AFTERBURN REPORT 2001Consensus, Hierarchy, Authority and Power
by Larry Harvey
At every level of its organization, Burning Man employs consensus decision making. Consensus means that that everyone who is party to a discussion agrees to a course of action. For a decision to be adopted, everyone must give his or her consent. This doesn't mean that everyone agrees that a particular decision is the best decision. It simply means that everyone will go along with what the group decides. Consensus works best in small groups of people who are qualified to form opinions upon the subjects at hand. All those who have information that is pertinent to a decision have a responsibility to the group to bring this information forward and, in advancing a thesis or point of view, to adduce relevant facts and reasoned arguments. Consensus building only works when people share basic values and operate in a climate of trust that is rich in shared information. On the other hand, if most members of the consensus forming group do not hold strong opinions concerning an issue or are indifferent to a topic, it is a likely indication that the decision might better be delegated to an individual or smaller group
Although consensus forming can, at times, be time consuming, it is by no means an intractable process. If one or two people cannot agree with the group's proposed decision, this sometimes indicates that an issue is more complex than understood by the larger group. If an agreement cannot be reached it may be necessary to postpone a decision until more research is done or to give members more time to reflect on the values or principles involved. In practice, however, this seldom happens if some form of guiding policy already governs the issue at hand. Difficulty in achieving consensus might also mean that those who disagree with the majority do not understand the entire issue or fully appreciate the context of the larger group's view. In these instances, it is usually very difficult for one or two people to hold out against the reasoned arguments of a majority. Burning Man Senior Staff may sometimes postpone decisions on a question or extend a period of discussion, but it has never failed to reach a consensus.
Consensus formation is, in fact, the most natural way of making decisions. Within very small groups, it can proceed informally and without a group leader. In larger groups, however, a discussion leader or chairperson, is necessary. Amid the ebb flow of discussion, different individuals may take a lead in presenting ideas or in proposing or summarizing emergent areas of consensus. However, it is the responsibility of the chair of a meeting to ensure that everyone is heard, and that a final decision has been made and recognized.
Although consensus formation requires unanimity, it does not involve voting. Group members may be polled in some fashion at the conclusion of a discussion to guarantee that a consensus has been achieved, but opinions may not be represented in the form of a vote. A vote can be described as an opinion that has been commodified. It can be swapped and traded for advantage, or even held up for bid. A vote may be used to leverage power or buy victory through division. Consensus, by contrast, induces more immediate relationships and operates by constantly seeking a meeting of minds. Voting, typically, is most useful in larger assemblies where consensus making is unwieldy. No decision in Burning Man has ever been arrived at by a vote. Consensus making is our fundamental policy.
Hierarchy and Leadership
Even within informal groups, leaders naturally arise. Certain individuals will take charge of particular tasks or areas of responsibility. When they succeed, other group members will begin to respect their judgement. Their advice in these matters will be sought out and their opinions will be heeded. Finally, if they show themselves willing to communicate and coordinate what they do in a way that serves the group's mission, they will acquire real authority. This never means that they exercise complete autonomy. Their actions should always be subject to the judgement of a supervisor or review of their peers. It does mean, however, that they have gained the right to make decisions about how a task is to be accomplished and that everyone involved should respect this right and consult with them concerning matters that affect their mission.
This sorting out of responsibilities spontaneously occurs within groups. However, as the mission of any organization increases in complexity, it becomes necessary to formally define leadership roles. At this level of responsibility, leaders become managers. It is the mission of a manager to create policy, delegate authority, and supervise those to whom authority is given. Managers must take a higher vantage point in order to regard a larger picture. They must look toward a horizon in time, anticipating the long-term implications of decisions. They must also gain a comprehensive view. Actions or decisions may be in conflict with one another or misallocate valuable resources. A higher point of view allows a manager to survey the whole of a plan and integrate a group's efforts. Lastly, the most important task of a manager is to remind everyone of their mission: to articulate this higher and wider perspective so that people can understand their roles.
As our organization has grown, consensus formation has spread outward to incorporate more resources and a wider base of knowledge. At the same time, as decision-making responsibility has increased, management roles have expanded upon a vertical axis. When fitted together, these two systems form a model of how Burning Man's organization operates. Several different levels of consensus formation now exist within Burning Man. This includes the various sub-committees and staff groups within each department. Informally, it also includes theme camps, artist groups and service organizations within the greater community of Burning Man. As this consensus process has expanded, the management structure of our organization has also elaborated itself. Within each department there exist many sub-committees that are managed by senior staffs. Above these groups is Burning Man's Senior Staff, with its various sub-committees and consultants. Senior Staff assembles Burning Man's budget, manages its ticket sales and day to day finances, and is ultimately responsible for formulating policies that govern all operations of the organization. Finally, positioned above Senior Staff is Black Rock City LLC. This policy making body supervises salaries, hiring and firing, all major financial decisions, and all policy decisions that immediately affect the survival of Burning Man. Larry serves as the director of Burning Man and chairs both of these groups. At each of these successive levels, managers assume more responsibility and, therefore, exercise more authority. They also confront problems at a higher level of generality.
It is helpful to imagine this model as a series of horizontally based networks or platforms, each equipped with its own subordinate threads of delegation. Moving through the center of these horizontal platforms is a vertical axis of managerial leadership. Each consensus making body is like a bead that's threaded on a string. At this level of organizational complexity, the responsibility of managers begins to increase. Managers must now learn to move within a greater system of decision making. This means they take responsibility for understanding or participating in decisions that are made at a higher level and are ready to convey these policies back to their group. They must also engage in a consensus process with their peers. They should solicit opinions about how policies can be realized.
Finally, they have a responsibility to ensure that policies are thoroughly explained to people who are working on the tiers below. It is never sufficient to tell people that "higher ups" have issued a decree. A manager should always be ready to explain the reasoning behind a policy and carefully listen to what people have to say. After all, these folks are actually doing the work that policy is meant to guide. Their knowledge base may very well exceed one's own. Looking down on things from a higher perspective can allow a manager to see the big picture. But managers should not imagine that this useful point of view transforms them into bigger or all-seeing persons. A generalized view can obliterate crucial details. Managers should always be ready to imagine that they don't really know what they're talking about.
At every phase of a downward progression in a hierarchic system, from policies made on high to actions undertaken at the ground level of operations, managers must also be willing to reconsider policy. Policy concerns the "what" and "why" of things. But how a thing is done can directly affect a policy. If policies are dysfunctional, or if someone discovers better solutions to problems, the plan can be changed. When a proposed change affects a policy, a manager should convey this information upward. Within any healthy organization, information should continually recycle in this way. It should be carried downward and upward, as if borne through the organization by a convection current. As the connective link in this process, managers must do more than understand policy, create consensus within their policy making peer groups and communicate these policies to the people they supervise. They must ensure that everyone is communicating and feels able to contribute. Within Burning Man -- at our event and within the organization that produces it --anyone at any time can be a leader.
Authority and Power
It is a common mistake to confuse authority with power. A manager may
possess the authority to make a decision. However, this does not mean
that power in any way emanates out of that person. The previous model
affords a good way of thinking about this. The thread connecting consensus-forming
beads can be imagined as a river, and this river forms a channel for power.
The immediate link to each station along its path is an individual leader
or management group vested with authority. This authority can be imagined
as a kind of water wheel. A manager has the recognized right, when making
a decision, to dip this wheel of authority into the power stream in order
to accomplish work. However, since power does not actually belong to a
manager, he or she may be legitimately criticized by anyone for defaulting
in responsibilities. Authority and the respect due it can be justly said
to belong to the person who exercises it. This right is earned by virtue
of the responsibilities they have chosen to assume. But power is not the
property of anyone. It is merely the motive force which authority draws
In most organizations, the power stream is made of money. In democratic politics, it is ultimately enforced by the ability to secure votes. Only rarely, and for brief periods of time, does it grow out of brute force or from the barrel of a gun, and only gurus may be said to rule through a purely personal manifestation of power. In Burning Man, however, all power proceeds from a gift. It was as a gift that Burning Man was born. None of the resources that Burning Man now commands would ever have existed if dozens, hundreds and, finally, thousands of people had not been willing to give to that gift. If the founders of Burning Man had asked participants to contribute to a private project dedicated to personal ends, who would have followed them? The Burning Man, as he is placed in Black Rock City, stands positioned at the radiating center of the most interactive and creative community on earth. Yet none of this could possibly exist if Burning Man had not remained supremely and symbolically a gift that has engendered other gifts.
This insight contains a very basic lesson for anyone who would act as a leader and manage others. A manager may preside over a meeting and address his or her fellows with an inspiring vision. A moment later, however, the talk might shift to other topics. Suddenly this leader may possess only a modest opinion based on limited information. His or her paddle has been lifted from the stream and others now lead the discussion. Leadership often consists of knowing exactly when not to invoke authority. The above description of how our organization works describes a sort of factory that is run by the power of gift giving, and it is our duty to manage this machinery well. However, we should always remember that the single most common mistake people make when they misuse these tools of management is to somehow forget their first lesson. If your actions don't respect the spirit of a gift; if you are jealous or possessive of power, if you withhold information, if you blame other people, if you refuse to give credit, and if you ignore the abilities of others -- then you are probably abusing your authority. All of our work together is in service to a gift, and this should always be regarded as the source of the power that holds us together.