Consensus, Collaboration, Hierarchy, Authority and Power

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Consensus and Collaboration

Photo by Vertumnus
Photo by Vertumnus

At every level of its organization, Burning Man employs consensus making and creative collaboration. Consensus means that everyone who is party to a discussion agrees to a course of action. For a decision to be adopted, everyone must give his or her consent. This does not mean that everyone agrees that a particular decision is the best decision. It simply means that they have all had a chance to participate, to recognize and address the issues, and to understand how and why the ensuing steps came about. When consensus has been achieved, the group agrees to align with the decision, and to work together to implement it as effectively as possible. This process only works if people share basic values and operate in a climate of trust that is rich in shared information.

Although consensus forming can, at times, be time consuming, it is by no means an intractable process. If one or two people cannot agree with the group’s proposed decision, this sometimes indicates that an issue is more complex than understood by the larger group. If an agreement cannot be reached it may be necessary to postpone a decision until more research is done or to give members more time to reflect on the values or principles involved. In practice, however, this seldom happens if some form of guiding policy already governs the issue at hand. Difficulty in achieving consensus might also mean that those who disagree with the majority do not understand the entire issue or fully appreciate the context of the larger group’s view. In these instances, it is usually very difficult for one or two people to hold out against the reasoned arguments of a majority.

Within very small groups, consensus formation can proceed informally and without a group leader. In larger groups, however, leadership is required to help guide the process to conclusion. Amid the ebb flow of discussion, different individuals may take a lead in presenting ideas or in proposing or summarizing emergent areas of consensus. Under these circumstances a team leader who is vested with authority may take the role of meta-decision maker, the person who decides how the decision will be made. This person is typically the one ultimately responsible for the decision’s outcome. However, along with this authority comes the responsibility to ensure that everyone is heard, and that a final decision has been made and recognized by all parties.

While we always strive for unanimity of agreement, we recognize that circumstances sometimes make it impossible or impractical to achieve. One of the principal duties of the meta-decisionmaker is to guide the process to a clear decision point. To that end, polling may be employed to gauge the group’s level of consensus, and to help shape the details of the proposed solution. This type of polling should not be confused with voting. A vote can be described as an opinion that has been commodified. It can be swapped and traded for advantage, or even held up for bid. A vote may be used to leverage power or buy victory through division. Consensus building, by contrast, seeks to bring the group into alignment and facilitate a meeting of minds.

The practice of collaboration, as distinct from consensus, exhibits a different dynamic. To collaborate is to work jointly with others, especially in a creative endeavor, as when artists join together in pursuit of a common vision. Framing such a vision is usually the work of one or two originators who act as meta- decision makers, and the task of any larger group is to realize this vision by painting its picture. While consensus making is a method for assessing information and achieving group agreement, collaboration concentrates on the creativity of individuals. Amid the playful ebb and flow of interaction, ideas may be inverted, recombined or added to, and at its best this can resemble a murmuration, as when a flock of birds, apparently leaderless, spontaneously agrees to shift course. However this instinctive unity of action is only possible (among us humans) when it has been solidly framed and governed by creative leadership, among collaborators who share core values and operate in a climate of trust.

Consensus is a version of democracy; collaboration is a mode of radical self-expression. In practice, these two decision-making processes intertwine throughout our organization.

Photo: John Chase
Photo: John Chase

Hierarchy and Leadership

Even within informal groups, leaders naturally arise. Certain individuals will take charge of particular tasks or areas of responsibility. When they succeed, other group members will begin to respect their judgment. Their advice in these matters will be sought out and their opinions will be heeded. Finally, if they show themselves willing to communicate and coordinate what they do in a way that serves the group’s mission, they will acquire real authority. This never means that they exercise complete autonomy. Their actions should always be subject to the judgment of a supervisor or review of their peers. It does mean, however, that they have gained the right to make decisions about how a task is to be accomplished and that everyone involved should respect this right and consult with them concerning matters that affect their mission.

This sorting out of responsibilities spontaneously occurs within groups. However, as the mission of any organization increases in complexity, it becomes necessary to formally define leadership roles. At this level of responsibility, leaders become managers. It is the mission of a manager to create policy, delegate authority, and supervise those to whom authority is given. Managers must take a higher vantage point in order to regard a larger picture. They must look toward a horizon in time, anticipating the long-term implications of decisions. They must also gain a comprehensive view. Actions or decisions may be in conflict with one another or misallocate valuable resources. A higher point of view allows a manager to survey the whole of a plan and integrate a group’s efforts. Lastly, the most important task of a manager is to remind everyone of his or her mission; to articulate this higher and wider perspective so that people can understand their roles.

As our organization has grown, collaboration and consensus have spread outward to incorporate more resources and a wider base of knowledge. At the same time, as decision-making responsibility has increased, management roles have expanded upon a vertical axis. When fitted together, these two systems form a model of how our organization operates. Multiple levels of decision-making now exist within the Burning Man organization. This includes the various staff teams and working groups within each department. Informally, it also includes theme camps, artist groups and service organizations within the wider community. As we have grown, the management structure of our organization has also elaborated itself. This includes operational tiers such as the Executive Committee and Board, specialized functional teams such as legal and finance, and cross-departmental committees drawn from multiple tiers and teams to advise the departments and help shape policy.

It is helpful to imagine this model as a series of horizontally based networks or platforms, each equipped with its own subordinate threads of delegation. Moving through the center of these horizontal platforms is a vertical axis of managerial leadership, and a diagonal axis of committees. Each collaborative body is like a bead threaded on a string. At this level of organizational complexity, the responsibility of managers begins to increase. Managers must now learn to move within a greater system of decision-making. This means they take responsibility for understanding or participating in decisions that are made at a higher level and are ready to convey these policies back to their groups. They must also engage in a consensus process with their peers. They should solicit opinions about how policies can be realized.

Finally, they have a responsibility to ensure that policies are thoroughly explained to people who are working on the tiers below. It is never sufficient to tell people that “higher ups” have issued a decree. A manager should always be ready to explain the reasoning behind a policy and carefully listen to what people have to say. After all, these folks are actually doing the work that policy is meant to guide. Their knowledge base may very well exceed one’s own. Looking down on things from a higher perspective can allow a manager to see the big picture. But managers should not imagine that this useful point of view transforms them into bigger or all-seeing persons. A generalized view can obliterate crucial details. Managers should always be ready to imagine that they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

At every phase of a downward progression in a hierarchic system, from policies made on high to actions undertaken at the ground level of operations, managers must also be willing to reconsider policy. Policy concerns the “what” and “why” of things. But how a thing is done can directly affect a policy. If policies are dysfunctional, or if someone discovers better solutions to problems, the plan can be changed. When a proposed change affects a policy, a manager should convey this information upward. Within any healthy organization, information should continually recycle in this way. It should be carried downward and upward, as if borne through the organization by a convection current. As the connective link in this process, managers must do more than understand policy, create consensus within their policy making peer groups and communicate these policies to the people they supervise. They must ensure that everyone is communicating and feels able to contribute. Within Burning Man — at our event and within the organization that produces it — anyone at any time can be a leader.

Black Rock City 2013 (photo credit: Reuters)
Black Rock City 2013 (photo credit: Reuters)

Authority and Power

It is a common mistake to confuse authority with power. A manager may possess the authority to make a decision. However, this does not mean that power in any way emanates out of that person. The previous model affords a good way of thinking about this. The thread connecting consensus-forming beads can be imagined as a river, and this river forms a channel for power. The immediate link to each station along its path is an individual leader or management group vested with authority. This authority can be imagined as a kind of water wheel. A manager has the recognized right, when making a decision, to dip this wheel of authority into the power stream in order to accomplish work. However, since power does not actually belong to a manager, he or she may be legitimately criticized by anyone for defaulting in responsibilities. Authority and the respect due it can be justly said to belong to the person who exercises it. This right is earned by virtue of the responsibilities they have chosen to assume. But power is not the property of anyone. It is merely the motive force which authority draws upon.

In most organizations, the power stream is made of money. In democratic politics, it is ultimately enforced by the ability to secure votes. Only rarely, and for brief periods of time, does it grow out of brute force or from the barrel of a gun, and only gurus may be said to rule through a purely personal manifestation of power. In Burning Man, however, all power proceeds from a gift. It was as a gift that Burning Man was born. None of the resources that Burning Man now commands would ever have existed if dozens, hundreds and, finally, thousands of people had not been willing to give to that gift. If the founders of Burning Man had asked participants to contribute to a private project dedicated to personal ends, who would have followed them? The Burning Man, as he is placed in Black Rock City, stands positioned at the radiating center of the most interactive and creative community on earth. Yet none of this could possibly exist if Burning Man had not remained supremely and symbolically a gift that has engendered other gifts.

This insight contains a very basic lesson for anyone who would act as a leader and manage others. A manager may preside over a meeting and address his or her fellows with an inspiring vision. A moment later, however, the talk might shift to other topics. Suddenly this leader may possess only a modest opinion based on limited information. His or her paddle has been lifted from the stream and others now lead the discussion. Leadership often consists of knowing exactly when not to invoke authority. The above description of how our organization works describes a sort of factory that is run by the power of gift giving, and it is our duty to manage this machinery well. However, we should always remember that the single most common mistake people make when they misuse these tools of management is to somehow forget their first lesson. If your actions don’t respect the spirit of a gift; if you are jealous or possessive of power, if you withhold information, if you blame other people, if you refuse to give credit, and if you ignore the abilities of others — then you are probably abusing your authority. All of our work together is in service to a gift, and this should always be regarded as the source of the power that holds us together.

About the author: Larry Harvey

Larry Harvey

Born in 1948, Larry Harvey grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. In the late 1970s he moved to San Francisco, and soon discovered the city's thriving underground art scene. In 1986 he founded Burning Man at a local beach, and guided its progress from that moment until his death in 2018. Larry was Founding Board Member and Chief Philosophic Officer of Burning Man Project. He scripted and co-curated Burning Man's annual art theme and collaborated with artists in creating aspects of the art theme and the design of Black Rock City. Larry also wrote articles and essays for the Project's website. As spokesperson for Burning Man, he was frequently interviewed by reporters, and lectured on subjects as diverse as art, religion, civic planning and the rise of cyber-culture in the era of the Internet. Larry was also a political planner, supervising the organization's lobbying efforts and frequently attending meetings with state, county and federal agencies.

8 Comments on “Consensus, Collaboration, Hierarchy, Authority and Power

  • JoeBunny says:

    BMorg is authoritarian to the extreme. Source: 10 years of experience.

    Stop trying to sugarcoat what is obvious to everyone on the inside. Why lie to yourselves?

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  • Tiahaar says:

    With 12 years of working with and experiencing various levels of the Burning Man organization in several departments I must say they are the best cat herders I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Thanks for the great read.

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  • burnersxxx says:

    this post appears to have been lifted directly from the 2013 Afterburn report.

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  • burnersyyy says:

    said from somebody that knows how to lift posts.

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  • burnerszzz says:

    this article was written several years ago and has been recently amended to include the notion of collaboration alongside consensus. it is included in this series because it implicitly references eight of the ten principles.

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  • Dan says:

    Mr. Harvey’s essay on power, hierarchy, and authority starts out sounding radical: concepts like leaders spontaneously arising out of small groups, only by consensus from others.
    By the end of the essay, however, Mr. Harvey’s recommendations sound like platitudes that could be lifted from any large bureaucratic organization: “Managers … should solicit opinions … explain the reasoning behind a policy…” Burning Man concepts ARE a step towards true egalitarianism. But it isn’t rocket science how to get there. The civilizations that lived that life have done so for over a hundred millenniums. We call them “hunter-gatherers”. Their secret? NO money, no more possessions than you can carry, and small, hundred person communities who need every individual to be able to accomplish a goal everyone needs: survival, peace, and happiness.

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  • Very well put. Thanks for sharing.

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