Agile 2007, Agile 2008
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How many volunteers do you have working on your project?

Volunteers While your initial reaction may be “none”, I would assert that your whole team are actually volunteers and we can benefit from recognizing this and treating them accordingly. All that paying people does is ensure that they turn up (hopefully) and then once they are at work they must want to contribute or else very little will be achieved despite all the outward appearances of them “working”.

Attending the Agile 2007 conference in Washington and witnessing the passion of people engaged in something they truly care about and volunteering on programs with likeminded people got me thinking again about the productivity of volunteers and paid team members.

Team member contribution varies on a scale ranging from being a net drain on the project, all the way up to passionate innovation.


On the left hand side of this spectrum we have instances of people actually negatively impacting the project. Either intentionally or through misguided objectives and actions, their presence on the team actually has a net drain on project productivity.

The next region “Passive Compliance” people do generally work on to-do items, but without much thought and without any passion for the task or goal. Unfortunately “Passive Compliance” is an all too common category for team members in large organizations who feel like “cogs” in a machine they have very little say in.

The next two categories of “Active Participation” and “Committed Dedication” are where the good work starts getting done. Now people are engaged personally instead of merely by job obligation and are truly thinking about how best to solve problems and find new solutions. With brain engaged and a sense of ownership for task, the net contribution to the project are orders of magnitude higher than “Passive Compliance” contributors.

The last category “Passionate Innovation” occurs when the task becomes the all consuming passion for those involved. Usually witnessed in start-ups and by partners in a business who’s vision is being executed, passionate innovation can bring exceptional results and solutions. Google and Microsoft still worry about small teams working out of a basement somewhere because the results of Passionate Innovation are huge and potentially industry changing.

Volunteers and Contribution
The real key in comparing paid team members to volunteers is recognizing that the level of team member contribution to the project is always voluntary. We can pay them a salary so they turn up but where team members choose to operate on the scale from Undermining to Passionate Innovation is largely up to them. We can fire the poor performers and reward the hire performers, but these are clumsy tools, to achieve a general rightwards shift we should better understand what’s in it for them to want to volunteer more effort.

Why to people volunteer
People volunteer for two reasons:
• They believe in the goal
• They believe in the group (or group leader)

Either you want to save the Bald Eagle or you would follow “A Corp” anywhere because they are an amazing group. There are few other reasons why anyone ever volunteers.

When leading a team we should rally people around the project cause and create the best environment we can. If your project has some mundane role like “implementing tax-compliance amendment 2.13” then you had better make it a great place to work or pretty soon the team members voluntary contributions levels will drift leftwards.

Dumb acts of “It’s not my job” occur when people lack this passion for the cause or the team.


So we need to build consensus around the end goals of the project and ownership to the team.

By default it is normal for teams to have differing objectives for a project that align to their personal goals and act as pulling forces for their behaviour and contribution.


It is only through vision and alignment exercises that we can better align all the personal pulling forces to match those of the project’s. When this alignment occurs the net velocity of the project towards our end goal increases dramatically.


Volunteer Rewards
Think about how we reward volunteers, without monetary incentives all we really have is sincere thanks, camaraderie, and recognition for the job done. These should be our first tools of choice for rewarding paid team members also, as they address the level of voluntary contribution towards productivity. Saying a sincere thank you, recognizing small victories, and fostering a good team environment are the best tools at our disposal.

So rather than expecting people to do a good job because we pay them so much consider them as volunteers and try acknowledging them accordingly. Focus on the project cause and team environment and create a project where people from other departments want to get onto (how people volunteer within a paid work environment). By creating a better project cause and team environment you will likely find you can get more done with fewer people.


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