I did a session at the ASAE annual meeting last week. I co-presented a “Conversations that Matter” session along with Robert Barnes of Fitness Australia. Robert is an association executive who is actually implementing the ideas from Humanize in a very clear and intentional way.
The session was about how systems thinking (that we cover in chapter 6 in Humanize) applies to volunteer models in associations. I did a quick overview of systems thinking, including a discussion of the dynamic complexity of systems (when you intervene in a system you change it forever; you’re never solving the same problem twice), the difference between seeing patterns of change rather than just snapshots, and some of the basic systems thinking concepts from Peter Senge, including reinforcing loops, balancing loops, and delays.
Robert then made a brief presentation about why these are important to our volunteer models, particularly as it relates to volunteers owning and leading the association, actually doing the work of the association, and learning and growing in their profession (three basic aims of our volunteer models).
And at that point, it was all discussion. We gave three questions to the group to discuss, first at their tables and later as a large group. The questions were:
- How does the design of our volunteer models prevent them from working?
- When volunteers do the work, what new problems/opportunities does that create?
- How might we change our volunteer models to better support their growth and learning?
The discussion was excellent. The group stepped up and hit the questions head on. They struggled with how to really make the most of a decentralized system when that meant giving up traditional control. But there was one comment that stood out. One person said that when their group was discussing the question of how the design of the volunteer models was getting in the way, she had the reaction:
For many of us, we didn’t actually design our volunteer models. We inherited them. The last time they were designed may have been 10, 25, even 100 years ago. We might have tweaked them over the years, but we have not been intentional about creating volunteer activities, structures, and processes that truly solve problems and create value. We implement systems that were designed a long time ago, and as soon as they were implemented, they changed the system…but we keep going forward with the same volunteer model.
The same lesson can be applied elsewhere in the organization. Be intentional about how you do things. Design your organization with clarity of purpose. And even if it worked in the past, be ready to redesign it today based on the system’s current needs, not ones from the past. The more we continue along on autopilot, the more off course we will become.