Tag Archives: Burning Man

A 15-Week Intro Statistics Course Featuring R

Morgan at Burning Man 2014. (Image Credit: Nicole Radziwill)

Morgan at Burning Man 2014. (Image Credit: Nicole Radziwill)

Do you teach introductory statistics or data science? Need some help planning your fall class?

I apply the 10 Principles of Burning Man in the design and conduct of all my undergraduate and graduate-level courses, including my introductory statistics class (which has a heavy focus on R and data science) at JMU. This means that I consider learning to be emergent, and as a result, it often doesn’t follow a prescribed path of achieving specified learning objectives. However, in certain courses, I still feel like it’s important to provide a general structure to help guide the way! This also helps the students get a sense of our general trajectory over the course of the semester, and do readings in advance if they’re ready.

Since several people have asked for a copy, here is the SYLLABUS that I use for my 15-week class (that also uses the “informal” TEXTBOOK I wrote this past spring). We meet twice a week for an hour and 15 minutes each session. The class is designed for undergraduate sophomores, but there are always students from all levels enrolled. The course is intended to provide an introduction to (frequentist) statistical thinking, but with an applied focus that has practical data analysis at its core.

My goal is simple. At the end of the semester, I want students to be able to:

Please let me know if this syllabus is helpful to you! I’ll be posting my intensive (5-session) version of this tomorrow or the next day.

Feel free to join our class Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/262216220608559/ if you want to play along at home.

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 🙂

Quality and Innovation in the Counterculture

Inside the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

Inside the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

This week, I was the guest blogger at the American Society for Quality’s “View from the Q” where I shared some anecdotes about encountering quality tools and concepts at Burning Man this past August.

Check it out and learn what’s so great about “MOOP“.

What #BIF9 and Burning Man Taught Me About Transformation – Part II (via Deming!)


Even the phones at Burning Man tell you that you’re in Black Rock City, NV

In Part I, I described some observations from my experiences at BIF and Burning Man, and alluded to the notion that I might have uncovered a very simple “secret sauce” they share. Here are the observations:

  • Both communities consist of active and engaged participants who could be considered “innovation junkies”. Whereas the BIF crowd focuses on more traditional organizational and social innovation, the Burning Man crowd spans the extremes of experiential innovation (through art, technology, interactions with other people, or even just figuring out how to navigate life in the Black Rock Desert).
  • “Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects” (#RCUS) is the norm in both environments. First, the “unusual suspects” seem to be attracted to opportunities to be inspired and get their brains re-wired; second, the participants in both environments seem predisposed to the notion that serendipity is working on their behalf — and they let it happen.
  • People at both BIF and Burning Man tend towards non-judgment, seeking to appreciate and learn from their differences (rather than to resist, deny, or challenge those differences).

The common thread is that both environments have something magical designed into them, and this is the secret sauce: the push to drive out fear. Many of the BIF storytellers have been through Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and make themselves vulnerable so that the audience can vicariously (and often emotionally!) experience their transformation; at Burning Man, you’re stripped of your usual identity and thus unburdened from the fear you might carry as a result of having developed that identity over so many years.

When quality guru W. Edwards Deming formulated his 14 Points decades ago – principles for managers to transform business effectiveness – he expressed that the purpose of the points was to enable everyone to work with joy. One of the points (my favorite one, in fact) is to drive out fear so that everyone may work effectively.

If you are to fully embrace innovation, there is no room for fear! You must work towards fully being yourself, to push your own boundaries, and by extension, to push the boundaries of others, and to push the boundaries of traditional and accepted ways of doing things (“business models”). You are encouraged to own your own story, to TELL your own story, and to connect with others to help them identify with their own stories – and chase away the fear of being authentic, of being able to contribute to your greatest potential.

Why do we hold back? Why are we fearful? (I do it too, all the time.)

  • I am afraid you won’t accept me. I am afraid you won’t like me.
  • I am afraid you will disagree with my choices or decisions, and struggle with me or reject me as a result.
  • I’m afraid you won’t think I’m smart enough, good enough, worthy enough.
  • I am afraid that if you know who I really am, it might have consequences for my health or well-being (e.g. I could lose job, my reputation, my standing within the organization or community).
  • I’m afraid that what I’m trying to do – or be – just won’t work.



To think “out of the box,” you must be living out of the box, and it’s an ongoing (and lifelong) process to do that.

I have not yet achieved healthy fearlessness as my steady state – I’m still awaiting bursts of my own personal transformation.  According to Ignite.me:

Joseph Campbell talked about the ‘Hero’s Journey’ whereby the hero is beckoned to enter an unfamiliar world.  When the hero enters this world, they are met with challenges, hurdles, and eventually a seemingly insurmountable confrontation which is achieved by using skills they picked up along the journey.  By overcoming this obstacle, the hero attains new self-knowledge which they can bring back to their people in the ‘ordinary land’ as their gift to the world.

Common themes of ancient mystery traditions are secrecy, death of the ego, participating with archetypal reality, and a rebirth of a new self.  The Eleusinian Mysteries took place over almost 2000 years and were shrouded in mystery from the uninitiated. Shamanic initiation often comes with the shaman being psychologically and experientially deconstructed and put back together.  Some tribal societies had rites of passage where children are ripped away from the bosom of the mother and left in the bush to learn how to become a warrior.  Rites of passage are transformational experiences where the old you is transformed into a new YOU.  That’s where we want to take you, and we create the container for that transformation.

What that means is that you may come as a journalist, or a chef, or a bike messenger, or a computer programmer but for the duration of our journey, you may choose to leave that behind to lose yourself in the present in workshops, dance, yoga, and celebration.  Transformation is disruptive and disorienting and actually occurs when past beliefs are shattered, habits are broken, and futures are rewritten.

By temporarily suspending fear, you create the space for transformation – the space for new experiences to redefine what you know and feel about yourself, and your interactions with other people and the world around you.

But this concept has been around for thousands of years… more on that tomorrow.