, Burning Man’s volunteering program is not based on a skill-driven selection. The participation principle is based on what would you like to share and how would you like to be part of the organization of Burning Man. So, if you are part of the department of public works (in charge of putting all the basic temporary structure in BRC), you are there because you chose to be there. And if you don´t have any experience, the process is structured in a way that you can construct the skills you’ll use doing this tasks.

MOOP maps from 2006 to 2013
MOOP maps from 2006 to 2013

Self-reflection and learning is a process shared with all the participants, not only with the organizational team. For example, the MOOP map (Matter Out Of Place) shows the things that were found after the end of the festival. Since the principle of “leave not trace” was stablished, the community has shown an impressive learning curve. Although, between 2011 and 2014 almost 40% of the people were virgins (term denoting newbies in Burning Man), sharing of the information and appropriation of the principles of the community has diminished the amount of traces.