Extreme Innovation: Practical Lessons from Burning Man

Biking at Burning Man 2014 )'(

Biking at Burning Man 2014 )'(

One of my goals as a scholar is: I want to understand what makes the Burning Man environment such a petri dish for cultivating and catalyzing true innovation. “Innovation” has become such an overused and diluted term that I get really excited when I see and feel it happening all around me — independent of the traditional capitalist motivations.

We’ll be analyzing survey data that we collected on and off the playa for the next few months; after that, I should be able to give you a data-driven sense of what really makes Burning Man a culture of innovation. But in the meantime, I’ll recap the message that I presented in Toronto at the ASQ Innovation Conference in September, in a talk called “Extreme Innovation: Practical Lessons from Burning Man”, which is based mostly on connecting anecdotal evidence from observation and initial interviews with the academic literature. (We’ll improve upon that later.)

Our premise is based on an observation from the Harvard Business Review blog earlier this year: that the fundamental character of management is, once again, changing. For the bulk of the 20th century, the organization was treated as a machine to be oiled and optimized. In the 1980’s, with the introduction of books like Senge’s Fifth Discipline, the organization was recharacterized as a collection of knowledge flows to be captured and optimized. Today, however, some claim that we are moving into an era of empathy, where the organization should be a vehicle to create complete and meaningful experiences

Given that we’re about to embark upon a collective strategy focused on creating these complete and meaningful experiences, here are some practical lessons about innovation from Burning Man. Note that there are tens — if not hundreds — of lessons about innovation you could learn from participating in Burning Man. We can’t possibly capture them all. But listed below are some of the top insights we’ve gleaned from observing the personalities and dispositions of the world-class innovators we’ve camped around.

#1 Innovation Requires Renewal. One of the themes we noticed at the ASQ Innovation Conference was that several of the talks touched on creative destruction — that it’s important to purposefully break down the old structures and processes to bring in the new. (People were not talking about it just in a general sense, not in the Schumpeterian sense, where the destruction happens as a result of the creation and uptake of new innovations.) However, we’re not really good at sloughing off old ways of doing things — and in fact, many of us (especially the “experts”) seem to be particularly skilled at rejecting the most creative ideas. When change management was introduced in the late 1980’s, we looked for top-down interventions to help people release their resistance to large-scale organizational changes, even when those improvements were clearly the most logical and beneficial. At Burning Man, we are accustomed to building things (or seeing things built) that are quickly experienced, deconstructed, taken down, or burned. Subconsciously, it attunes us to the process of creative destruction and renewal in a way that we expect it from the systems and processes around us.

#2 Everyone Needs a Temporary Liminal Space. Have you ever felt like you’re “anxiously floating in the inbetween”? At the interface of an old way of thinking or being, and a new and potentially uncomfortable way (that might not even be completely clear to you)? Often, these liminal times come during major life transitions (like moving, or divorce, or heading off to college). You either have a new identity thrust upon you, or the old structures that scaffolded your identity are no longer there for you. At Burning Man, you’re encouraged to create a new (and sometimes temporary) identity. You can, for a short time, choose to release yourself from the persona you’ve created your whole life — not limited by the image others have of you, or by the image you’re cultivated of yourself. It’s this release into the state of liminality that frees you from the boundaries that have kept you “in the box”.

#3 Ritual and Structure Provide a Container. Even in a petri dish of unlimited possibility, everyone knows (sort of) what to expect: there are morning rituals, daily yoga classes, other classes that support lifelong learning, and dance and music events. There’s a What-Where-When guide published that showcases all of the gifts your community members are bringing to share with one another. You know you can expect the Man to burn on Saturday night (a wild and invigorating evening) and then the Temple will burn on Sunday night (a somber and cathartic experience). Within the framework of these expected outcomes, serendipity and synchronicity becomes possible. That’s why quality systems are so useful: they provide us with a container of ritual from which to identify and operationalize continuous improvement. Even Fast Company lauds approaches like Google’s “20% discretionary time” — that gives structure to unstructured pursuits. 

#4 Intimacy Helps Drive Out Fear. In addition to having a great idea, you must have the courage to realize it. One of the things I love most about the Burning Man environment is that people want to get to know you better (as a complex, multi-dimensional person!), and as a result, they tend to support your ideas rather than challenge them to their deaths. In fact, challenges are naturally presented as well-intentioned, well-informed, well-meaning insights to help you bring your ideas to fruition. Knowing you’re surrounded by thousands of your biggest fans and supporters helps. Because you know what? You’re just as likely to succeed with that crazy idea as your entrepreneur friend was with their multi-million dollar company, especially with support. At Burning Man, you typically get the sense that your tribesmen are on your side, and they WANT you to succeed.

#5 Do it Now. One of the 10 Principles of the Burning Man culture is immediacy, which encourages people to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. I got to experience this first hand. For months, I was so excited looking forward to sacrificing myself to the Paha’oha’o, the Burning Man volcano — a 3-story alpine slide. On Thursday morning, I announced to all my campmates that it was Volcano Day… I was going!! There was only one problem: they had burned the volcano the night before. There was no more volcano to experience. What’s the lesson here? If you have a great idea to share with the world… or a great experience that you want to participate in… DO IT NOW. There’s no sense waiting for a better time, because you never know when the environment around you just won’t support it any more.

Innovation can be managed, but transformation (the ability to see and feel new ways of doing and being) must be catalyzed.

To increase innovation, create an environment that will crack open your limiting observations and limiting beliefs. One that will support thrivability. And then just wait to see what appears.

P.S. Thanks to Katherine Norenius, a quality professional from Toronto, for encouraging me to write this up 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s