Sandboxes, Burning Man, and Project Management

Want this to be quick? Me too. Ever wish you had a quick and easy template for project management? Want to hear a project management system that occurred to me on my way back from Burning Man, with versions for teams and for solo workers?

OK, so here it is: Burning Man is a series of sandboxes. That’s the only way it can work. You can’t have a very formalized set of rules for 70,000 people spread over several thousand “camps” arriving whenever they want. The first 70 people will break the rules and the rest will pretend they don’t exist.

So what do you do if you are the Burning Man organizers? You create metaphorical sandboxes. Here’s what a sandbox is when you are a kid:

The kids’ sandbox has three rules:

  1. Sand stays in the box.
  2. Toys stay in the box.
  3. Share nicely.

So how does Burning Man create adult sandboxes? It’s a similar method to how kids do it, and to what I’m about to offer you for your own project management.

  1. Create physical boundaries for the entire event — this is done by erecting a boundary fence in the desert. This keeps Burning Man in its perimeter (Sand Stays in the Box).
  2. Create physical boundaries for each individual camp — this is done with weeks of work laying out survey lines that are all aligned to the initial “stake in the ground”, which is called the Golden Spike. (Toys Stay in The Box)
  3. Offer a set of non-binding but self-enforced principles, including Leave No Trace, Be Present, Offer Gifts, and Participate. (Share Nicely)

It’s clear to me that the best productions my team creates are the ones that inadvertently follow this Sandbox Theory.

Here’s what my Sandbox Theory looks like for teams:

  1. Set an expectation/vision for what you want to achieve with the project. This is your “external boundary”.
  2. Give everyone the tools they need and the freedom to use them in service of the bigger vision.
  3. Create a set of self-enforced principles that allow the team to immediately determine if they are acting in the spirit of the larger vision.

If you’re working on a solo project, Sandbox Theory is:

  1. Set a clear expectation for yourself of what success looks like — what project itself would look like in success, what the effects of the project will be on the larger world and your own career, and the timeline that would make you happy. Then double what you think is reasonable for “timeline” to allow for real-world delays.
  2. Determine what tools you need to complete this project, and make sure you have them and that they are in working order. This is everything from a clean area to work, to specific tools or software you might need, to knowledge you might need, to setting a schedule for yourself. If you don’t have what you need, source it (buy, borrow, barter). Barter is preferred because it also results in you sharing knowledge or resources with someone else, thereby making a deeper human connection in the process.
  3. Give yourself some light rules and boundaries to work within. For the solo worker, this can be as simple as agreeing with yourself that 2, 3, or 4 hours is the maximum amount of solid creative work you can do in one day. It can be agreeing that you’ll spend a certain amount of time each day on self-care like exercise, or meditation. It might be agreeing with yourself on a theme or tone for the work, or a length or running time of each element or chapter. You get the gist — a set of light boundary fences that give you freedom but also spiritual/creative survey lines to keep you on track.

Now go play and share nicely and keep the sand in the box. Ask any questions in the comments, I’m happy to reply.

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