The power of volunteering & self-organisation

Natalie:“Hey Shiv, you went for some volunteering activity, how was it?”
Shiv: “Oh, it was nice. Very refreshing. It feels so good. I wish I could do that daily.”

Its the kind of conversation I often hear, as people share their volunteering experience. Happy and eager for more.

I recently volunteered for an coding challenge event at my organisation. We, a group of volunteers, who hardly knew each other before, came together as a team, with an uphill task of running the event end to end, inclusive of activities including continuous infra support, tech coaching, logistics, marketing and recruitment.

It was amazing to see how near strangers teamed-up together for a shared goal and executed it to everyone’s delight. At the end, we celebrated hard, and left with a heavy heart that this fun event got over too abruptly and this 2 days old team shall dissolve.

As I look back, I wonder, what was so engaging and motivating about volunteering? Throughout the event, we were mostly exercising our primary job skills(coding, management, marketing) to facilitate the coding challenge.

Can this experience be replicated in real product development team? What are those aspects that arguably make volunteering more fulfilling than a day job? And what can product teams do to embrace it? Here is what I found

Common Goals: Each volunteer knows the end goal. The expectations are transparent, beneficiaries are known. Volunteers know that their every right step will bring a noticeable change. That feeling invokes ownership. For a development team, knowing why they are doing something, establishes a relationship with business, of common knowledge and common goals.

Self-organisation: While the drive for bringing a change invokes ownership, the ownership invokes partnership in participants. Volunteers tend to proactively help each other and develop a bond that helps them through course of activity. Similarly, a team, which shares a common goal, and possesses required knowledge, will be capable to self-organise and partner for best interests of business.

Learning: A very interesting aspect of volunteering is new learning. Participants are often keen to learn new skills and try unconventional paths. A culture of continuous learning, which is open to new ideas, and not refraining from experiments, helps keep team motivated and innovative. Similarly, a product development team, if given autonomy to self-organise and experiment, will remain motivated as they will get regular food for thought.

Short activities: A volunteering activity is often short in nature. 1 hr to 2 days at max, with tangible, measurable results. While the end goals could be big, the volunteers work on small prioritised short term mini goals. It helps the team stay focused, with achievable goals in sight. Also it allows them multiple opportunities to change course, in case of change in plan or roadblocks. This is something that product development teams can learn greatly from.

Competition: A team of volunteers consists of self motivated individuals, who commonly neither work in any hierarchy, nor are in competition with each other. They all work together for the common goals only. Rest of the things(food, facilities,recreation), they are certain, will be taken care of. A human mind at job, often shuffles between multiple factors. Compensation, peer pressure, family and workload to name a few. Such shuffling creates distractions and impacts work productivity. These are certainly not easy challenges to solve, but if taken care of, it helps a product team to stay focused.

I am sure there are more aspects of volunteering that we all can learn from, and implement in our day to day job. In a nut shell, I feel while work can be performed by workers, to bring a positive change, we all need a volunteer mindset.

Thanks for reading this article. Please share your feedback and comments.

Ritesh Mehrotra