In November 2003, Burning Man finally acquired a health insurance program for its full-time, year-round staff. As we entered 2004, we began to make plans to more adequately house our workers in Nevada. Both of these changes have been a long time coming. As we’ve moved to improve working conditions for our employees, we have begun to re-examine many of our business practices.
The beginning of this story dates back to formation of the LLC that guides our organization. It is a tale of gradual replacement of informal methods with procedures that are fairer, more objective, and explicitly defined . As an example, we’ve recently begun to recruit new employees by posting detailed job descriptions throughout the Burning Man community. (Formerly, such appeals went out through a casual network of friends.) On other fronts, we appointed a Conflict Resolution Advocate whose role is to resolve work-related conflicts between staff members. We further improved a streamlined budget process that will allow us to track expenditures within and between each department, and we are about to engage a human resources consultant who will help us implement new programs. All of these changes add up to one thing: Burning Man is becoming more business-like.
Such improvements are necessary if we’re to survive in the future. The new year opens up the prospect of a double mission for us. Not only must we shepherd the event that culminates in Black Rock City every year, but we’re also working to create and administer the Burning Man Network – an organized network of affiliates, called Regional Contacts, whose mission is to serve the needs of our dispersed community. This dual focus represents an enormous challenge. Already, we are undertaking an ambitious construction program on our properties in Nevada. A second effort aimed at helping to organize people on a larger scale will mean we must learn to use our limited resources in much more effective ways.
Arriving at a turning point, we now must face a crucial test. In the past, many claimed Burning Man would grow too big, that increasing attendance would dilute our event and rob it of spontaneity, participation, and creative effort. After many years of constant growth and careful planning, none of this has happened. Now, however, the question remains whether the Burning Man Project itself can grow to meet new challenges without becoming too structured or too bureaucratic for its own good. Already, some refer to our organization, the Burning Man Project, as Bmorg, the Org, or, sometimes, the Borg – as if it were a faceless apparatus. A recent response by Larry Harvey to a correspondent’s question addresses this issue:
We conducted an interesting experiment at our recent board member retreat. The facilitator we worked with attempted to condense the values of our organization into seven words or short phrases; seven punchy ideas that would be easy to remember. Yet we could not agree among the six of us, and we’re the founders and directors of this enterprise. People switched back and forth several times. Finally, it degenerated into farce. We found ourselves trading honesty for integrity. Courage walked the plank in order to make room for charity. Just to throw a spanner in the works, my candidate was “fun” (no one had the heart to take it off the list). In the end, our facilitator’s writing pad was covered with a scribbled palimpsest of words, phrases, under linings, elisions: an indecipherable welter of ideas, all crowded together, like renters in a cheap tenement building. We simply couldn’t agree.
We attempted this same exercise at our subsequent Senior Staff Retreat, again with no greater success. Ultimately, we discovered a very simple truth: institutions do not have values. They most certainly have goals, but values are generated by immediate experience. Values, unlike goals, are intimate and spiritual and often go unstated. This was illustrated when we broke out into departmental teams. Within these groups people work cooperatively to achieve a mission: certain concrete results that they passionately care about.
We tend to stress roles over jobs, and vocation over pure professionalism. These people interact with one another on a daily basis and, quite typically, they’re friends – that’s part of our culture. These small peer groups quickly produced limited lists of common values and prioritized them. The Art Department, as it turned out, valued trust beyond all other things. Art, after all, is about imagining what doesn’t yet exist. By way of contrast, the Emergency Medical Service folks primarily valued integrity, but this also makes sense. When life and death hang in the balance, people need to act very conscientiously without being told to do so.
What I make of this is that moral values represent a very personal, heartfelt, and experiential phenomenon. They do not mystically emanate from anything so abstract or complex as an institution. Furthermore, if we’d tried to list all of the unique and idiosyncratic values that have inspired each individual on our staff to work with us (individuality is another very important part of our culture), I think this would have resulted in even greater chaos than our previous attempt. Our organization, in other words, is the nexus of a huge array of values that happen to intersect with an overall goal.
Ours, of course, is a uniquely value-driven enterprise, and I think that our facilitator would have enjoyed better success if she’d been dealing with a more conventional business organization. These are her normal clients. She’s actually a good friend, and that is the sort of environment she’s accustomed to working within. In such instances, I’ve little doubt that she is able to reduce an organization’s “values” down to the scale of a card that one might conveniently insert in one’s wallet. Typically, these organizations are profit driven and produce a relatively simple and definable product (at least, as compared to ours). Any such list, I suspect, would definitely feature integrity, which, in this context, is just another way of saying, “Do your work, and get the job done …even if the boss isn’t looking” – and though this is certainly a very good idea from the standpoint of senior management, I doubt if it induces any real moral furvor on the part of those being managed.
In order to entertain truly meaningful values, I am suggesting, it is not enough to work for money or take pride in one’s professionalism. It’s certainly not enough to simply identify with a powerful institution. One must open one’s heart to much greater (and sometimes more unruly) realities than any organizational entity could possibly represent. Institutions, after all, are merely means invented to achieve an end. They do not radiate a motivating moral force. By way of contrast with the normal business world, the ultimate goal of our organization is to induce a variety of immediate and spontaneous experiences that generate culture, and cultures (as distinguished from a certain form of faux business-culture) really do have values, just like people. It is an ethos, a way of being together, that ultimately produces values.
Among the values of our culture that affect us are such things as fun, humor, self-discovery, passion, charity toward others, and an appreciation of the capacities of each unique individual. During the last few years, we have all worked very hard to make our organization more efficient and more rational in its operation. We’ve stressed the need for responsibility, accountability, teamwork – all those things that might have made it onto our facilitator’s final list of institutional imperatives. And yet, should a day ever come when I enter our office and fail to hear laughter, witness no ongoing fun, or feel that we have lost the liberty to be ourselves regardless of the work at hand, I’ll know that we have finally faltered in our mission.
As of this writing, the Burning Man Project has begun to radically reorganize its Department of Public Works, instituted a Conflict Resolution Advocate role to help with internal conflicts, promulgated a detailed vacation policy, adopted a more formalized hiring procedure, and fashioned a new system of employee reviews. But we have not adopted a set of institutional values. In one corner of our office stands a hat rack hung with nightgowns, strange hats, and improvised costumes. No one really knows who put it there. It is available to everyone. The Burning Man Project still manages to remain both an organization and a free-spirited community. Our event Survival Guide tells participants that laughter is one of the hallmarks of community. At our office, the sound of laughter – great risible peals of gurgling laughter – continues unabated. Working hard and playing hard, we’re moving into the future.