You have probably reflected a number of times about where your career is heading. You have probably also wondered whether your current position is taking you to the right places. But how often do you stop to think about what your team members get from your project? Do they find this project exciting? Are they motivated by the ultimate purpose of the company? Is this project contributing to the talents they want to develop? Are they here because of the new coffee machine? Or did someone just tell them “You. Here. Now!”?
Sadly enough, many project managers (or managers in general) forget to ask themselves this simple question. Later they might find their project in trouble:teams that drag along inefficiently, spotted with sick-leaves and burn-outs, talented employees fleeing at the first offer, and stakeholders disappointed at grumpy team members. Nobody likes an unmotivated team.
Motivation is important in any type of projects, but it becomes critical when dealing with volunteers. You rarely have the chance of seeing an unmotivated team, because… well, why would they volunteer at all? There, the issue turns the other way around: personal objectives and satisfaction become often more important than whatever strategy or processes you may have developed as a manager.
But project management in volunteering is very different to project management in the professional field. We can boil it down to ‘the basics’, to the iron triangle of Project Management! All three elements, that are supposed to be what you are trying to control, behave completely different:
- Time is not as controllable as in conventional projects. A day does not have a fixed number of hours of work. A week does not have a fixed amount of days. You don’t talk to your volunteers in terms of how many hours it takes, as you can do to your workers. How much time is dedicated to a task might just depend on the task, and how you motivate people to do it.
- Human resources are variable and dependent. The amount and quality of people that are in your team will strongly depend on what they get from the project. In the case of volunteer projects, it will not be money. You might have to under-optimize the project in classical terms, to make sure there are hidden benefits for your most important stakeholder: your volunteers.
- Scope is something to maximize, and people may be more keen on some parts of the scope than on others. If your project is running late, you need to be very careful on what parts of the scope to cut… or you might loose your volunteers!
- The only thing that seems to work in a similar way is the budget… and not even that much. Have you ever been in a project where part of the budget comes from a sponsor?
Does that mean that there’s no project management in volunteering? Of course there is! And in many cases exceptionally good one. In big volunteer communities, you have strategy, organization’s objectives, performance metrics, business cases (sometimes not with that name) and even project plans. People commit to those tasks, because their personal benefits have been taken into account one way or another. In some cases, it can be the purpose of the organization. In others, their personal development. In others, their status and advancement in the organization. If the managers (sometimes not with that name) have taken care of this, everything happens. As planned.
What can we learn from this? The key, as in so many things, is to talk to your team members. Ask them what they want to achieve, what they think their next step is, what makes them feel rewarded. You’ll be surprised how much they’re willing to share.
But good communication is never one way: you also need to be prepared to take in, and to negotiate. You might need to change the way you assign tasks, or have a more flexible approach to your personnel. You might need to accept that a very good programmer becomes involved in more management tasks. Worst case scenario, if your projects do not give value to your employees… you might have to help them find a job elsewhere. Believe me, that’s much better than them letting you know that they’ve found another job.
In short: if you make sure your team members’ personal objectives are met, at the same time that your company’s objectives (synergistically or in exchange), your projects won’t just “get done”. They will thrive.