Five Steps to Launch the Power of Spontaneous Cause-Based Collaboration

It’s the proverbial 98 degrees in the shade on a late afternoon in August. A dozen or so men are outside a house, measuring, sawing, hammering, sweating, and putting the finishing touches on an extreme wheelchair ramp. It’s huge; it looks like a party deck. It sits on top of a new, paved wheelchair path that’s wide enough to be a driveway, stretching across a large lawn, landscaped perfectly. A team of other men built that. No one hired any of them to do this. No one paid them to do this. They saw a need, and filled it.

Edna, 91 years old, lives here, and she’s looking out from inside in amazement. Three days ago there was just the lawn, too bumpy to roll a wheelchair, too wet to just drive a car over. And unless her husband can be safely gotten between the far-away driveway and the door to the house, the rehabilitation hospital will not release him to come home. Charles, also 91, has been in hospital for three months, recovering from a life-threatening illness. They’ve been married for 68 years, friends for 86 years, and their hearts are breaking at being separated.

Edna has visited Charles every day. She does not drive, so a group of people have taken her to the hospital. They not only have transported her, they spend time with her, helping her stay strong. No one hired or paid them, either.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. Charles is home again, he and Edna deeply grateful for the help they never asked for. They often say “help is for people who need it, and others need it more than we.” Then comes still more unsolicited help. The president of an organization to which Charles and some of the ramp builders belong, stops by and says “We voted unanimously that we’re going to pay for the ramp and pathway materials, because everyone wanted a chance to contribute.”

Charles and Edna have lived lives of service to their community over the 60 years they’ve been there. Their list of significant volunteer involvements is much too long to cite. So, on one level, this is a story of “what you sow, you reap.” People wanted to help in proportion to how much help Charles and Edna had given others. One organizer even said “Charles is special. We wouldn’t do this for anyone but him.”

On another level, this is a story about three separate but interconnected groups of people coming together in collaboration. They were: the Town Agency on Aging, which Edna helped found decades ago and volunteered for until relatively recently; the Minutemen, a social group that is interested in the Revolutionary War, where for a very long time Charles was the entire marching fife and drum section; and an array of friends and neighbors.

The motivation for “Operation Get Charles and Edna Together Again” was rooted in admiration, neighborliness, gratitude, and friendship. Its effectiveness, though, is a study in the power of spontaneously created teams. Is this how teams function in businesses? Very rarely. With the help of some key players in this cause-based project, I will explore why and how they did what they did, and draw implications for how businesses can create space for such inspired teamwork.

I asked these people three questions: Why did you contribute to this project/service? How did you see your role? Why do you think the efforts were so successful? All of their names have been changed in this article, at their request. They are humble people, who point fingers at each other in giving credit. Each thinks the others played more important roles. Yet they are proud of what they did. Coincidentally, all of those with whom I spoke are successful business team leaders in their professional lives. They easily identified the aspects that such leaders should consider when a spontaneous team could contribute flexibility and expertise to a specific goal.

Inspire people with your cause. Anson Smith was the coordinator of the project. He is a professional contractor, so is highly skilled. Why did he contribute to this project? He says “I guess it’s because I seem to jump in where I see a problem and I have some ability to solve it. If I was rich, I would probably give lots of money to worthy causes. Lacking those resources, I share what others I do have, which take the form of talents, training and experience. I’m a civil engineer and a construction project manager; I have done lots of carpentry; I have experience dealing with my parents in their waning years; and I have managed/led many teams of people in a variety of settings. When I heard of the challenge Charles and Edna were up against, I knew I could help. I had the time, the ability, and I knew some others that would want to help to make it doable. Charles had been a great inspiration for me when I first joined the Minutemen. He coached me in playing the bass drum which I continue to this day with enthusiasm. He’s one of the more decent people I know. He deserves the help.

I saw my role generally as doing what was needed to make it happen, the organizer. I also wanted to be sure the family understood and agreed with all that we were planning, and they would help their parents through the emotional turmoil it was going to cause as we did it. It’s one thing to hear the instructions from the nursing home, but another to have swarms of strangers climbing all over and transforming your home according to those instructions. The changes can be pretty scary. So I saw my role as the communicator with Edna and her family members.

This project was successful because inspirational subjects energize communities. This was a cause people could relate to. There was great support from very good people in the community. Edna and her family were great to work with. People have an inherent need to be helpful, especially if the ones needing help seem vulnerable and the help will make a difference.”

How can you capture the hearts of those whom you wish to engage? If you want people to come forth and say “I want to help with this,” the cause must be vivid, compelling, and value-based. It must offer those who help a feeling of pride in accomplishing something they see as important. One ramp team member said “think barn-raising.”

Assess people’s strengths relative to the cause, and use those strengths. Frank Eishen calls himself an enthusiastic amateur. “I got involved, but did very little. I had given the town agency on aging an 11 foot ramp that I’d built and didn’t need any more. I thought if Charles and Edna need a ramp in a hurry, it may work. It didn’t.

Charles and Edna are good and nice people. One of my wife’s prize possessions is a bluebird that Charles carved. Years ago, she was trying to get bluebirds into the yard, with no luck. I asked if Charles could carve a bluebird by that Christmas, and he did.

Anson ran everything. I didn’t do much except carry wood. My role was as a helper. The pros got involved, and that made the project work. There was a lot of unskilled labor, and the pros managed the amateurs to build the pathway and the ramp. We had very enthusiastic volunteers. The role that made it all come together was Anson’s. He is a professional coordinator. He planned and designed. We amateurs rallied behind the pros. A big lesson is that the amateurs and pros worked together. The amateurs speeded the process with bodies, and the pros made sure none of us used the nail guns. But we could use the saws, according to skill level.

My advice to businesses, based on this project: This has everything to do with teams in business. As a manager, I know certain people have and do not have certain skills. You have to find the strengths and use them. Shape roles to strengths. Use enthusiastic amateurs according to what they have to offer, use the pros to lead.

We identified who were the subject matter experts, and put them in charge of their areas of expertise. They used the enthusiastic amateurs to maximize their talents. ‘You hold the wood, I’ll nail it.’ Teams have to figure out who is doing what. The pros can get jaded and tired. Enthusiastic amateurs provide energy and great feedback. There was a lot of appreciative feedback. ‘Wow, this is super and great stuff. We appreciate your skills.’ Accentuate the positive and drop the negative. Don’t let amateurs use the nail guns, but do ask what their expertise is and use it.”

How can you shape roles to strengths? Put titles and job descriptions aside. This is not business as usual, it is a cause with specific needs. Identify what those needs are, and define corresponding talents and skills.

Do not hesitate to ask for help. Ben Roberts is one of those subject matter experts. He owns and runs a road construction company, in addition to being a professional firefighter. He donated machinery, materials, crew, and his own time to build the wheelchair path. He grew up with Charles and Edna’s children, and lives just up the road.

“Charles and Edna are very nice people. I’ve known them all my life. I’m a town boy, I’m a Pleasant Road boy. Charles is a Mason and fireman, so am I. I’m getting older, but there are people older than I am. You have to take care of them. It’s a nice town, and it’s nice to give back. When the Minutemen came to me, I said I could donate machines and labor, but couldn’t pay for all the materials. So I asked the materials supplier to donate half, and he did. All you have to do is communicate the need, and people are happy to help. I got my cousin involved to build the ramp. The Minutemen are great guys, but they don’t do this every day. My cousin and his crew do. There’s a world of talent in town. People can do all kinds of things. Some dig, some build, some coordinate. You just have to ask. Old people, new people, everyone pitches in together.”

How can you elicit help? Ask people personally, letting them know what you think they would bring to the cause, and why you think they would see their contribution as important. Educate them on what skills and talents are needed in general, and encourage them to personally elicit the help of others.

You reap what you sow. Ginny Hinson enjoys systematizing. Edna had so much to figure out: how to get to see her husband, go grocery shopping, remember to drink enough water to stay healthy herself. Ginny organized. And baked comfort goodies.

“I know Edna and Charles from town. I’ve always enjoyed talking with Edna. It was easy to get people together to transport Edna to see Charles, do errands, and certainly to spend time with her. Everyone loves Edna and Charles.

It is not my typical role to coordinate drivers, but I care, I’m organized, and I have had experience with volunteer transportation in the past. When Edna called me for a ride, I asked her if she would like me to coordinate the rides. She was grateful to have me pull people together. Anybody in town would have done it. It was a simple solution.

The people doing the driving were not necessarily affiliated with the town council on aging, they were just neighbors and friends. They were not on a list of any sort, I just called them. It was easy to find people who adore Edna.

My philosophy is that the community came together because Edna and Charles are loved in town. You reap what you sow. No one told people they should help, they wanted to. Maybe we wouldn’t have liked helping so much if we didn’t care for Edna and Charles so much. Our efforts to help captured realistic enthusiasm with no directive. That encourages people to do for each other. ”

How can you model the energetic dedication you want to engender in others? Play a role, according to your own talents and strengths. Leave your own title and job description behind. You may find you are not the correct team leader for this causal effort. This work has no room for ego, only for collaboration.

There is probably room for everyone who wants to help. I could not interview everyone who played a part. Many did, and some continue to do so. Others who were not part of the project help with Edna’s and Charles’ new needs. Their next door neighbor, who has been close to Edna and Charles all his life, responded to Edna’s late night call that Charles was seriously ill, went to their house immediately, assessed, and called an ambulance. He helped save Charles’ life. Their best friend helped Edna orient to the hospital, where she volunteers, kept Edna company, visited Charles, took many turns taking Edna where she needed to go. She continues to be a constant support as well as a wonderful friend. Their neighbor, who plows their driveway, works second shift. During the pathway and ramp building project, he delivered a cooler full of cold drinks on his way to work, picked up the empty cooler late at night when he returned home. Another neighbor, a nurse who takes Edna’s and Charles’ blood pressure as a town volunteer, still sends her husband to collect their trash weekly and her sons to shovel the ramp and pathway in the winter. She visits with them at length, and even takes them to the library, which they love, at her own insistence. The director of the town agency on aging is both a formal resource and friend. She keeps her antennae up constantly. She sees and anticipates needs, and gets the word out.

How can you productively involve many hands? Alter team membership as needs alter. Encourage people to play very specific roles according to what they can most productively contribute. End the causal project when it is over, and only retain teamwork where it is still needed. Celebrate lasting value. In Edna’s and Charles’ case, the project and project team were finished when Charles came home. They have new or strengthened ties, though, to the people in their community who helped. Happily, Charles is no longer in a wheelchair, but the ramp and pathway are still essential to their safety. And serve as a daily reminder of the wonderful people in their community.

In summary, the five steps to launch the power of spontaneous, cause-based collaboration are:

1. Inspire people with your cause.

2. Assess people’s strengths relative to the cause.

3. Do not hesitate to ask for help.

4. Sow what you wish to reap.

5. Make room for everyone who wants to help.