Volunteering vs Assigning

21 April 2023

As a kid, I remember my dad volunteering some weekends to build houses with Habitat for Humanity. He’d head off in the morning with his tool belt and hammer in hand returning home in the late afternoon covered in sawdust and sweat, grinning ear to ear. It’s a beautiful example of people coming together not because they’ve been told or forced to, but because they want to. This principle of “volunteering” applies to all kinds of work even when you’re a paid member of a team.

Teams engaged in innovation or “knowledge work” that is complex, ambiguous, and non-deterministic must frequently reflect on the way things are and the way they’d like them to be and consider how to close that gap. For example, when checking in on OKRs, performing a retrospective, or performing any type of confidence-based update it’s natural to think about what has happened, what it means, and what should happen next?

Many teams in this position have shifted from top-down, command-and-control structures of governance towards ones that are more bottom-up and self-organising with acts of leadership happening everywhere. Yet, even in these environments, it’s natural that one person may emerge as a commander in a particular situation. Perhaps they’ve been nominated by the team, appointed – or anointed – from outside the team, or they simply feel a disproportionate sense of responsibility for the team’s success at that moment.

Actions need accountable, responsible owners for them to happen. These owners can either be assigned as they are in a top-down command and control environment or they can be freely taken up as in autonomous, self-governing teams. When time is short and the pressure is on, it can be very tempting for one person to immediately begin suggesting or assigning these actions to other members of the team. When this happens you may even see the person or the entire team congratulating themselves for efficiently delegating activities and swiftly concluding the conversation.

Don’t do it!

Mea culpa

On many occasions I’ve found myself guilty of assigning actions to people without enough consideration, discussion or listening. I thought I was doing everyone a favour by avoiding the awkward silence of people not knowing if they should jump in and take something on or if someone else might be better poised to do this work. Or, worse, the terror of realising that nobody wanted to do something because it was unpleasant, poorly-defined, or impossible. Sometimes people were simply waiting for me as the “project manager” to actively step in and delegate. We’d congratulate ourselves by saying things like “Great, every action has an owner, we all know who’s doing what and we’re done with the meeting – go team!” What a heinous and naïve act of well-meaning disservice this was! If you’ve been with me on one of these teams, I’m sorry.

Accountability and joy

When a person assigns a task to another person, the assigner becomes responsible for ensuring the task is completed by the assignee. By removing agency and ownership from the assignee, we strip them of responsibility – “I didn’t really have the time, knowledge, interest, skill, etc. to do this. The ‘boss’ made me.”

We also rob them of the subtle learning about what they’re capable of, what gives them confidence to take things on, and the joy that comes with commitment and success.

When team members volunteer for tasks themselves, they do so with a greater sense of clarity around what they’re taking on, increased ownership of the decision to do it and how to do it and ultimately more pleasure in the work itself.

This shift leads to better outcomes, greater learning about skills and capacity, and even greater desire to do more.

Building understanding and trust

When people assign tasks, they often do so without fully understanding the time, resources, and expertise required to complete them. After all, they’re not the ones who will be doing the work. This is natural but certainly suboptimal if we’re committed to deeply understanding the current reality and learning to improve it. Are we deeply afraid of failure? Okay, how can we create more safety? Is one person simply too busy doing something else which they believe is critically important but of which the wider team is unaware? Okay, can we confirm if this thing is most important or delegate/defer/drop it? Do we need some different skills or external help?

Most of these scenarios can be addressed but without giving individuals the trust and space to explore them, we’ll never know.

By allowing team members to volunteer for tasks, would-be assigners demonstrate trust in their team’s abilities and, critically, they demonstrate trust in a team member’s decision to say “no” or at least not to actively take something on.

When team members are allowed to enthusiastically take up or decline a piece of work, they are better positioned to accurately assess their ability to complete the task and make more realistic commitments. It’s an invitation to dig deeper and change the conversation from one simply about “efficiency” to one about skills, confidence, and working conditions giving us the opportunity to truly understand what’s standing in our way and what we can do to thrive.

Enjoy the silence

I hear you asking “What happens if nobody volunteers? What if you sit there in silence staring at each other? What if it’s incredibly awkward?”

Yes, all of these things are likely and all are a bit uncomfortable at first but each is a really valuable outcome. Learn to sit gently with this discomfort, to listen deeply to the silence in the group and to the minute sounds and movements that begin to grow into words and phrases and passionate dialogue – not debate. By studying and discussing these things honestly and openly and giving ourselves space to genuinely explore the things which are in our control or influence, it leads to radical commitment and unstoppable continuous improvement.

This is a delicate and tremendous opportunity for both personal and team growth. I’m still learning to practise this level of patience and deep listening, myself. As someone with a borderline unhealthy bias for action and especially when under pressure, I know just how difficult this is.

Fortunately, I don’t have to do this alone, and neither do you!

Asking for help

I’ve come clean with several teams and shared this strategy with them. I’ve invited them to call me out when I start assigning actions or when we converge on next steps prematurely and – to my delight – they do! When a team member points out that we’re prematurely converging or rushing to conclusions and delegating things, it immediately opens up a deeper conversation. It also reminds us that we should rotate facilitation roles especially when doing things like OKR check-ins.

It’s not for everyone

Some folks are happy to be “assigned” something to do. Perhaps they prefer spending their mental effort solving the problem not choosing whether or not to take it on. Others enjoy a bit of encouragement to take up a challenge. If you’re unsure, ask the team! Are they ready to be truly self-governing and select their own work or do they prefer being told what to do for now? Both options are fine! Not every team has to be self-organising and not every individual wants that level of autonomy.

Try it!

Begin with yourself. Notice if you feel excited and empowered by volunteering to take something on or if you prefer to be told what to do. Introduce this concept of genuine volunteering vs assigning. Invite others to become part of the process. Show folks that it’s safe to say no. Don’t push. Make it a part of your regular retrospectives to understand how you’re picking up and doing work.

Appreciate those moments of gentle listening and awareness – even in times of great stress – while the team thinks and feels its way forward. It’s a gift. It’s also not easy but, with practice, you and your team will unlock deeply satisfying relationships and tremendous potential.