The failure of the old mantra 'do what I say not what I do' is especially obvious in groups of volunteers. When contributors have an easy way to opt-out, leadership by example becomes critical to success. A double standard, either real or perceived, can have delirious effects on moral and undermine team cohesion, without which success is all but impossible.
Passion ignites something inside of us which attracts us together. Teams can quickly form around a common passion, to share ideas and experiences, but passion is not the fuel that sustains teamwork and maintains cohesion over the long run.
People who volunteer are a self-selecting group full of passion and initiative. Leading such a group takes a special set of skills to sustain the group energy and enthusiasm and encourage innovation while at the same time providing focus and direction towards some set of goals or milestones. Success is the best fuel to sustain passion.
The flare up of passion can also blind group members. Sometimes it is because the opinions and valuations are so closely aligned that bickering over minor discrepancies brings progress to a stand-still. With the option to opt-out near at hand, team members go-for-broke and hold resolute where they otherwise would seek a compromise.
The team leader may struggle with how to manage personality conflicts, or may withdraw from the debate altogether. But this is where the old trick lead-by-example works the best. If the group leader can visibly make relevant sacrifices and demonstrate compromise without losing passion or core values, the team members may begin to do the same.
The key stone is to redirect the passion over the debate into a passion to achieve the goal. Once the goal is obtained the success of that accomplishment will drive the team towards the next goal and onwards.
I made arrangements with another group, one that had achieved some recent headlines and good press, to collaborate on a short term project. I opened up the floor for anyone to attend who was willing to give up a weekend and commit to the endeavor whatever direction it might take us.
Our group members were immediately visibly different from the hosts and in an attempt to try to break the ice I encouraged my members to adopt some of the tools and equipment they used even when it was explicitly prohibited by our own organization. My team kept an open mind and watched and learned new approaches, techniques, and methods even when some of those were not applicable and not feasible for our own usage.
At the end of the weekend our group clearly walked away having benefited unequally from the experience. Our open mind approach allowed us to bring back to our own team philosophies that would not have been possible if we had engaged only on a limited level and only participated in those aspects which were directly applicable to us.
One of the first changes that was apparent was a subtle attitude shift. While those who did not participate did not understand why we were asking for the tools that we had realized were most efficient, we slowly built our case. In the meantime we continued with operations as normal but having tasted something more, something bigger, we coalesced as a group, off the clock, and resolved to continue to lobby for these tools until someone heard us.
Finally word came down that we were free to make our own decision. While the small group celebrated others, who had not volunteered their time, voiced concerns, confusion and mistrust. This was of no consequence to the core team, we set out to utilize our new tools and demonstrate by example how to improve the process.
I set small attainable goals, some were pre-identified low hanging fruit, but others were long term changes and would push the overhead and organization as a whole. We build upon our early successes and gained the attention of a wider audience. By demonstrating the benefits of the new process we slowly built a buy-in throughout the larger organization.
I have to concede that it is, of course, the process not the end result which is the most interesting and fulfilling, but there was one particular moment when I realized how far reaching the effects of this "stunt" really went.
One of the junior team members is an especially dedicated and loyal fellow. He gives of himself, his time, as much as possible, and tries to learn and grow and keep an open mind at all times. He is really easy to work with, and yet he is as passionate (and opinionated) as they come.
After the approval to use the tools had come down, the team naturally, took it one step further. The lesson of open-mindedness carried forward and the core team continued to innovate and push the limits beyond the newly approved boundaries.
This well meaning fellow, took some photographs of some of the collaboration, the demonstrations, and honestly captured some of the spirit and enthusiasm of the group in a set of stills. What impressed me the most, was before he posted these images to facebook, he actually stopped himself and asked me if I would review them first.
He was concerned that with a quick click of the mouse, he might reverse the trend, or reveal some mis-deed that would undo all the hard fought freedom and accomplishments. This extremely simple act of asking for permission was not required, not written down, not discussed, nor was it ever in doubt. My leadership by example, my offering him a special opportunity was something that he respected. He recognized that I had to go out on a limb to initiate the experience, and he had respect for not only the outcome but for the process as a whole.
No one in particular can claim credit for having achieved this turn of events. Sometimes we just get lucky is all.
If you would like more information about the specifics of this event please contact me offline.
Dana, thanks for taking the time to write out this success story. I'm particularly intrigued by the cooperation between the group that had found some previous success and your group. It sounds like a big part of your group's success came by adopting new tools and techniques that the other group was using -- and, I guess, the confidence to use them. Can you say anything more about that process? Looks like a very effective way of spreading knowledge (and success) through an organization.
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One suggestion is to have those who are more passionate thinkers (or dreamers as you may call them) work on individual basis, on the most challenging part. The rest of the work has to be orchestrated with the rest of the team. This way, the motivation levels of the dreamers can be maintained and the work does not get interrupted.
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David, I really appreciate your feedback. I'm sorry if this is not the correct place to respond to your request for more information but it was an open text input window so I thought I'd give it a go and see where it places this. There was a very distinct power imbalance from my group of "rag tag volunteers" and the more organized and publicly recognized team. This power imbalance was something I used to my advantage to coalesce a kind of team spirit among our people. I impressed upon them that we should enter this opportunity with a sense of respect and look for why that team had achieved such good results. We had a mission to learn, which is something more than just showing up to see what happens.
I attribute the unusually high level of open-mindedness to the fact that the volunteers self selected for the task. Those who had better things to do simply did not show up. Some did come to the table later on to see what we'd done and why, but only after they were ready to do so. The confidence to use the tools, on the other hand, came more slowly. First there was a buy-in phase where we watched what they were doing and asked 'why is it different from our own way'? Then we targeted aspects that we attributed to the success of the other team that we thought were interesting, and focused our attention on those aspects.
The most frustrating part was going back to the old way and not being "allowed" to continue experimenting or using the new tools for a period while we worked it out with the higher ups. That was the part that took the most discipline. Because the knowledge was already there and the passion had been fueled, we now had to dial it down and fall back into line.
After we got the green light, the confidence was unbounded. Because they had to wait they schemed and dreamt up newer ways and more interesting experiments. Once the door was opened the floodgates of creativity just poured out. There was actually a little additional modification that took place at this stage in the game as well, improvements upon improvements.
As far as a way to spread knowledge, I think the special opportunity was the catalyst, and the fight for approval was the slow burn. Clearly the restrictions played out in my favor on this one. What an interesting turn of events!
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