Monday, September 15, 2014

Outcome-based Expectations

Most intentional communities expect members to contribute in non-monetary ways to the development and well-being of the group. While there are all manner of questions to address in setting this up fairly and sensitively (see my blog Working with Work for an outline of the key questions), today I want to drill down on what happens if you define expectations in terms of output or accomplishments rather than hours.

The impulse to go this way comes from the realization that all hours are not equal. Everyone is not interchangeably proficient at the same tasks; everyone doesn't lean into the work with the same enthusiasm; and everyone has a different idea of what a 10-minute break is (or how frequently it's OK to take them). Thus, there can be considerable variance in how much productive work people accomplish in the same unit of time, and basing expectations on outcomes is an attempt to get around that. ("Take as much time mopping the kitchen floor as you like; just do a thorough job.")

The downside of this approach is the difficulty in equalizing baseline contributions—which is demonstrably one of the goals in setting participation standards. For all their faults and crudeness, hours is a uniformly understood concept and easy to equalize. Thus, the concept that every member is expected to contribute 10 hours per month is straight forward to grasp; yet it's awkward establishing how many snow shovelings of the front walk equate to balancing the community's checkbook, or how many deep cleans of the common house kitchen amount to the same contribution as convening the committee that oversees common house operations.

Embedded in this rat's nest are a number of questions:
o  Does all work count equally (even assuming equal proficiency)?
o  How do you determine task equivalents excepting by comparing the amount of time it takes to accomplish them competently (which gets you right back to hours)?
o  Even if you were able to parcel out jobs equally (which I'm questioning), how will you take into account that people are not equally thorough in how they clean a floor (never mind how fast they are)?

For all these reasons groups tend to find it simpler to go with expectations based on hours. I'm not saying it's perfect; I'm saying it's simple and a reasonable approximation.

That said, I am in favor of laying out what's needed to do a job well. Thus, "cleaning the kitchen floor" can be delineated to mean:

Every Sunday morning:
—remove all containers and furniture from the kitchen, dusting and cleaning surfaces as you go.
—sweep the floor.
—wet mop the entire floor.
—empty all recycling and trash containers, cleaning the containers if needed.
—on the first Sunday of each month, hand scrub the floor instead of wet mopping.

While there will still be differences in the degree to which people scrape up blobs of waxy residue that resist coming off with scrubbing, spelling out expectations will definitely reduce the range of how differently people perform a task.

In deciding how to set up a standard of work expectations, it behooves groups to think through what they're trying to accomplish. In addition to the work itself (getting the kitchen floor cleaned), there may be the desire to:

o  Create a sense of unity among members (we're all in this together—in part, because we all contribute a baseline amount of volunteer labor to the group).

o  See that labor expectations are fair, adjusted for capacity and life circumstances.

o  Promote camaraderie among members through working together (thus cleaning the kitchen as part of a team is seen as superior to encouraging cleaners to do it alone at 2 am). 

o  Teach members new skills, which suggests that people be given work assignments partly based on desire, and not solely on credentials or proven competency, It may also suggest term limits on how long one person can retain a popular assignment. 

There is also a subtler value here: by encouraging members to try many things it creates more familiarity with the full range of tasks being done. In turn, this promotes sympathy and understanding with what others are doing, helping to reduce tensions related to martyr and slacker dynamics.

• • •
The point of illuminating the richness of things that groups hope to accomplish through members' non-monetary contributions is to give a sense of how much nuance is involved. When you digest that, I wouldn't worry too much about measuring expectations in terms of hours. While outcomes may be a truer measure of what's wanted, they're a booger to quantify and at the end of the day what's most important is that there's good energy—not how efficiently someone cleaned the kitchen floor, or that everyone did exactly the same amount on the groups' behalf.

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