That Time a GOP Raver Showed Me the Future of Work at Burning Man

You can learn a lot about meetings and collaboration from unlikely sources

Feel the burn.

Once a year a group of familiar strangers come together to take part in something larger than themselves, learn from each other, and look towards a brighter future.

I’m referring, of course, to the company offsite, that annual meeting where leadership shares updates and evolves the strategy.

Too often however, this ends up being relegated to “just another meeting” status.

Holy.

How many “off-sites” have you been to that were actually on-site? Or in the anodyne, uninspiring function room at the hotel on the next block? How often do people end up being pulled back into the office, either literally or virtually through an endless stream of emails?

Meeting culture doesn’t have to be toxic. A signal that it has become so is when meetings are full of people on their laptops. These meetings are about ego, not collaboration. Passively aggressively pecking away at emails while people are talking is a status signal saying you are too important to be left out but too busy to pay attention.

Passively aggressively pecking away at emails while people are talking is a status signal saying you are too important to be left out but too busy to pay attention.

So the first excellent reason to have your offsite on the playa is that it’s so remote that you can’t get email, or phone calls, or be pulled back to the office. But it’s not just being off the grid that makes it an ideal location.

Humans are social creatures, uniquely sensitive to in-group and out-group dynamics. When we join a company, the HR sorting hat decides which department you will be. You are allocated to your tribe and sat away from other tribes. So it’s no wonder meetings can be so confrontational — when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score. The annual offsite is like the contest of champions, when the leader of each tribe heads off to battle for budget. The divisions inside the company make it harder to collaborate. This is something that Burning Man is excellent at dismantling.

When we join a company, the HR sorting hat decides which department you will be. You are allocated to your tribe and sat away from other tribes. So it’s no wonder meetings can be so confrontational — when two tribes go to war, a point is all that you can score.

Last year, we sat down to lunch and had a very pleasant conversation with a smart, eloquent, sensitive raver. Towards the end of the conversation he told us he was a Republican political strategist, which forced us to check our bigotry. Not only is the spectrum of political [and corporate] thinking much broader than the polarized discourse would have us believe, it’s important to remember that there are things we actually agree on, if we would only spend the time to break bread across the aisle.

Finally, Burning Man teaches you that collaboration and community is about serving others first. People who turn up and don’t contribute are called tourists, feeding off the generosity of others, contributing nothing in return. The corporate equivalent are those co-workers who only come to meetings when there is pizza.

The playa provides, but for your off-site, you could do worse than to remind the company leaders that they are servants to their staff.


Rosie & Faris Yakob are co-founders of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy, built on the belief that ideas are new combinations.