The pieces of a puzzle: restructuring a volunteer team for longevity and flexibility

Let’s talk about one of my favorite topics: teams. I’m a firm believer that the biggest achievements of mankind can only happen if people work together, adding their specific perspectives and talents to the mix. But teamwork is often a source of frustration and conflict, especially when there are problems with communication or part of the people don’t keep their commitment. Being in charge of a volunteer team is particularly challenging because many of the traditional management techniques involve extrinsic (mainly financial) motivators that volunteer teams do not have at their disposal. So how do you motivate people who essentially work for free?

Happy team, happy times!

For the past four years, I’ve had the pleasure to lead and be involved in the organizing team of TEDxTUM, an independent local event in the TED format at the Technical University of Munich. For those who don’t know about TEDx, you should immediately head to the central directory of events and find one near you — the experience is worth it! Our mission is to spread extraordinary ideas in our local community in the form of events, often with live speakers. Our yearly main event typically hosts 600+ people with 10–15 speakers and activity-packed breaks in-between sessions (although we do have smaller events during the year as well). Check our web site for photos and videos of what we have done so far! Such an event takes almost a year to organize, with a team that is comprised exclusively of volunteers, although we go for the same quality as professionally-run events. Making such a project a reality involves a variety of tasks and activities, amongst others curating the content, coaching the speakers, building a stage, acquiring partners, marketing the event and the underlying mission, designing and building the audience experience around the sessions, and running the logistics of the show.

In the following, I will tell the story of how our team developed from its foundations to a mature volunteer organization which is built for longevity and flexibility. After having done a few events, we realized that it was time to re-design the team from the ground up. Find out why that happened, what we did and how it turned out. If you want to skip the history and jump right to the solution, here it is, and head here if you’d like to directly read my recommendations for other teams.


Starting small: the roots of a volunteer team

Our team started in 2014 with around 10 regular members and hardly any structure: we were going for what we loved and everyone did a bit of everything. That worked for a small event with 6 speakers and 100 attendees, but we wanted to scale up and needed the structures for it.

Everyone was doing everything in the beginning. I think the term "headless chicken" applies here.
Everyone was doing everything in the beginning. I think the term “headless chicken” applies here.

Structure and scaling up: the Steering Committee

The next year, I took over the team leadership along with two other co-organizers. We called ourselves the “steering committee”. We divided the team into the activities we identified from our prior experience organizing the event, resulting in 4 sub-teams, each of which was led by one of us. I was in charge of Marketing, while Mohamed took over responsibility for Curation, and Eric did an amazing job with Partnerships. We scaled up the team to 16 members, which we all recruited at the beginning of the year. Each sub-team had a defined set of responsibilities and topics where they needed to cooperate with the other sub-teams. We created an overall timeline of activities to avoid accidentally blocking each other’s progress. So far, so good.

We introduced more structure and delegation as the team grew larger and became more mature.
We introduced more structure and delegation as the team grew larger and became more mature.

This structure held up nicely in 2015. We pulled off an event with 12 speakers and performances and 500 attendees without major problems, which in hindsight was a big accomplishment given our lack of experience in event management (we didn’t realize this at the time, though, so we just went ahead and did it).

The responsibility of becoming irreplaceable

The situation changed in the following year. Mohamed left the steering committee and I jumped in with both feet taking over curation, which I had discovered to be my passion. We not only scaled up the team again, this time to 20 people, but we were also more ambitious in selecting and coaching the speakers, requiring a considerably bigger time investment. Having only two persons in charge was nice because it meant that we could make fast decisions, but it also involved a lot of responsibility: we called the shots, so if something went wrong, we would only have ourselves to blame. I started to feel stressed almost all the time, obsessing about details of the event and whether they would go as planned. Along with this came an almost crippling sense of responsibility, of being the person whose presence and performance would make or break the event. It quickly became too much to handle on top of my day job (thank God I wasn’t working a 9 to 5 office job, but had a PhD position with flexible time investment and an ability to scale down for a couple of weeks at a time, having amazing colleagues who covered for me).

Having only two persons in charge was nice because it meant that we could make fast decisions, but it also involved a lot of responsibility: we called the shots, so if something went wrong, we would only have ourselves to blame.

In short, it was time for a change. Eric and I decided and announced to the team that we would step down at the end of the year, leaving them (and us) time to think about succession. Our 2016 event went well, we improved in almost all areas compared to the year before, which is always a good feeling. Now it was time to regroup.

Crazy team pictures have always been part of our shared identity.

I didn’t want to end my involvement in TEDxTUM, but having been in charge of so many areas, I had become the go-to person for all things around the event: every problem and question that came up would first be directed at me. I noticed this most strongly during our 2016 event that I was hosting on top of leading the team (which was an absolutely amazing experience despite the many sleepless nights, so I’m not complaining). In order to fully concentrate on this task, I tossed my phone into a corner and ignored it for the first half of the day. When I eventually glanced at it, there had been all kinds of emergencies including an event organizer’s classic nightmare: a major coffee crisis. As usual, the issues were first sent my way, with dozens of messages asking what to do. However, when people realized I wasn’t available, an amazing thing happened: they took charge and solved the problems on their own!

This was an interesting revelation for me. I had been annoyed at people for not taking care of their tasks independently and loading questions and problems off on me, but as it turns out I was the one to blame: somehow I had managed the team in a way that they didn’t feel empowered to make those decisions on their own. How did this happen, and how could we reverse it?

I had been annoyed at people for not taking care of their tasks independently and loading questions and problems off on me, but as it turns out I was the one to blame: somehow I had managed the team in a way that they didn’t feel empowered to make those decisions on their own.

I realized that handing over responsibility wouldn’t work if I stayed — I would have to resign any active role in the team, at least until other people felt fully responsible. My goal was to make myself replaceable, which would free up my time and energy to contribute to those parts of the organization which I’m most passionate about.


Divide and conquer: handing over and restructuring the team

Eric and I went back to the drawing board and identified the objectives for a new team structure:

  • Division of responsibility: more people should share the responsibility for the event, so that no individual person has to carry the full load on their own.
  • Clear definition and ownership: putting multiple people in charge leads to complexity in communication and requires clear boundaries between their respective areas.
  • Retaining knowledge: having led the team over three years, Eric and I weren’t going to completely abandon them; we envisioned a position in which we didn’t have any hands-on tasks, but were available to coach the team, identify possible pitfalls and gradually transfer our knowledge to them.
  • Flexibility in contribution: while everyone has their core area of expertise, it should be easy and encouraged for people to contribute to other teams whenever they feel they have a valuable idea.
  • Reducing meeting size: we wanted to minimize the amount of meetings with many people; the regular overall team meetings with 15+ participants were neither very productive nor enjoyable (go figure!), so the new structure should allow for a layered decision-making process where discussions should be held between people who were directly involved in the decision at hand.
  • Flexibility in membership: as a university event with the majority of team members being students, it has always been difficult to get people to commit for a year; the structure should allow for flexibility in the sub-teams while the key people stayed in charge for at least a whole year.

The resulting structure consists of a Core Team of 6 Team Leads who share responsibility for the event in equal parts. Yes, you’ve read correctly, a group of people, no overall lead, no “big boss”. The sub-teams we defined were Curation, Partnerships, Design, Marketing, Stage & Experience, and Operations. Do let me know if you need me to add a description of each team’s responsibilities to this article.

Our 2017 team structure. Don’t ask how long it took me to draw these, by the way.

Each sub-team has their set of responsibilities and goals, but they define their own pace and timeline while coordinating with the others so they don’t end up blocking each other. Each team lead is free to structure their sub-team the way they see fit: they can take on team members, plan meetings and distribute the work as needed. The important event-specific decisions are taken by the team leads in their (usually bi-weekly) meeting, while the sub-teams decide things in their own area themselves. For example, the stage design team will coordinate with the partnerships team to fix their budget for realizing the stage, but they will decide themselves when and how to build it. Moreover, whenever a team member feels like they can contribute something valuable to another team, they always know who to approach. Likewise, the team leaders will shout out to all members if they need help with a particular activity (this was the case with hanging up our event posters in public places throughout the city, for example).

Eric and I created the role of Stewards for ourselves, emphasizing our envisioned hands-off contribution. We selected the team leads and let them take it from there, including them staffing their own sub-teams with new or existing members. We made it clear that we would be available for advice when called to help, but would not take on active responsibility. When we kicked off the year, they even surprised us with cute Steward hats to commemorate this moment.


How it all worked out

I’m not going to lie, I was worried. Worried that taking my hands off would mean a difference in quality of the event, worried that we had not selected the right team, that we hadn’t given them enough to start strong. TEDxTUM had become “my baby”, it was hard to let go (yes, I like to think this was a normal reaction, please do not take this away from me). Out of the 6 team leads, only two had been involved in the core team in previous years, and one had not even attended any of our events before, so we were curious to see whether they would be able to hit the ground running.

I’m going to cut to the end: it was amazing. We had a great event and got consistent feedback from people who had attended TEDxTUM in the past that the quality had visibly risen. Our official audience feedback reflected the same thing: TEDx uses the Net Promoter Score (NPS) to measure success of events. Our score went up from 52 to 69 within a single year, which (from doing research and talking to other organizers) is both a huge improvement and a great absolute score.

Throughout the year leading up to the event, I had much less responsibility. While I assumed an active role in the curation team and took on numerous other tasks, it was almost always by choice and not because those things were automatically left for me to do. I was also able to contribute most to curation, which is my greatest passion, because being the go-to person for everyday problems no longer occupied the majority of my time. All aspects of the organization and the end product showed that a group of extremely capable people each took care of their respective jobs with an amazing sense of responsibility and attention to detail. It felt like a puzzle: once the pieces were put together, the whole was much more than the sum of its parts.

All aspects of the organization and the end product showed that a group of extremely capable people each took care of their respective jobs with an amazing sense of responsibility and attention to detail. It felt like a puzzle: once the pieces were put together, the whole was much more than the sum of its parts.

A year after the transition, our partnerships team lead is now lecturing me about our values, the marketing team is being managed much better than I ever did it, the quality of curation and speakers has improved significantly, there have never been so many positive comments about our audience experience, and all of the operations tasks ran swiftly and without any major incident. Why had I even worried at all?

Here’s an interactive version of our 2017 team as it looked at the end of the year (I’m really glad I didn’t have to draw this one myself).

Of course, there were some challenges on the way. It took a couple of weeks for the team leads to get used to each other’s “modus operandi”. They organized a Live event where they streamed a session from the TED conference in Vancouver to a small audience shortly after kicking off the team, which helped them in that regard.

Another challenge was a high fluctuation in the team, which most likely resulted from the fact that each team lead was free to assemble their own sub-team, but not all of them knew how many and which people they needed. In addition, some were not very experienced in initiating new people to a team and making them feel like they are committing to something that matters. In order to make sure every new team member gets to know our history, values and team contract, we created a Playbook of shared knowledge that we go through with each addition to the team. Moreover, every new member goes through an initiation phase in which they don’t get to enjoy all the perks yet (for instance, they don’t get a t-shirt and aren’t shown on our web site) but work in their sub-team as a full member. After about a month, they discuss a permanent membership with their team lead. With any volunteer work, it is extremely important to receive the recognition and gratification that you’re looking for, so the team lead will discuss the person’s goals and ambitions and determine the next steps accordingly. With this procedure, we have managed to retain more members, and most importantly, all our team leads are staying on for 2018! I can’t wait — bring it on!


My learnings, in a nutshell

I don’t consider this case to be completely generalizable, neither do I think of myself as a wise enough to give advice applicable to any situation. However, I wanted to summarize the things I personally learned from this whole story. It’s up to you to apply them to your own team. Let me know what you took away from this! I never get tired of discussing team organization and management topics, and hearing other people’s stories is incredibly interesting to me.

  • You can’t do it all. If you try to be in charge of everything or to do it all on your own, you will not hold up. You will eventually burn out and no longer be able to contribute at all. This is the worst possible outcome, because it means that everybody loses! There is an article written by a fellow organizer which describes this exact phenomenon, and I saw my 2016 self way too often in it.
  • Learn to take your hands off. If you never give other people any responsibility, you’re going to be in charge on your own (see above). Also, giving away responsibility means, by definition, that the other person has to actually feel responsible. They have to know that the task depends on them: if they don’t complete it, it will not get done.
  • Everyone does it differently. Just because someone does not take the same path you would have taken doesn’t mean they will not end up in the same place. It’s okay that a new team leader is less efficient or does things differently than you would have done them. Enabling them to have it their way might mean obtaining an even better result than you could have ever imagined!
  • Drop the mic if you have to. I used to think that stepping down as a leader without a gradual transition was a horrible thing to do, that it meant deserting the team. In our case, phasing out responsibility wouldn’t have worked. Announcing that we will no longer take part in an active role, however, enabled others to step up and fill in the gaps.
  • Nobody is irreplaceable. To be honest, I was extremely doubtful whether we could find people who were the right fit to take over, manage the responsibility and carry on the legacy. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and we never would have found out if we hadn’t taken these steps.
  • You can scale back up. Once the team was truly up and running, I felt comfortable enough going back in and contributing to the activities I enjoyed most. It worked out perfectly, and I am even participating as a team lead again this year, co-leading curation. I wouldn’t have thought this could work out quite so perfectly, and I’m very thankful that it did.
Where will we go from here and what ideas will take us there?