“Choose your best team, not your best individuals”
– Mark de Rond, Forbes
Assembling a volunteer team is, I believe, about more than the sum of its individual parts. A strong and successful team should be curated rather than created – and this means thinking carefully about each member as a specific piece of the puzzle, picking the best person for a particular job rather than hunting for especially engaged volunteers more generally.
In fact, we not only should be thinking in terms of curation, but must: volunteers take on up to 25% of the work done at our associations (according to Hoffman, Houstle and Whorton’s Mutually Beneficial Volunteerism research), and are such a key part of our operations that we can’t just scatter them like seeds across the organization and hope that engagement grows.
As Thomas Friedman has taught us, our adaptation as individuals is linear, and happens at a rate that is unlikely to keep up with external change. I would argue that if this is true for individuals, the rate of adaptability is even slower for a team – after all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Given that achieving organizational goals is a collaborative effort, it matters hugely not just which individuals are making up a team, but how well they combine to form the chain. We pay considerable attention to the formation and design of our associate staff, so why would we not do the same thing with volunteers?
At my association, NCARB, we have been working according to Lean principles since Eric Ries sparked a lightbulb moment for me in 2013. A key aspect of Lean innovation is engaging in empathy, and as such we embarked upon a series of empathy sessions with both team captains and volunteers to try and understand the volunteer management dynamic.
Our empathetic enquiry process brought to light the things – little and large – that mattered most to both groups of people, and offered us insight into how we could design a mutually beneficial volunteer management experience.
The team leaders wanted productive and flourishing teams, of course, but they also revealed a desire to mentor, and to support the growth of their volunteers through leadership paths.
Volunteers craved a meaningful experience: they wanted to give back to the profession that they loved, and therefore they aspired to find a volunteer position that would best align with their skills and interests. It became clear from this qualitative investigation that the construction of the team – matching people together sensibly and strategically – was as important as the quality of the volunteers.
It was, we realized, much like the NFL drafting process: there were team captains competing for talent, each one knowing precisely what they needed for the success of their teams.
It was clear that there should be a system in place so that everybody could get what they required.
Following Lean methodology, our next step was to experiment iteratively with possible solutions, in order to test the assumptions we generated during the empathy sessions. From here, an idea was born: we designed an online workspace for our association to use internally, to address the importance of team curation and composition.
Even at its earliest stage, the adoption of this tool was overwhelming, despite the roughness of the first release. We then turned to the users to help us prioritize and refine the important features of the product, using both their feedback and their user behavior to tailor further iterative editions.
Lean principles helped us to improve our tool in line with user behavior. For example, we did not initially consider what might happen if the right candidate for a position was unable to join a particular team. We realized in the first year of using the tool that when a position was declined too late by a volunteer, it generated a lot of confusion and conflict. We therefore created a bench system, so that viable substitutes could be waiting in the wings if a team needed re-shuffling. We also discovered through the actual use of the tool that communication with volunteers was incredibly important: something we didn’t predict would be an issue, but which the system alerted us to.
Adopting this tool had a significant impact upon volunteer selection and management amongst our teams. One of the largest and most gratifying consequences was the way in which it encouraged more interaction and cooperation between team captains, who had previously been unaware of their competitive hold over the talent pool.
Once the tool exposed conflicts in which team captains were competing for the same talent, we witnessed people negotiating with each other over possible candidates, supporting each other in finding replacements, and allowing for smoother, more visible, operations. It has also resulted in a deeper consideration of diversity and inclusion within the makeup of our teams, as the team-building process was rendered more explicit and visible.
I strongly believe that team design should be taken seriously – and our Lean approach to building a tool to do so has exposed and emphasized the impact that careful curation can have on individuals and teams alike. We are therefore launching this tool for public use, to support associations outside our own in customizing their teams and streamlining their project operations. It is called Lineup, and is now available commercially. If you’d like to see for yourself, I invite you to try it out here!