Friday, November 11, 2011

Are you a Professional Volunteer? You're needed in Project Management!

If you associated “volunteer” to doing good deeds such as doctors that go to remote places after some natural disaster, you’re on the right path. And if that's the case, you must be wondering:
  1. how can a volunteer be a professional (or a professional be a volunteer) and
  2. what’s that to do with Project Management?
Well, this is what this article tries to answer.

How can a volunteer by professional?
I like dictionary definitions as they’re usually very dry but straight to the point. And this case of “professional” and “volunteer” is no exception. I was expecting to go through a few dictionaries until I got what I needed to include in this article but there was no need: the online dictionary I use the most had exactly what I needed to make my point. So please check with me the following definitions before we continue.

Professional, in the dictionary, is:
  • of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession
  • engaged in one of the learned professions
  • characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession
  • exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace
  • participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs - a golfer
  • having a particular profession as a permanent career - a professional soldier
  • engaged in by persons receiving financial return - professional football

And the voluntary, int the dictionary, is:
  • proceeding from the will or from one's own choice or consent
  • unconstrained by interference : self-determining
  • done by design or intention : intentional - voluntary manslaughter
  • of, relating to, subject to, or regulated by the will - voluntary behavior
  • having power of free choice
  • provided or supported by voluntary action - voluntary organization
  • acting or done of one's own free will without valuable consideration or legal obligation

You’ll reach the conclusion that there’s nothing contradictory in them although there should be some indication in the volunteer definition for no monetary compensation. Are you surprised?
For the purpose of this article, you can take these definitions, remove the "monetary compensation" from the professional definition and add "no monetary compensation" to the volunteer one. And so we can define a professional volunteer as:
Intentionally performing a set of skills by one’s free choice with an attitude that exhibits technical competency, ethical standards and empathy towards others.
I am a professional volunteer as much as time allows. I reported some time ago my first project in this area on the article “Lessons Learned from My First Doing the Right Thing Project”, I am also the Assistant Director for Podcasts on the Project Management Institute Information Systems Community of Practice and I’m about to redo a website for a Portuguese non-profit organization. This blog is also the result of the work of professional volunteers (mine and others). And all this work is done with no monetary compensation.
And why shouldn’t I do it? Can you think of a single reason why I shouldn’t take an action to help others that costs me almost anything? This is basically why I do it but each person does it for a different compensation, but there’s always some compensation - you just have to find out what’s yours.

What’s that to do with Project Management?
In a word: motivation. If you have a team where each member (and you included) “intentionally performs a set of skills by his/her free choice with an attitude that exhibits technical competency, ethical standards and empathy towards others” you live in a perfect world! But if you have that you have a highly competent, mature, motivated and efficient team - and all you have to do to get it is to find out what tickles each person and give him/her that. Straight simple, right? Well, it’s simple alright. The problem is that simple doesn’t mean easy...

But let’s take a closer look at this, starting with the intention. At the very least this implies that each team member knows what his/her mission and vision are (both in a business like sense). They have to be familiar with the larger picture where the projects sits - and if sometimes it’s difficult for the project manager to know that it’s even harder to have that message reach and be understood by each team member. If you don't know about the project context you will never have the chance to choose a particular action that fulfills a larger purpose.

...performs a set of skills...
Each person has a set of skills where he/she is proficient at. Do you know your team’s set of skills? Starting from the basics, you probably asked for a Web Designer and a Database Administrator (or whatever) when the project started. Do you know what skills exactly did you get? It could be that your Web Designer is a hardware geek and you Database Administrator is also into Business Intelligence. And it could be that those other skills could come in handy. Even harder to spot and analyze than these types of skills, is to balance the funny guy with the creative one that comes with this simple solution to that awkward problem and the guy that needs to provide everyone with whatever their needs are. You don’t put these on your Resource Plan, do you? his/her free choice...
Having someone assigned to your team is a completely different scenario than having that someone knocking at your door asking if they can be on your team, isn’t it? Now, if someone wants to be in your team he/she is highly motivated for sure, so the only thing left for you to do is (i) make others want to be in your team and (ii) keep them highly motivated after they're in. Pretty simple, hein? But not easy.

...with an attitude that exhibits technical competency...
Project management is a lot about geting things done, right? So you better get people who know about what you want to get done. It's hard to imagine how you're going to build a bridge without people who have skills on building bridges...

...ethical standards...
I'm sorry to insist on this but I do find it mandatory to at least mention ethics and morals. But I don't mean it in the sense of politically correct, I mean it more in the sense of people feeling like they're doing the right thing. And this feeling can be a really powerful motivator.

...and empathy towards others
Empathy is about understanding others. You don't have to agree with them, but if you can understand them good enough to feel their pain - well, that's empathy. And empathy is a basic step towards a performing team. Basically it works like this: if you are to explain to someone why you strongly disagree with them, they're more likely to listen to you if you have previously listened to them.

This article is not a how to guide, it’s not very practical but it sets a context for your project teams that gives you a useful perspective on things. And sometimes that's all you need to make things move forward.
But better yet is the attitude. I find this a very healthy posture towards things and Project Management in particular. And having this present in your mind may hopefully get you better and better teams that in turn may make you a better Project Manager.

Image: photostock /

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