Organizations impact the quality of our lives. We spend most of our waking hours running or interacting with schools, workplaces, voluntary associations, governmental agencies, and organizations. At times, we may feel disappointed or depleted by our organizational experiences. At worst, we may be exploited or harmed by organizations, including those intended to represent our interests. Think of people who hate their jobs, or people who feel alienated in their churches or voluntary associations, or people whose interests have not been adequately served by governmental agencies.
Past studies have showed various ways in which organizations have failed us, but they don’t usually offer concrete ideas about how an organization can be more responsive to our needs and interests. Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event offers a chance to imagine possibilities.*
Like any collectivity, the Burning Man organization has faced several organizing challenges. Its members have grappled with how to incorporate different perspectives about how to organize, how to recruit, place, and motivate volunteers, and how to coordinate with sometimes uncooperative organizations. Early on, Burning Man suffered from under-organizing, or insufficient structures and coordination. As the organization grew, members risked over-organizing by adopting too many structures or introducing coercive control.
In navigating the shoals of under and over-organizing, Burning Man developed an enabling organization that supported, rather than constrained, members’ efforts. This organization’s development offers valuable lessons about organizations can thrive, even during uncertain times.
* In sociological parlance, my study is a normative case, as it focuses on how organizations can realize our ideals. See David Tacher’s (2006) “The Normative Case Study” in American Journal of Sociology 111(6): 1631-1676.