The 10 Principles of Burning Man and the New P’s of Culture and Community

Marian Goodell, Founding Board Member and CEO, Burning Man Project

At a recent technology “Immersion program” for a global athletics company, I was invited to share my thoughts on how experiences were driving evolution in shopping behavior and expectations and how they represent innovation in retail. But before me, was someone whom I had always hope to meet, Marian Goodell, Founding Board Member and CEO, Burning Man Project. Burning Man has attained a mythical like status and Goodell has become a celebrity and Sherpa in her own right.

Her focus wasn’t on the festival and how it has become a global phenomenon and cultural movement. Instead she shared the code or spirit of Burning Man and how using these core principles as the foundation for all business decisions, the organization has stayed true to its purpose while cultivating an incredibly loyal and thriving community. In 2004, Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey wrote the Ten Principles as guidelines for the newly-formed Regional Network. As the Burning Man Project tells in its history, these principles were crafted not as a dictate of how people should be and act, but as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture to stay true to the event’s roots.

This isn’t just an examination of Burning Man’s core principles. It’s also an exploration into the potential of people-first approach to culture to make the 4P’s of business more relevant today. Instead of Price, Product, Promotion, and Place, leaders should embrace, People, Promise, Purpose and Principles. One of the most under valued aspects of any organization I see time and time again is that of culture. And to foster a culture that becomes the ethos of anything important starts with defining what that is and why people should rally together to bring it to life.

The 10 Principles of Burning Man

Let’s visit The 10 Principles of Burning Man (edited with commentary). Hopefully they inspire your work to improve company culture and leadership this year and over the years to come…

1. Radical Inclusion

Burning Man is open to everyone and no prerequisites exist for participation in the community. Even though we have ideas of who we want to include, a brand these days isn’t created, it’s co-created and celebrated by those whom align with and promote its purpose and value.

2. Gifting

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving and the value of a gift is unconditional. It does not warrant a return or an exchange. Reciprocity is something special to earn never to expect.

3. Decommodification

The Burning Man community creates social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising. It resists the substitution of consumption for participatory experience. A philosophy of no exploitation preserves the spirit of gifting.

4. Radical Self-reliance

Burning Man encourages individuals to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources to contribute the experiences of others as well as their own. Empower people to reinforce and expand the mission.

5. Radical Self-expression

Each person offers their own unique gifts. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its platform, message or voice. Respect people, and their rights and liberties, for expression is a gift from someone to someone else. Silence, passive aggressiveness and lying only erodes promise and purpose.

6. Communal Effort

Community values, creative cooperation and collaboration is the spirit of people standing and working with other people under a common cause. Burning Man produces, promotes and protects social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction. This again isn’t something that’s created, it’s co-created and that’s the true spirit of community.

7. Civic Responsibility

Civil society is highly valued and prioritized at Burning Man. Community members who organize events assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws. The experience is only as wonderful as experienced by everyone. You have to develop of culture where people feel accountability. They have to want to take responsibility and also take the lead in the caring and nurturing of culture and the people who define it.

8. Leaving No Trace

I especially love this one. Burning Man without a doubt respects the environment and is committed to leaving no physical trace of any activities wherever they gather. Burners clean up after themselves and even strive to leave such places in a better state. Imagine if your organization only thought this way. I still visit companies, restaurants and resorts where recycling and composting have yet to become the working standard.

9. Participation

Radical participation is a primary construct of its ethic. Burning Man believes that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. As an introvert, I appreciate those who include me even though I try my best to step outside of my comfort zone to join in the celebration or cause with others. This can only be done by doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play.

10. Immediacy

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in Burning Man’s culture. Participating now with purpose overcomes barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience. Experience is indeed everything.

Culture and community are the constructs of any human-centered organization. But principles can only verbalize how any company can bring people together to accomplish great things. Words mean nothing though without leadership practice, empowerment and commitment.

The 10 Principles of Burning Man should inspire you to think about the new 4P’s and how rethinking People, Promise, Purpose and Principles can inspire a new genre of community. If we take anything away from Burning Man, it’s that investing in the 4P’s yields tangible ROI with additional benefits measured in engagement, loyalty and the reach of those who experience the Burning Man ethos first hand or through the shared experiences of others.

Community is much more than belonging to something; it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter. That’s your foundation to a meaningful, productive and human-centered culture.

Brian Solis is the author of the new book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, which teaches organizations how to take a human-centered approach to experience design.