The Center for
Grooves and Getting Out of Them
° The Power of Assumptions
° Assumptions Underlying Modern Volunteerism
° Getting Out of The Groove
° Leadership of Volunteers - Roads We Might Still Take
@ -- permission for use-with-acknowledgment
THE POWER OF ASSUMPTIONS
The dictionary defines "assumption" as "something taken for granted, a supposition." Several other exercises have concentrated on the role of assumptions in problem-solving; here-we explore their broader significance in powerfully affecting what we see, how we behave, and the kind of impact we have on the world around us. This is so, whether we are fully conscious of our assumptions or not. Indeed, some people dislike being reminded they even have any assumptions; they'd rather believe they operate on a facts-only basis.
Here are some general points:
1. Assumptions can be made by individuals, organizations, communities, cultures, or professions.
2. The power of assumptions doesn't necessarily depend on their being true. If teacher is sure Johnny is a bad boy, that assumption--right or wrong--will influence Johnny's behavior as well as the teacher's, probably in a negative way.
(Now ask participants for an example or two of assumptions that might not be demonstrably or literally "true" but nevertheless impact importantly on modern volunteerism.)
3. Some assumptions tend to limit the scope of thought and action; others expand it.
- When we took for granted that the world was flat, most sailors didn't venture far from land for fear of falling off, probably a good idea, anyhow, given the kind of ships they had then. Once the round-world assumption overtook the flat-worlders, a massive exploratory energy was released, from Columbus onward (though if you think assumptions change easily, there is still a flat-world believers association in England!)
- Prior to 1960, going to the moon was generally considered a fairly crazy idea. When President Kennedy told us we were going to the moon, that assumption was a huge first step on the road there.
- Once upon a time, it was scarcely questioned that a woman's place was in the home, and only there. The more modern expectation of a far wider range of work choices for women, including the home, has fundamentally changed the lives of women, and the men who relate to them.
(Now ask participants to come up with examples of an assumption or two in modern volunteerism that may limit our scope of thought or action. What would be a more expansive assumption, in each case?)
4. Assumptions help determine how we interact with the world around us; for example, the way in which the teacher works with Johnny once she's made up her mind he is a bad boy. Certainly, too, those who basically consider the environment an adversary to be conquered, deal with it differently than those who see it as a friend to be cherished, or a parent to be protected.
(Now, can you think of an assumption in modern volunteerism that importantly determines how we interact with each other and with the world around us?)
5. Basic values are essentially assumptions, hard to "prove" one way or another. But what a difference they make in the way we live, and what we do. Only consider the difference between the behavior of people who believe:
... money and material things are most important vs. the spirit, the spiritual are more important.
... the "me first" theory of caring vs. the primary value of taking care of others.
(Now try to identify an additional example or two of assumptions which involve values influencing modern volunteerism)
6. Assumptions also change over time. When I was a boy it was slightly shameful to owe money, even if you had no choice. Today, it is practically a patriotic duty to be in debt. Keeps the economy rolling.
(Now, identify an assumption or two which has changed over time in modern volunteerism--suggested time frame: the last twenty or thirty years.)
SOME POSSIBLE RESPONSES TO THE EXERCISE CHALLENGES
We suggest participants try to come up with their own examples before looking at these, and discussing them. Only if people are having trouble coming up with examples, should these be used to "prime the pump."
1. The power of assumptions doesn't necessarily depend on their being demonstrably true.
- Though it's hardly ever put quite this way, there is a "bad boy" something like Johnny in staff-volunteer relations when staff is held primarily responsible for the problem. Staff have to be more appreciative, supportive; they need to be trained exhorted, etc. But WHAT IF volunteers were responsible for a large share of the problem; what would we do differently, under that assumption?
- Another example: a recent study indicated that attendees at workshops remember and use no more than 5% of the material presented--hardly an efficiency ratio you would accept, say, in your car. Knowing this, and well aware also of the ritual and recreational components in conferences, we nevertheless seem to assume that workshop training is "the solution" to (most) every problem. But WHAT IF we really focused on other possible avenues--not as "easy" or quick perhaps--but deeper, more permanent, such as changes in policy, long term education, better selection..?
- Board members are apathetic? Maybe that's false and what's true is that the organization is boring. But the apathy assumption limits us to trying to "motivate" board members.
2. Some assumptions tend to limit the scope of thought and action; others expand it. Here first are some limiting assumptions:
... ASSUMPTION: Agency-organized volunteer programs are the core of organized volunteerism. WHAT IF we assumed, instead, that all-volunteer groups and freelance volunteers, and other volunteering in other non-agency settings were at least as important? What would we do differently?
... ASSUMPTION. We should concentrate on professional leadership of volunteers which is (preferably) full-time and paid, and goes under a set of prescribed job titles such as "Volunteer Administrator" or "Director of Volunteer Services." WHAT IF we began to focus also on the millions of people who in fact lead volunteers on a much more part-time unpaid basis?
... ASSUMPTION. Volunteerism is best defended and advanced as a separate field defined by its target group: volunteers. But WHAT IF we assumed instead that volunteerism would gain more respect and status as part of a larger package of "community-based support systems" or "community resource development" which includes, along with volunteer service, volunteered materials, things, information, ideas, money, and advocacy support from the community?
... ASSUMPTION: Volunteers are a special breed of people with a distinct (unique?) motivation, personality, values. They are (sort of) the elite of unpaid helping. But WHAT IF we assumed instead that everyone is a volunteer in some basic sense, though not everyone does it in our preferred way? How would that impact our approach to, say, recruiting?
... Among the more positive, expansive assumptions in modern volunteerism is that every individual can make a difference, because everybody has something to give. Conveying that belief to people probably helps them be all they can be as volunteers.
3. Assumptions help determine how we interact with each other and with the world around us.
- One such assumption is that volunteer administration is a profession and we are professionals. We're not always' sure exactly what that means--I've seen eight distinct definitions of "professional"--but for some, at least, it means a certain degree of dignity and reserve. At an evening social during a major volunteer administration conference, the band was good and the vast majority of us got up and did an impromptu snake dance. Many of us thought it was wonderful fun, but an officer of the association was deeply concerned that we were being "unprofessional."
- Another basic interactive assumption is that volunteers are nice, and so are their leaders. This tends to make us not as ready as we might be to confront ugly situations directly, or to advocate on key issues, where some people might end up not liking us (e.g. not thinking we are "nice"). Far better to lick our wounds than try to lick the system.
4. Our basic values are essentially assumptions about what is right and wrong. Among these assumptions are:
- Individuals can make a difference, and a free society depends on their trying to do so.
- Work has value in and of itself, regardless of how much people are paid for it (related to pride in work).
- The Judeo-Christian and other fundamental ethics are not fully realized just by talking about them; you have to do something about them.
(Discussion here might also include the two value assumptions given in the earlier example. On all five of these, then, we might ask ourselves if modern volunteerism is clear and consistent about its underlying values.)
5. Assumptions can change over time (focusing on a 20-30 year time frame)
Once again, these are purely subjective impressions, though based on over 25 years in the volunteer leadership field.
- One long-term trend seems to be from optimistic assumptions/expectations about what volunteers can do, to more realistic (or pessimistic, take your choice) ones. Twenty five years ago, for example, Keith Leenhouts was hailing the volunteer as an "inspirational personality," and--preserved in a movie still being shown (!)--I was proclaiming things like "if you've got a problem, any problem, somewhere there's a volunteer who can solve it for you." Some folks still feel this way today, but you're also likely to see more pessimistic/realistic assumptions about volunteers incorporated in topics such as: staff resistance to volunteers, how to deal with difficult volunteers, how to fire a volunteer, and how to keep from getting wounded on the firing line.
- I also sense a progressive in-turning of focus in our assumptions about who are the most important actors in the helping drama. In the 1960's I remember Hat Naylor and others talking a whole lot more than we do about clients/patients or other people impacted by what volunteers do. Everything about volunteers was to be judged by results for the people we were trying to help. Later, in the 1970's, the circle contracted and we began to talk more about volunteers and how we could care better for them with less emphasis on care for clients (maybe that was just assumed). In the 1980's I felt the circle further contract as we became more and more concerned about caring for ourselves as leaders of volunteers. If I'm right about that trend, I wonder how much further we can go in transition of attention from treatment target persons to treatment agents themselves.
A Sampler of...
ASSUMPTIONS UNDERLYING MODERN VOLUNTEERISM--
AND SOME OPENINGS TO ALTERNATIVES
(When you've looked at these, start on your own.)
... Staff owns the problem, where there is one, in staff-volunteer relations. They have to be more appreciative, supportive; they need to be trained, exhorted, etc. But WHAT IF volunteers had a large share of the problem; what would we do differently, under that assumption?
... The low status of agency volunteer programs is best "cured" by upgrading the competency of individual volunteer leaders (administrators) via workshops, certification, etc. But WHAT IF we assumed the real problem was more likely to be relatively competent coordinators hamstrung by incompetent, e.g., ignorant/unreceptive organizations? How would that impact the directions for approach to upgrading the respect accorded volunteer programs?
... ASSUMPTION (though hardly ever stated quite this way): Workshop training is the solution to (most) every problem; workshops are the snake medicine of the late twentieth century. But WHAT IF we really focused on other possible avenues--not as "easy" or quick perhaps--but deeper, more permanent, such as changes in policy, longer term education, better selection ...?
... ASSUMPTION: Agency-organized volunteer programs are the core of organized volunteerism. WHAT IF we assumed instead, that all-volunteer groups and free lance volunteers, and other non-agency settings were at least as important? What would we do differently?
... ASSUMPTION: We must focus on professional leadership of volunteers which is (preferably) full-time and paid, and goes under one of a set of prescribed job titles such as "volunteer administrator" or "Director of Volunteer Services." WHAT IF we began to focus more on the millions of people who in fact lead volunteers on a much more part-time unpaid basis?
... ASSUMPTION: Volunteerism is best defended and advanced as a separate field defined by its target group: volunteers. But WHAT IF we assumed instead that volunteerism would gain more respect and status as part of a larger package of "community-based support systems" for organizations, and/or "human resource development?" What would we do differently?
... ASSUMPTION: Volunteers are a special breed of people with a distinct (unique?) motivation, personality, values. They are (sort of) the elite of unpaid helping. But WHAT IF, we started instead with the assumption that everyone is a volunteer in some basic sense, though not everyone does it in our preferred way? How would that impact our approach to, say "recruiting".
... ASSUMPTION: Given that an increasing proportion of people we work with do so less out of actual free choice, and more by prescription (community service, therapist-referred, etc.) These somewhat "involuntary volunteers" should be worked with in exactly the same way as more traditional volunteers. But WHAT IF that were not so ....?
... UNSPOKEN ASSUMPTION: Volunteerism is a totally derivative field, both intellectually and spiritually. We have nothing authentic to call our own. But WHAT IF we saw ourselves as having much to teach as well as learn ...
GETTING OUT OF THE GROOVE
Avoiding Creativity Traps in the Pursuit of the Possible
No formula guarantees the occurrence of creative thinking. Conditions which cancel creativity are easier to identify, and one of these is getting too comfortable with grooved patterns in our thinking. Here then is a list of ruts not to relax in, with asterisks to indicate areas an entire exercise is devoted to elsewhere in this collection.
*Liberate yourself from the restrictions of the present by visualizing ideal futures. Give yourself the freedom to dream. (See exercise of that name.)
As a counterpoint to visualizing how you see the (ideal) future, visualize how that future might see you, or at least how you would like a future historian to see you. An intriguing way of doing this is to prepare a description of your program and also volunteerism generally, if you like, for a time capsule to be opened in, say, 50 or 60 years, or longer or shorter. To make this "real," you might want to study material (probably attached) on the actual volunteerism time capsule now being launched toward the year 2050! Either way, the exercise gets you out of yourself, seeing yourself as others might see you.
*Don't automatically accept questions as currently phrased. Getting a better question can be a lot more productive than just getting "better" answers to the old questions. (see the two QUESTION exercises.)
*Go beyond the face value of statements and try to identify underlying assumptions. Once you've done that, try to conceive of alternative assumptions that might be made. (ANCHORS AWAY-and POWER OF ASSUMPTIONS exercises.)
*Take obvious statements and turn them upside down (or inside out). Given "Staff should be trained to work with volunteers," think about "opposites" such as "Volunteers should get better training on how to work with staff." Another example: Much of our thinking about volunteerism seems to be in a passive rut, e.g., how an aging population will impact volunteerism, rather than how volunteering might impact the aging process; how a recession will affect volunteerism, rather than how volunteerism might improve economic conditions enough to prevent or mitigate recession. (See UPSIDE DOWN AND INSIDE OUT.)
*Watch out for different definitions of the same key term, especially used unconsciously for well-worn words. These variations not only hide different basic assumptions about the nature of volunteerism, they are obviously a bar even to effective communication about these differences. (See TOWER OF BABEL exercise).
*Be pervasively paranoid about "obvious" truths, especially those that are unconsciously taken for granted, by most people. Example: "Organizing things ensures that the volunteer's time won't be wasted." Un-taking that obvious statement for granted might help us see that too much structure could turn off certain kinds of volunteers. Or we might be led to wonder about how, at some point, structure takes more of a volunteer's time than it frees up, e.g. filling out overly long forms. (See WHAT IF ... and ANCHORS AWAY.)
*Beware "Linear Extrapolation." 1) If a little is good, a lot will be even better. If six hours of pre-service volunteer training is good, 60 hours will be super! An absurd example, but subtler ones often lull us, I'm sure. See, for example, the "organizing things" example in the previous paragraph. 2) Current
rates of increase (or decrease) will remain constant. Statements predicting that Hispanics will be the largest minority group in the U.S. in 30 years assume that the current Hispanic birth rate will stay constant, also that Hispanics marrying non-Hispanics will fully maintain their Hispanic identity in the marriage, with their children, etc. Either assumption may or may not be true. 3) Sometimes a current rate doesn't just slow down; it actually reverses as when the mid-1970's oil price increases set in motion forces which subsequently drove oil prices down. Similarly, in volunteerism, the threat of board member liability is stimulating legislation which, we hope, will mitigate that threat.
Beware the "Happily Ever After" Fantasy. Success doesn't necessarily lead to success; it might only raise a fresh set of problems. Just as the answer to one question might only raise some new questions, the surmounting of one challenge might simply raise another. Example: having achieved exemplary success in line leadership of volunteers, you seek another level of success as a consultant on volunteers, and have a hard time finding enough work of that type. Or a state or province which once needed more volunteer centers, DOVIAs and similar volunteer program resources, now I as so many that coordination and avoidance of conflict between them, emerges as a serious, new problem.
Logicians may like "either-or" but that doesn't mean the world works that way. The world is (has to be) either getting warmer or colder, right? No, in a sense it could be getting both warmer and colder. Similarly, getting 100 new volunteers could have both good and bad consequences. And, to a certain extent you can both go back to school and continue working; it isn't absolutely either-or.
Finally, many people today seem to feel that taking care of yourself is versus taking care of others: essentially an either-or proposition. If you give too much attention to helping others, you're necessarily neglecting yourself. The more likely case, according to recent research, is that taking care of others is essential to the caregivers well-being, within a wide normal range. Conversely, you can't take good care of others unless you devote a decent concern to yourself. The two are symbiotic, rather than mutually exclusive.
EXERCISE: (30-45 minutes)
Ask participants to get as many volunteer-related examples as they can of the grooved thinking described above. Once these "creativity traps" are identified, try to show how much creativity would be released by getting out of that groove, and pursuing the possible.
Leadership of Volunteers Roads We Might Still Take
Roads Less Traveled
Small Group Exercise
September 1997 Ivan Scheier
Keep groups small. If more than 7-8 consider splitting into two smaller groups, maybe coming together at the end to share and review conclusion. You have _____ minutes. About two-thirds of the way through Ill come around to see if you want more time, or less time.
Please select a discussion facilitator and a recorder/reporter, though the latter role can be divided among two people. The reporter presents group conclusions to the entire think tank group. Please keep the report to 5 minutes, with up to 56 minutes more for questions. Your reporter should have a back-up outline on newsprint. Your report may include with full respect, tow or more distinct and different conclusions arrived at by members of your group. It may also question the question itself in favor of a better question or questions.
Please choose one group; "floating" can be very disruptive. If youre here with others you talk to regularly, each of you can cover different groups. Youll also have a summary report from every other group and be able to hear and participate in discussion of it by the entire think tank group. Finally, if time permits and the group prefers, we can have a second round of small groups.
Some Suggested Group Themes (Your own ideas welcome)
** ANYTHING YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT (though hopefully in a think tank spirit and generally related to volunteerism or volunteer administration)
** OPEN ROADS GROUP Your own vision(s) of what an ideal volunteerism or volunteer administration might look like in a foreseeable future. Your report might emphasize a mosaic of distinct visions or a perceived commonality among all of them.
** OTHER ROADS GROUP _ Weve discussed only a few examples of roads less traveled in volunteerism. Can you think of another road or roads less traveled, not yet discussed today? If so, what do you foresee as the results of following such a road or roads?
** IS THERE LIFE OUTSIDE AGENCIES (Career-Wise, that is)? Weve discussed the role of "Consultant-Produced to Entirely Volunteer Groups," indicated emerging precedent for that career option, and suggested the clientele might include understaffed as well as non-staffed groups and also smaller agencies currently lacking a coordinator of volunteers.
- What do you think of the near and far future feasibility of this role as a career option for volunteer coordinator? Pros and Cons. Barriers and benefits? Etceteras?
- Insofar as you believe the position may be feasible, at least potentially, what steps might a person take to ease into this role without committing financial suicide?
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