Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 51;   December 19, 2007: Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: I

Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: I

by

CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific, time-limited tasks. Asking the group for volunteers works fine — usually. There are alternatives.
Huskies along the trail during start day, March 1998, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

Huskies along the trail during start day, March 1998, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. At distances over ten miles, the racing sled dog is the fastest animal in the world. There is a widely-held, but false, belief that sled dog teams are hierarchical, and that the lead sled dog is dominant. In racing, the need for high performance creates a need for absolute teamwork, which is incompatible with hierarchy. Position along the gang line is determined not by hierarchy but by the talents required for that position, and by matching partners. This might explain why a common problem plaguing dog drivers is of the too-many-volunteers type. In a book co-authored with Lorna Coppinger, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution (Order from Amazon.com), Raymond Coppinger tells a story about his dog Rena that illustrates this point. One race weekend, Rena had sore feet and he had to leave her at home. She howled continuously for days, and when he returned she was so hoarse that her barks were nothing but squeaks. Rena would not be denied. Note: Although some consider the Iditarod to be cruel and abusive of the dogs, sled dog racing generally is less controversial. Photo by Jeff Schultz, courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.

Leaders of all kinds ask for volunteers for specific, short-duration tasks. Volunteers tend to be more intrinsically motivated — they want to do well because they sought the assignment. Yet, asking for volunteers isn't always as easy as we'd hope. Here's Part I of a collection of tactics to help you through the sticky situations that sometimes arise when asking for volunteers.

When nobody volunteers
Very little is more demoralizing to a team leader than that awkward silence that follows a request for volunteers. People tend to assume that nobody wants the job, and filling the position in question — or other positions, too — can become more difficult.
Perhaps the job is repugnant or stigmatized. If so, sweeten the package somehow in advance.
But silence doesn't necessarily mean nobody wants the job. People can decline for fear of rejection, or overload, or because they anticipate more appealing opportunities.
If you expect awkward silence, consider whether you're asking too much, or whether your past behavior might be at issue. Perhaps people see working with you as risky, or not worth the trouble.
If your requests are reasonable, if you've treated volunteers well, and you still have trouble, then seek volunteers in other ways. Try personal contact by email, telephone, or in face-to-face.
When too many volunteer
When too many people volunteer, you must choose some and reject others. In a healthy team, this isn't a big deal. People know that your selection of others doesn't necessarily reflect on those not selected, and they know that other opportunities will follow.
But if some team members might experience painful rejection, your choice to accept other offers can be problematic. This can happen to team leaders who've acquired a reputation for setting team members against one another, or who've used plum assignments as a means of creating competition. Or it can happen when leaders systematically reject the offers of some team members without explanation, or when team leaders have played favorites.
Accepting all applicants isn't a solution, because it fails to address the basic problem: too many for the task at hand. If you expect that too many will volunteer, make your request in a way that limits this risk. Make your request offline, and apply an objective criterion such as "first to reply." Or contact individuals by telephone or in person.

The leaders' Accepting all applicants
isn't a solution, because
it fails to address the
basic problem: too many
for the task at hand
own motivations are also important. Some examples: we might ask for volunteers because we seek the validation that volunteers provide; or we might fear being rejected if we simply ask someone to take on added responsibility. Dealing with these issues by shifting the burden to the team isn't likely to work — people can sense the true motive. Seek volunteers because you really want volunteers.

Next time, we'll turn to questions about getting the right people and the right leadership.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Tactics for Asking for Volunteers: II  Next Issue

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

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When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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