“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
“Leadership is getting people to want to do what you want them to do.”Dwight D. Eisenhower
In the final analysis, groups don’t get things done, people do. Delegate!
One flaw of group work is that it’s easy to walk out of a meeting with no assigned tasks, thinking “someone else is going to do that.” Obviously, if everyone thinks that, nothing gets done. Just because the group comes to consensus on the need for something to get done doesn’t mean anyone is necessarily going to do it. Things get done only when the task is clearly defined and on someone’s to-do list.
This principle may sound simple and obvious, but you’d be shocked how often we forget it.
Make sure every group meeting has a note-taker who records all tasks and who’s agreed to do them, and then emails or otherwise shares that task list with the whole group soon after the meeting (same day, if possible). To ensure effective follow-through, have people explicitly commit to their tasks in front of the group, and begin each meeting by reviewing the last meeting’s task list.
Some responsibilities are limited to a single action item, such as, “reserve a room for next week’s meeting.” But other responsibilities — say, “organize a press conference” — often involve a whole complex of tasks and the contributions of a number of people over many days. That’s when you may need someone to “bottom-line.” A bottom-liner doesn’t do everything herself, but takes responsibility for ensuring everything gets done. If people on her team don’t come through, it’s her responsibility to find someone else, triage, or do it herself. It doesn’t ultimately matter how the job gets done, just that she is accountable to the larger group for ensuring that it does, or explaining why it didn’t.
Proper delegation and sharing of tasks is also one of the best ways to prevent burn-out see PRINCIPLE: Pace yourself.
Regardless of whether your group has a more vertical or horizontal leadership structure, delegation is key. Good leaders know how to delegate tasks, how to choose and support bottom-liners (some of the best people won’t step up unless they’re asked), and how to make sure everyone knows their role. Be explicit. People don’t want vague responsibilities. They want to know what their role is and why it’s important.
Volunteer and grassroots groups often struggle with participants who commit to doing something but then never follow through. You have to factor that in upfront. Be careful when giving critical tasks to an untested volunteer. Here’s the standard conversation one of the authors has with new volunteers:
“Do you know the most important word in a volunteer’s vocabulary?”
“‘No’ is the most important word you can say. Use it. A lot. If you say ‘yes I can do it’ out of guilt or an over-enthusiasm that you can’t follow through on, then we’re screwed. I’d much prefer a ‘No.’ Then we can assign the task to someone whose ‘Yes’ means yes.”
Far from being onerous, this is actually empowering — and honoring. You’re saying: your work is valuable enough that we need to have a solid commitment and the specifics nailed down. That’s a principle, by the way, that’s not just true for volunteers but for the whole team.