Volunteer Power

Street Art,  David Walker  - Picture by Jun Tuazon

Street Art, David Walker - Picture by Jun Tuazon

Volunteers decide by themselves. They offer themselves for a service or undertaking on a voluntary basis. They can’t be forced. They can say no. That’s why “volunteer” is a rarity in the corporate world, that loves nothing more than orderly management of resources.

Assignment to a task, a project, an opportunity, is the norm. I remember spending hours assigning people to different workshops organized one day, because my then boss wanted to “avoid chaos” – while I thought participants would have been much more interested in choosing by themselves. Volunteerism is seen as positive outside of work, not relevant at work: “uncontrolled, big crowds, expectations the organization may not be able to meet… anarchy”. Avoidance of the unexpected (and the good things that come with it) is not the least of the corporate diseases today.

Yet, what volunteers bring to organizations is of enormous value: communicative enthusiasm, positive mindset, cross silo engagement, diversity in interactions, higher creativity, increased well-being (yes, volunteerism is good for health, too) are just a few benefits; provided the organizations learn how to mobilize and leverage volunteers.

Over the last few years I’ve been lucky to participate, at work, in 3 significant initiatives that massively rely on volunteers, and to learn from them. I’ve already talked about the first two (a grassroots movement for gender balance , a community of activists against the dengue disease), not yet about the third which is on-going.

Kotter’s 8-Steps to Leading Change in an Industrial Organization

To better serve its clients and improve industrial quality, my organization (a major vaccine company) has started a journey where Quality is leading change. This ambition is made possible by deploying Kotter’s 8-step process to leading change. In this model, volunteers play a major role. Not a few dozen of “change agents”, but a massive number of enabled workers whose energy and creativity are being unlocked. Here is how the journey began and the main learning points as of today.

1- Defining the opportunity to change: the journey has kicked off in fall 2014, with the collective definition of “our Big Opportunity”: why the company has to change now, for what, how much it is an opportunity, how it connects with people’s values... In Kotter’s approach, you can’t trigger a sustainable change effort from a purely negative message, i.e. the need to respond to a crisis, an issue. The message has to contain seeds of positive energy, so that people feel interested in making the opportunity happen.

Crafted by a diverse group of leaders, this opportunity is about the “now” – unlike the company’s vision or mission, which define an identity. The text is written in such a way that it speaks as well to the CEO, as it does to a shop floor worker. This is about building a shared “space” that speaks both to the head and the heart, a common purpose that transcends our hierarchical or functional identities.

Leadership: from bottleneck to supporters

2- Coaching top leaders to “give room”: in Jan. 2015, we coached the leadership teams of 5 key production sites. Traditional leadership is a pain, but leaders are often good individuals. They work hard to do what they think is best for the organization; they set objectives and control, because that is what’s expected from them. They are generally overworked, because organizations ask too much from too few. They lack time and tools to take a distance from corporate codes and rituals.

Coaching those people is about making them realize that additional work – if it was ever possible – will not solve the issues; it’s about working differently, and enabling more people to solve the issues. Not just their own direct teams, but every person motivated by the change opportunity, and willing to help. Their role as leaders is not to set objectives and control (this is what management does), but to inspire and support. As one of my Enterprise 2.0 Summit fellows summed up, it’s about moving “from solving the issue, to getting out of the way”. One comment that struck me from a HR participant was: “I was thinking of employee engagement as an issue that I had to solve. Now, I understand we have to let the employees engage”. Precisely.

It takes a learning curve though; at the end of the session, and for some time after, we hear leaders asking “how they should frame the initiative” (answer: please don’t) or falling back into command and control type of behaviors. Un-learning isn’t easy. For others, the coaching session is transformative, and they immediately amend their leadership practices.

Incidentally, management is not a bad word; it is very needed, to organize complexity. But you don’t set an organization in movement with management; you do this with leadership. And leadership doesn’t stop at the boundaries of your department.

Unleashing people’s willingness to act

3- Making volunteers experiment leadership: after each leadership team coaching session, we had a diverse group of people, representing all functions and grades, coached with the very same material. Those people had been selected for their positive mindset and networking abilities – not for their status. Mixed grades, tenures, departments is a very unusual setting for a corporate coaching. They all had a conversation about the Opportunity prior to the session, and had the possibility to decline the offer.

The session revolved around what makes successful change, what is our opportunity to change, how we can build urgency around it everywhere in our organization. Urgency is a rare state in organizations when rapid, focused action is taking place by people working effectively together, united in a momentum for change. Probably the same type of energy described by Vlatka Hlupic in the Management Shift highest level.

At the end of the day, this group is given no other assignment but to “build urgency around our opportunity to change” on the site they work at, by attracting new volunteers to help. What they do and how they do it is up to them. Their resources are: their individual network and their connection as a group (remember rule #1 of Nilofer Merchant’s 11 rules for the social era? “Connections create value”), their creativity, and the common purpose. The aim is to have them create excitement and motivation among their colleagues.

Goldberg, Untitled

Goldberg, Untitled

In doing so, they experiment and learn new behaviors. How to turn an idea into concrete outcomes? How to act without a detailed roadmap provided by the top? How to convince and embark people? This is a leadership learning opportunity. It also takes un-learning at this level, particularly the need to ask each other for permission and seek consensus: in such groups with no formal hierarchy and decision-making method, this is not needed. Being urgent is about movement and agility. No one should reject an action unless they have something better to propose – that they can carry out.

It is fascinating to see new leaders emerge. People from the line or middle management, pretty much invisible across the conventional leadership filter, prove to be brave, astute, creative, inspirational achievers. These people are the core of the networks that will set the company in motion, helping to solve issues that the traditional pyramid hasn't been able to solve.

More about it in my next blog posts... In the meantime, I’d love to hear your reactions. Have you been involved in such change movement? How can organizations benefit from the power of volunteers?