What it means to manage an organization in hot pursuit of the ineffable (A report from the Global Leadership Conference)

If he could describe it, he wouldn’t have to paint it.

“We created The Burning Man Project,” founding board member Harley DuBois told 200 of Burning Man’s regional representatives and community leaders.  “And now we’re figuring out what it is.”

This was the common refrain among the main speakers from the Burning Man organization at the Global Leadership Conference.  After 25 years we’ve gotten “here” – and perhaps from this vantage point we can figure out where “here” is.

“What if we were able to take the network you have (as regionals) and the network BRAF has, and the network that BwB has, and connect them in three dimensions?” asked founding board member Marian Goodell.  “What would that look like?  What would that be?  How would that work?”

She didn’t have answers:  she was asking.

More personally, “The six founders are figuring out how we fit in,” DuBois said.  “You’re trying to figure out how you fit in.”

The crowd of Burners from around the world was overwhelmingly okay with this:  they were even appreciative of the fact that the Burning Man Org isn’t pretending to have more answers than it does.  That we’re in new territory, and exploring it together.

I’d like to take this a step further, though, and say that – contrary to the way we conventionally think of organizational development – this isn’t a problem that we’ll ever work through.  It’s a sign that we’re doing something right.

If it weren’t this way … if we knew exactly what we were doing and what it would look like and how it would work … we wouldn’t really be trying to live up to Burning Man’s potential.  We’d be settling.

Burning Man has been so remarkable precisely because it has always attempted to reach beyond our capacity to understand what we’re doing.   To take us into territory we know is out there, but haven’t explored.

Consider:  Why is it so hard to describe what Burning Man is to people who haven’t attended?  (Or, often, even to people who have?)   Why, after 26 years, an LLC, major media coverage, and a non-profit, haven’t we gotten this down to a few simple key phrases?

Well part of it is that it’s changed so much over that time – and rarely according to plan.  The original “Man” on Baker Beach wasn’t supposed to be a festival.  “Burning Man happened,” Larry Harvey said in his keynote address, “because we were truly inspired by the enthusiasm of strangers.”

It was an enthusiasm that, even at the beginning, wasn’t reaching for a carefully calibrated explanation.  “Nobody in that first crew of people who lifted the Man up ever asked ‘what does it mean?’” Harvey recalled.  It was something they felt in their bones, something that pulled them even as they lifted, inspiring rather than articulating.

That spirit, more than anything, has been what’s kept Burning Man so vital over the years.  The fact that we’re reaching for something that inspires rather than articulates, and that we don’t know where it’s going, allows Burning Man to be more than it was the previous year … and more than we expect it to be tomorrow.  We can let it (meaning “everyone in it,” meaning “you” and “me”) surprise us.  We are pursuing the ineffable, and if pursuing the ineffable does anything, it allows you room to improve.

Now, there are many things this pursuit  isn’t.  It isn’t an excuse for a lack of rigor.  Just as porta-potties have to be delivered on time and cleaned regularly … just as permits with the BLM need to be filed with accurate (and presumably quantified) information … so the various components of the Burning Man Project need to be transparent in their definition and roles, need to work together with clear lines of communication and accountability.

Too often the pursuit of the inexpressible has been used as an excuse for developing the unworkable.  We have to be better than that.

It’s also not an excuse to put off difficult conversations about the realities of the world:  especially about money.  Yes, Burning Man considers “decommodification” to be among the 10 most important things in the world … but it also needs to be self-sufficient.  It needs to have facilities, it needs to have staff, it needs to exist in the world – even if it’s trying to use the tools of the world to create something better.  The fact that it has higher aspirations is no excuse for Burning Man to either ignore the need for money, or to refuse to talk about it openly and honestly with those who have questions.  “One of the great challenges is how do we deal with the issue of money,” Harvey told the crowd.  “We’ve got to grow up about this.”

Ultimately the fact that Burning Man is, at the end of the day, actively pursuing something that is immediate, perhaps even transcendent – that goes past our ability to summarize and graph and replicate – isn’t an excuse for anything.  Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, who claims that their management practices shouldn’t be reviewed for best practices or their books not looked at for cooking because of their higher aspirations, is selling something past its aspiration date.  Burning Man, either as LLC or 501(c)3 or big thing in the desert or culture, must never make that excuse.

But our pursuit of the ineffable is a fact.  We’re not reaching for something that’s easy to grasp:  we’re always aiming to make room for something we could not expect.  Even articulate.

That means we’re going to constantly find ourselves exactly where we are now:  saying “here’s what we’ve got, here’s the direction we’re moving in, we’re still figuring out what it is.”  We’re going to be in this position year after year so long as we are chasing something bigger, more interesting, and harder to describe, than, “camping” or “a rave.”

We’re going to find ourselves, just like Burning Man’s board right now, saying “I don’t know” a lot.

But that’s okay.  Because it’s only when we put the clear and defined expectations of the world down that we have room for something more.   That we have room for Bliss Dance, or a giant scrap-metal octopus no one knew about emerging out of the darkness, breathing fire;  or magical serendipity.  You can’t have extraordinary serendipity if everything is scheduled out.

“I don’t know” … so long as it’s not an excuse for anything … is a source of our strength, and what’s kept it worth coming back to year after year. It is also the nature of the ineffable to be ineffable:  those who seek an experience beyond conventional language (or reality?) should not be ungrateful when they find one.  It’s a burden we take on willingly, even joyfully.

We got here because that inspires people.  To keep that up, we have to keep moving into unknown territory.  I fully expect, a year from now at the next Global Leadership Conference, that we will have as many new questions about Burning Man as answers, and as many new opportunities to say “I don’t know” and “we’re going to figure this out together.”

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

30 Comments on “What it means to manage an organization in hot pursuit of the ineffable (A report from the Global Leadership Conference)

  • tommy says:

    There was a time when people couldn’t tell you what Burning Man is because it was constantly evolving and uncertainty and spontaneity created chaos.

    But ceremony, ritual, routine and order have long since replaced the days when you couldn’t quite explain what Burning Man is. Now it’s just being silly and blowing smoke up each others asses to suggest, ‘Gee, what is this mystery gathering thing?’

    The Man burns on Saturday night, or someone is going to jail.

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  • G says:

    Right on & LOL Tommy!
    That doesn’t mean I love it any less.
    All the anger and angst in camp after the Monday night burn 2007 was to my mind misplaced. Those minds had lost track of the genesis and the roots of the event.
    A little spontaneity and chaos indeed. It was a bit of a shock, but no surprise. It made 2007 one of my more memorable burns.
    And that said, everything changes, and any living system tends to evolve towards increasing complexity and organization and burning man is not an exception to that.
    Lastly I will throw this out. For all the complexity and predictable patterns and rituals, and let’s face it, the fairly ossified bureaucracy of the BMORG, there still remains tons of undefinable aspects to the event.
    I can’t resist those little snark either. The ticketing situation 2011 was rather spontaneous and chaotic, no?

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  • G says:

    I can’t resist those little snark either . . . oops . . .this, not those :(
    Where is the edit button?

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  • tommy says:

    Stasis is a stage of evolution.

    BM has become a franchise with all the official regional events. And a lot like ordering a Big Mac value meal, you know what you’re going to get every time in every location. But sometimes the fries are cooked just right, and sometimes the Big Mac has been sitting in the bin for too long. Sometimes the Coke doesn’t have enough ice, or you order a Sprite just to mix things up. It’s never exactly the same, but there are no surprises, either. You get what you pay for.

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  • What you pay for is an opportunity to gather in a safe space where your basic needs have been handled (portos, coffee, ice). Otherwise you get what you brought. Or didn’t bring. There is nothing to franchise. There is no product. It is you. Sounds like you’re bored with yourself. Usually that’s when things get creative. Or you walk away.

    Staying and whining about it isn’t all that cute. Change it, love it, or leave it alone. Love, regionally. RLL

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  • Mitch says:

    It would be interesting to know the question to which this blog post is an answer.

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  • t groan says:

    Hurrah to Tommy’s posts.

    There’s a lot of ego wrapped up in some BM participants and it feeds their egos to mouth nonsense such as this article. I mean honest-to-god this posting almost sounds like the introduction to Star Trek- ‘…to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” . What utter tripe for BM!

    Instead what you have is an event that each year is more mainstream than the previous year… But those with egos (and cash) invested in the event will never admit it.

    It’s a cash cow for a few though so the pretense of cultural significance must go on.

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