Burning Man and Strategic Planning: A Village that Raises Itself?

Aug 28, 2009

Since I’m heading out for a week in the desert for my third year at the Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, and since I write about strategic planning online, I figured I’d take a minute to smoosh the two together.

Actually, this post is rooted in seriousness. I’m always thinking of strategy. I think literally in outlines. If you have the misfortune of hearing me speak, you’ll frequently hear phrases like,

“Well, A. I think blah blah blah and B. I think blah and lastly, C…”

Because of this, I’m always interested in where strategy fits into things. Last year, as I was making preparations to head out to Burning Man, I found out that one of my friends held the title of Regional Contact. I’ll get to what that means in a second, but basically, he had a window into what makes a festival like Burning Man work.

No matter what you’ve heard about the event, it’s a massive undertaking. For the uninitiated, it’s an annual festival in the desert of Nevada that draws between 45-55 thousand people for a week or even more, under very extreme conditions to celebrate art, freedom of expression and general chaos.

While many can dismiss the group as a bunch of hippies, it actually turns out to be a very well organized event, that requires a ton of strategic planning.

Organizational Structure

The first thing that I learned from my friend was that Burning Man has a clear organizational structure. The Burning Man organization consists of paid staff, volunteers and various paid positions who may just receive free admission or other varying compensation. The upper tiers of the organization plan the event, monitor brand awareness, attend to legal issues and generally take care of the logistics of creating a city in the desert for a week.

As the organizational chart flows downward, we see what are called Regional Contacts. If you saw the event as a franchise, these would be the local managers. In many cities around the world, these regional contacts take care of distributing information, organizing fund raisers, and even staging smaller events that emulate burning man called, you may have guessed it, “regionals.”

From what I learned from my friend and others who have served in the organization over the years, the Burning Man organization, while attempting to retain it’s sense of whimsy and freedom, is a tightly organized group. They have frequent meetings and annual as well as semi-annual retreats which actually deal with their strategic plan for their future.

Here are a few things you may not have considered about what goes into planning and executing such an event, and why they need a strategic plan:

  • Festival organizers have to facilitate the entrance and exit of tens of thousands of people, art installations (some of massive scale) who mostly arrive and exit at the same time. Can you imagine how frustrating and even dangerous that would be if they didn’t have a strategy?
  • During the event, the organizers need to manage the safety, health, and security of tens of thousands of festival goers who are all braving desert heat (and cold), lack of water, and all of the various crises those present.
  • The event is titled “leave no trace.” In all of the years that the festival has gone on, the community has been expected to leave little or no footprint on the dried riverbed in which it is held.

I haven’t seen the Burning Man strategic plan, but given the creativity and dedication in which the event is executed, and how well it goes, i would love to.

Are you surprised at how much planning it takes to bring a bunch of hippies out into the desert?



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