Like Uber for Projects: Volunteer Empowerment Systems

Executive Summary

Traditional project management thinking and systems, designed for hierarchies of paid employees, are a poor fit for today’s decentralized marketplaces and volunteer-led communities.  Instead, we need something more like Uber: a network that enables autonomous agents to quickly identify opportunities and organize to address them.

As the Internet continues to disaggregate closed firms and industries into open marketplaces, this kind of system will become increasingly important, with profound implications for leadership, organizational design, and even the very nature of employment.

Beyond Project Management

The Old World Order

As The Swan Factory has evolved from the initial tightly-knit project into a series of loosely-related initiatives, I have become struck by the brittle assumptions embedded in our Project Management system:

  • Each project is its own self-contained entity
  • Members and clients must be explicitly assigned to each project
  • Nobody outside the project has any visibility or input
  • Creating the project is a relatively heavyweight process
  • There is no way to fork or merge projects, much less issue pull requests

While alternative systems may have slightly different tradeoffs, those are typically even more brittle.

The Ontological Bug

As I’ve been wrestling with these issues for both ourselves and potential clients, I suddenly realized that the problem was right there in the name. Project Management is by its very nature centered around:

  1. Projects
  2. Managers

This is a very convenient framework for executives to assign responsibilities and track progress, and works tolerably well when said executives are paying for everyone’s time (including those of people doing the tracking).  It used to even work for non-profits, when they were staffed by compliant volunteers motivated by strong tribal loyalties to the organization’s leaders.

The New World Disorder

But not any more. Today’s volunteers have a dizzying array of options for deploying their time, and millennials in particular are less interested in tribal loyalty than self-actualization and visible impact. They are if anything more interested than Generation X in donating time and money to worthy causes, but far more discriminating about who, when, and how.

In order attract, retain, and fully utilize their energy and creativity, I believe we need to turn the existing paradigm inside out. Instead of first creating projects and programs for which we need to attract and manage volunteers, we need to attract a community of volunteers then empower them to develop and run their own projects. While the systems needed to support this may bear a superficial resemblance to today’s project management systems, their assumptions and constraints will be radically different.

To highlight this shift in emphasis, I call them Volunteer Empowerment Systems.

How to Empower Volunteers

The Missional Community

The key to activating a population of potential workers in the 21st Century is enabling them to self-organize around shared missions that align with the organizations vision. The days when a few people at the top could decide what everyone else was doing are fast disappearing. Instead, leaders need to create the vision, culture, and structure that draws people together in intimate teams where they can figure what to do next. 

A Messaging Platform

Because our primary focus is people rather than projects, our architecture needs to be centered on messaging instead of content. 

  • Documents become the starting point or summary of conversations instead of substitutes
  • Scheduled events are ongoing negotiations rather than fixed deadlines
  • Teams are porous membranes rather than rigid boxes
  • Individuals typically pull tasks ftom a prioritized queue rather than having tasks pushed onto them by managers

Conclusion 

We are still in the early days of understanding how new communication technology will reshape employment and organizational life. This shift is arguably comparable to how the invention of written language enabled the creation of scalable bureaucracies. Let us hope we can seize this opportunity to build something at least as powerful but far more effective. 

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