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

What I talk about when I talk about structure

In many of the organisation design meetings that I attend where a client has an issue they want to address, their request is for a re-structure.  Closer questioning reveals that by ‘re-structure’ they actually mean they want a differently arranged traditional organisation chart.  They are of the view that, once people are in the configuration shown on the chart, a revised chart will solve the issue and are surprised when I ask questions about work flows, value streams, customer journeys and so on.  There is almost no recognition that ‘structure’ and ‘re-structure’ mean more than a different organisation chart.

Asking people what information an organisation chart gives us, and what information it doesn’t give us alerts them to the possibility that the information it doesn’t give us could well be useful in thinking how to achieve the re-structure purpose (assuming we are clear on  what that is) but that recognition doesn’t translate into ‘let’s look at that too’.  Providing the article ’10 principles for organisation design’,  where principle 3 is ‘Fix the structure last, not first’,  is given polite nods before people return to drawing boxes and lines.

What I talk about when I talk about structures is not organisation charts.   I am not against org charts (see my 2011 blog) and they are usually one of the outputs of design work. But organisation design charts do not represent the totality of organisational ‘structure’.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines structure as:  the way in which the parts of a system or object are arranged or organized, or a system arranged in this way, giving some examples:

  • the grammatical structure of a sentence
  • The structure of this protein is particularly complex.
  • They have a very old-fashioned management
  • Some people like the sense of structure that a military lifestyle imposes

You can see from the examples that ‘structure’ comes in many forms.  Over the years my views on what I mean by structure has developed.  My 2012 blog on the topic almost does equate ‘structure’ with ‘chart’ (but not with ‘design’).

But now,  I think of structure is a way that is much more akin to Richard Karash’s view.  In his blog  ‘How to see structure’ he discusses structure in the way I now think of it.   He says, ‘Structure is the network of relationships that creates behavior. The essence of structure is not in the things themselves but in the relationships of things. By its very nature, structure is difficult to see … much of what we think of as structure is often hidden. We can witness traffic accidents, for example, but it’s harder to observe the underlying structure that causes them.’

Karash explains the traffic accident at three levels:  the events level, the patterns and trends level, and the structural level.  As he points out, these levels are interdependent.  The structural elements – road layouts, traffic flow regulators, road surface design and so on interact along with non-structural elements to shape driver behaviour.   (I don’t agree that structure ‘creates’ behaviour, but I do think it shapes and directs it).

The various elements of  ‘structure’ that comprise the structural building blocks of ‘design’ include:

  • Hierarchies, layers and spans, with stated decision and authority levels
  • Lateral linkages and interdependencies
  • Work process, flows and business capabilities
  • Organisational performance management and governance systems
  • Individual performance management systems, pay and reward mechanisms, job design, career paths.
  • Templates, frameworks, models and methodologies
  • Information and communication flows
  • Policies, procedures and standards

So, when I talk about structure, I talk about those things, and these are the things I consider in the organisational design work.  This more comprehensive view of ‘structure’ is sometimes problematic if I don’t explain and explore it carefully with clients and stakeholders, because typically they do equate – and use interchangeably – ‘structure’ and ‘chart’ and also refer to the chart as the organisation’s ‘design’.    (The ’10 Principles for Organisation Design, mentioned earlier, also equates structure with chart, but not design).

Maybe I’m out on a limb taking a more comprehensive view because when I Googled ‘organisation structure’ and looked at the images from this they were pretty much all of organisation charts.   But I’m simultaneously reading blogs and articles telling us that the organisation chart is dead.   See for example The Org Chart is Dead,  and The End of the Org Chart and To Sir, With Love – Compliance and the End of the Org Chart and It’s Time to Kill the Org Chart

There are many organisations, particularly those moving towards ‘structures that enable self-organizing teams to organize and collaborate through internal networks’, that do not have an organisation chart of the type shown when you Google organisation charts/structures – but they do have many of the other structural elements on my list above.

Corporate Rebels reports that these chartless organisations ‘have evolved themselves from structures that look like static slow-moving pyramids to something that looks more like a flexible and fast-moving swarm of start-ups. We have witnessed them in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all called slightly different. Spotify talks about squads and tribes. Buurtzorg about self-governing teams. Stanley McCrystal about a team of teams. Finext and Incentro about cells. And FAVI calls them mini-factories.’  Look too at the article on Haier in November/December 2018 HBR

If we only equate ‘structure’ with traditional types of ‘org chart’ we lose sight of the many other, possibly better, ways of organising work and workers.   No organisation chart does not mean no structures.   And having an organisation chart requires acknowledgement that it represents only one structural element and one that neither defines nor represents the design of the organisation.

What do you talk about when you talk about structures?  Let me know.


(I got the title from a book by Haruki Murakami ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’)

Image: New York and Erie Railroad organisation chart from 1855 © Geography & Maps/Library of Congress