Self organising volunteers

A colleague, Diz, asked me last week if people and teams could ‘self-organise’.  She was asking in the context of several examples of work projects that people had volunteered to work on, additional to their day job, but those people had failed to get themselves together to deliver any project outcomes.

Diz wanted to know why people who volunteered to do something didn’t then do it.  It’s an interesting question that set me wondering about organisational volunteering which takes several forms, including:

  1. Volunteering for a well-defined organisational role that is additional to the ‘day job’ e.g. first aider or fire warden
  2. Volunteering for a less well-defined work-related role that is additional to the ‘day job’ e.g. ‘change champion’
  3. Volunteering for a non-work-related role e.g. being on the milk buying rota
  4. Volunteering to organise or help organise a social club or community network that is not directly work-related e.g. a Women’s Network
  5. Volunteering to participate as a team member in a work-related project that is additional to the ‘day job’ where the desired purpose/outcome is well expressed e.g. organising a business unit conference
  6. Volunteering to participate as a team member in a work-related project where the desired outcome is unclear or up to the team members to decide for themselves e.g. what one thing shall we change to make working here easier?

NOTE:  I am not talking about Employer Supported Volunteering Schemes which give employees the opportunity to volunteer during working hours in the external communities in which they operate.

Diz was talking about a group that fell into the last category (6) – a project where the volunteer team members had to decide the specific project outcome amongst themselves and then deliver it.

Thinking about it, there are two ideas in play here a) volunteering and b) self-organising.  It’s easy to think that the two ideas are connected.  But I don’t think they are.  Volunteering implies you have the intrinsic motivation to do something and so you will organise to do it.   But self-organising is a specific form of getting something done which implies no external management control or direction. It isn’t related to volunteering.  We need to ask two separate questions:  why does initial volunteer enthusiasm not always lead to follow-through action?  Why don’t people self-organise?

Peter Senge, in his book The Dance of Change: The challenges to sustaining momentum in a learning organization discusses 10 reasons for why intentions lose momentum.  (See more detail on each of the reasons here).  Several of them are relevant to volunteers not following through on their initial enthusiasm.   Momentum stops as people start saying one or more of the following:

‘We don’t have time for this stuff.’

‘We have no help.’

This stuff isn’t working.’

‘This stuff isn’t relevant.’

‘You’re not walking the talk.’

‘This stuff is ****.’‘

‘You don’t understand what we do.’

‘Who’s in charge of doing this?’

‘We keep reinventing the wheel.’

‘Where are we going, and what are we here for?’

These expressions of feeling are less likely to happen if someone has volunteered for a specific role e.g. first aider. It’s where people are volunteering to be part of a team that things are more likely to get stuck – sometimes for Peter Senge’s reasons and sometimes because the conditions for fostering continued participation are not there.    The conditions for team participation and achieving an outcome are critical whether or not the participants are volunteers or paid for doing the work.  And there’s no shortage of info on how to build effective teams.

How they become self-organising adds another layer to the discussion and here I think it helps to be clear about four things:

  1. Understanding the concepts of self-organising. There are many definitions but this one I like for its translate-ability into organisational life:  ‘[Self-organisation] is the ability of a system to spontaneously arrange its components or elements in a purposeful (non-random) manner, under appropriate conditions but without the help of an external agency. It is as if the system knows how to ‘do its own thing.’ (Watch a 3-minute video on self-organising here)
  2. Agreeing authority level of the self-organising team. Mike Cohn in a blog offers Hackman’s four types of authority as a feature that distinguishes self-organising teams from others.  He suggests self-organising teams have authority over performing the work and also over how work is done.  In his words, ‘In addition to performing the tasks, a self-organising team manages its own process. A self-organising team decides how it will work.’
  3. Selecting the individuals who will comprise the team. In another blog, Self-Organizing Teams Are Not Put Together Randomly, (on self-organisation and agile teams) author, Mike Cohn, notes that a lot of effort should be expended in selecting the individuals who will comprise the team, discussing five selection considerations: (some of them the same as Glena Eoyang’s): including all needed disciplines, having a mix of technical skill levels, balancing domain knowledge, seeking diversity, considering persistence.
  4. Ensuring you have the ‘appropriate conditions’ for self-organising. There are many and heated academic researcher debates on what exactly these are.  Glenda Eoyang, for example,  talks  about 3 conditions:
  • Containers i.e. the environmental elements for the group to work within. It includes such practices as clarifying the purpose of the group’s work; stating the givers, norms, operating guidelines, mission, values, and common vision;
  • Differences i.e. having diversity within the group e.g. perspective (big picture versus focused), learning types, peak operating times (morning person – non-morning person), personality profile, functional expertise – business administration, products, or consulting, and hierarchical level.
  • Exchanges i.e. the flows of information, feedback, communication, etc between team members including listening, articulation of shared beliefs, metaphorical thinking, post-meeting written evaluation by participants, prepared agendas, meeting notes, analysis of the process, and communication of work results to a group of people beyond those who worked on it.
  • (See also info on rules of flocking, for example and the info on the image on this post)

If ‘teams’ comprise random people, their authority levels are not determined, the conditions are not appropriate and they are not familiar with concepts of self-organising, then they are not set up for success.  It does not matter whether they are volunteers or not the group is unlikely to become quickly self-organising to achieve a project outcome.  If they do succeed it is likely to be a stretch and take time.

If you are aiming to encourage volunteers to be self-organising you have to work with them to a) overcome the barriers to maintaining volunteer momentum and b) operationalise the four elements of self-organising outlined above.   What’s your view on volunteers and self-organisation?  Let me know.


Image: Self-organising robot swarm

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