I just returned from Black Rock City, NV, better known as Burning Man. Burning Man is an annual event where 70,000 artists, engineers, performers, and makers descend on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. In one week, they build and inhabit a city made of interactive art. Then they dismantle it and “leave no trace.” They take every bit of refuse home with them, leaving the desert the way they found it.

You know what’s even more amazing? It’s all done by volunteers. Think about that: 70,000 people, paying to attend the event, cooperatively pitching in to build and run a city. (Yes, it’s the size of a city. I once thought it was just called that. Nope. It’s a city.)

Burning Man started as a party with a dozen people on Baker Beach in 1986. As someone who loves growing organizations, it fascinates me. So many organizations struggle with growth. How did Burning Man scale from a beach party to an actual city?

Scale requires different people.

The people you need to run a small organization are different from the people you need to scale. In a small organization, everyone knows everything that’s happening. People can pitch in as needed. They may still have different jobs, but if the situation warrants, you might ask the accounts receivable person to handle a customer service from someone they know. You need generalists.

As the organization grows, jobs shrink. The original crowd at Burning Man handled all aspects of what was, then, basically a camping trip. Each person would be part of choosing where tents would go and how things would run. Generalists make the small event run. 

With a city-sized event, just laying out the street grid requires dozens of people. Each person will spend every day, all day planting flags at the corners of streets that will later guide the city construction. The best people for the job are those who enjoy focusing on this one task, and doing it superbly.

Scale requires uniform processes.

When you’re small, you can get away with everything being ad hoc. If Ozzie Obstacle (the most annoying of your 12-person party) is pitching their tent in the wrong place, you can yell over, “Hey, Oz! Move your tent ten feet to the right!” 

When tens of thousands of people are pitching their tents, you can’t just do everything by the seat of your pants. If you yell “To the right!” while someone yells “To the left!”, poor Oz’s head will explode. And at Burning Man, that could mean literally.

Getting large requires that people be able to coordinate at a distance. Doing the same things, the same way lets people coordinate when the ad hoc approach no longer works.

Scale requires explicit process.

It’s not enough for processes to be uniform. People have to know them, which means they need to be documented and communicated. Sometimes this is done informally, through mentorships or apprenticeships. But often, it’s done via classes, checklists, and explicit instruction. 

With 70,000 people constructing a city, the behind-the-scenes organizations (the Rangers, the Department of Public Works, camp Placement) not only have uniform processes, but they have extensive training and reference resources to teach those processes. They have classes, certifications of skill levels, Wikis, and gatherings to explore and deepen the shared understanding of what gets done and how.

When your organization is successful, you’ll reinvest for growth. But pay attention carefully to the changes that scale requires. You’ll need to change who you hire, how they do their jobs, and how they get trained. It changes the nature of the work, but if done right, you’ll be laying the foundation for great success.

How you scale an organization

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