Do you have a culture of problem solving in your organization? Or are you the person everyone in your volunteer program comes to for solutions? When anything goes wrong, do they all come running to you? It doesn’t have to be that way. Many years ago, I had a boss who put a sign up on her door: “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions. You’re paid to think, not whine.”
Now, I’m not suggesting you put up a sign like that for your volunteers – after all, they aren’t even paid! But it will help you, your organization’s mission and the volunteers themselves if you establish a culture of problem solving in your program.
As a leader, you might have bought into the common myth that it’s the leader’s job to answer all questions and solve all problems. Unfortunately, that myth adds to your workload, limits creative solutions and lowers the value of volunteers. If you want to maximize the impact of your mission, it’s essential to cultivate a culture of problem solving throughout the program. Encouraging volunteers to come with solutions to problems can lead to more innovation, increased efficiency, and greater impact overall.
Here are some practical ways to establish that culture.
Start with fostering a collaborative environment.
Encourage volunteers to brainstorm ideas for making the program better. When a volunteer comes to you with a problem, work with them to come up with thoughts on how it might be solved. Rather than just jumping in with the solution that occurs to you, ask others for their ideas. As the volunteers get used to you asking their input, they’ll start thinking of solutions before they even come to you. Not all their ideas will work, of course. However, if everyone is comfortable sharing, an unworkable idea from one volunteer can be built on by another until it becomes workable.
Help volunteers know what to think about by regularly assessing your volunteer program and identifying areas that could be improved. Seek feedback from your volunteers on those areas. Have them bring their lived experience and different world views to the problem. You could add a brainstorming session to your team meetings where volunteers can discuss the challenges that they encounter. Encourage open dialog, active listening and constructive feedback. You might be surprised at what you learn, and the innovative ideas they come up with!
Encourage ownership and autonomy.
To build a culture of problem solving, it is essential to encourage volunteers to take ownership of their roles. Grant them the autonomy to make decisions relating to specific tasks. This not only makes them more efficient, but it motivates them to continually improve. Autonomy is the first of three factors that Dan Pink lists as key to motivation in his TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation”. When volunteers feel a sense of ownership, they are more likely to be invested in finding not only a solution, but the best one.
Ensure volunteers understand how what they do impacts the furtherance of the organization’s mission. Provide them with clear goals, allowing them to understand the bigger picture and the impact that their work has. This helps them devise solutions that will not only solve the immediate problem, but also add to the overall mission. This, with autonomy to make decisions, will encourage a mindset of creative problem solving.
Recognize and celebrate volunteers’ successes.
Acknowledge and celebrate every time a volunteer’s solution makes a positive impact. Doing so will not only reinforce the importance of problem solving, but it will inspire others to continuously look for ways to improve the program. And let them know that ideas are welcome even if there isn’t an actual problem. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is terrible advice!
Publicly share the success stories of both individuals and collaborations. Mention innovative solutions during team meetings, or acknowledge the impact of a new idea during your AGM. You could even consider implementing an awards program of some sort to incentive volunteers to look for ways to make things more efficient and effective.
Evaluate and improve your culture of problem solving.
As with all aspects of your volunteer program, regular evaluation is key to continuous improvement in your culture. Know what you want the culture to look like, and set measurable goals to take you from where you are to your ideal state. “Measurable” is key here. If you don’t have milestones that you can check against, you won’t know whether you’re moving forward or not. An example might be “I want to reduce the number of people coming to me with problems by X”. Or, “I want to spend X amount less time putting out fires”.
Highlight problem solving in your training, and provide resources on critical thinking for those who are interested. As new ideas are implemented, assess them as well. Can those ideas also be improved in some way? By consistently iterating and evolving, you will create an culture that will encourage problem solving and improvement in all areas of your program and in all volunteers.
Make building a culture of problem solving within your volunteer program a priority.
It maximizes impact, motivates volunteers and frees up your time. When volunteers embrace a problem solving mindset, they become catalysts for positive change. They drive innovation and push your mission forward faster than you might deem possible.
So, what are you waiting for? Unlock the full potential of your organization’s volunteers and witness the power of a program driven by a collective passion for problem solving!