Reorganizing EA NTNU into agile self-organizing teams

EDIT 15.04.18:
We’ve learned a lot af­ter writ­ing this post and not all that is writ­ten here re­flect our cur­rent views. Also, a few other groups has tried to im­ple­ment some of these prac­tices, but with limited suc­cess. We are con­sid­er­ing how to learn from this and find out why it works so well for EA NTNU and not for oth­ers. We have some hy­pothe­ses and are in­ter­ested in talk­ing to groups that have, or are think­ing of try­ing out the ideas out­lined here. Please send me an email at jor­gen@effek­ti­valtru­

In this post we try to share our ex­pe­rience in re­or­ga­niz­ing our EA stu­dent group. We think that our anal­y­sis of pit­falls and bot­tle­necks in a stu­dent or­ga­ni­za­tion and how we are try­ing to cir­cum­vent them could be valuable to read by EAs in­volved with other stu­dent groups.

EA stu­dent groups are very im­por­tant out­reach or­ga­ni­za­tions in our move­ment, and stu­dents of­ten want to do much, fast, with­out re­ally know­ing how to. We think it is re­ally im­por­tant to build sus­tain­able and adapt­able struc­tures that en­sures or­ga­niz­ers do not get worn out and that en­gaged stu­dents do not lose their mo­ti­va­tion and the op­por­tu­nity to learn from and con­tribute to EA.

Back­ground on EA NTNU

Effek­tiv Altru­isme NTNU was founded in March 2014 by five in­dus­trial en­g­ineer­ing stu­dents at the Nor­we­gian Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy (NTNU), Nor­way’s largest Univer­sity with 39,000 stu­dents. Our group is now count­ing 30 reg­u­lar mem­bers and 11 am­bas­sadors (Our am­bas­sador pro­gram is a topic for an­other day). Ac­cord­ing to LEAN’s Group Or­ga­nizer Sur­vey we are one of the most ac­tive EA stu­dent groups. Our reg­u­lar work­ing meet­ings are Wed­nes­days 6-9pm and the last Sun­day of the month 2-7pm. We usu­ally meet in a large class­room on cam­pus which we are able to book for free.

How new mem­bers en­ter the group

We ac­cept new mem­bers early in Septem­ber, at the start of our fall semester. Stu­dents ap­ply for a mem­ber­ship via an on­line form be­fore in­ter­est­ing can­di­dates are in­ter­viewed the fol­low­ing week. The board de­cides who to ac­cept soon af­ter. We make it clear that the po­si­tion will be time con­sum­ing, around 5 hours a week, and by ac­cept­ing the mem­ber­ship we ex­pect them to pri­ori­tize EA NTNU. Sig­nal­ing that it will be time con­sum­ing is more im­por­tant than the num­ber of hours be­ing ac­cu­rate in it­self. Ap­pli­cants knows there are more ap­pli­cants than po­si­tions, so by ac­cept­ing they get a po­si­tion some­one else could have been offered. This cre­ates a pow­er­ful effect that both filters out not-so-mo­ti­vated ap­pli­cants and achers peo­ple who do ac­cept.

We look for can­di­dates that show gen­uine in­ter­est in EA and sig­nal that they are will­ing to con­sis­tently and re­li­ably pri­ori­tize time in the or­ga­ni­za­tion. Prior knowl­edge about EA or our cause ar­eas is a plus, but not nec­es­sary. Every new mem­ber goes through our in­tro­duc­tory course dur­ing the first three weeks. We find that it is eas­ier to teach new en­thu­si­as­tic mem­bers about EA than to make peo­ple already fa­mil­iar with EA take ini­ti­a­tive and find a per­sis­tent drive to work on pro­jects.

The most im­por­tant take­away here is that we have well defined mem­bers that are ex­pected to, and in large part do, show up at our meet­ings.

The old or­ga­ni­za­tional structure

Ini­tially we were or­ga­nized in three larger work­ing groups, each with their main re­spon­si­bil­ity:

  1. Events and campaigns

  2. Lob­by­ing of in­fluen­tial peo­ple, poli­ti­cal par­ties and other organizations

  3. Research

Th­ese groups met at differ­ent times dur­ing the week, plus some rare com­mon so­cial ac­tivi­ties and events. Our model mainly con­sisted of weekly or biweekly two-three hour meet­ings where we dis­cussed the cur­rent pro­jects and as­signed tasks on what we would like to have done the fol­low­ing week(s). Often these meet­ings started with a re­cap of what we were sup­posed to have done since last meet­ing, but did not man­age to do be­cause of time con­straints or differ­ent pri­ori­ties. An im­por­tant benefit of the themed work­ing groups was that the spe­cific ex­pe­rience on or­ga­niz­ing events, lob­by­ing or re­search is con­tained and built upon more eas­ily when it is the same peo­ple work­ing on these types of pro­jects.

The main challenges with this or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture we think were:

  1. Each group re­quired a des­ig­nated leader with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of co­or­di­nat­ing pro­jects, del­e­gat­ing tasks, prepar­ing meet­ings, rep­re­sent­ing the group at the board and hav­ing the main re­spon­si­bil­ity to ini­ti­ate and bring pro­jects to fruition. In ad­di­tion to these three group lead­ers we had two co-pres­i­dents and an am­bas­sador pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor, to­tal­ing six heavy, time con­sum­ing po­si­tions in the board. Even though the num­ber of peo­ple and pro­jects on­go­ing in the work­ing groups may be scal­able with the available re­sources, this struc­ture still had a sig­nifi­cant “over­head” of work that would not scale eas­ily. This forced us to re­cruit at least six highly mo­ti­vated peo­ple, ex­pe­rienced with EA think­ing, and in­ter­ested in a lead­er­ship po­si­tion each year.

  2. Mem­bers only got to work with one kind of pro­jects de­pen­dent on which work­ing group they be­longed to.

  3. Mem­bers so­cial­ized very lit­tle be­tween work­ing groups, mak­ing build­ing an over­all cul­ture and sense of be­long­ing very difficult.

  4. The me­dian effec­tive­ness in the sense of valuable ac­tivi­ties done per mem­ber per week was pretty low due to the prob­lems above and gen­eral con­fu­sion and low morale.

  5. Hav­ing themed work­ing groups made the or­gani­sa­tion ill-equipped to work with pro­jects not well defined within the themes cov­ered.

  6. Mem­bers of a group was more or less obli­gated to fol­low the work­flow of the group, work­ing less in down-times and in­tensely around an event or a cam­paign etc. This leads to prob­lems when the group work­flow mis­matches with work­flow of the mem­bers around mid-semester tests, hand-ins, term pa­pers etc.

Lead­ing up to our gen­eral as­sem­bly in April this year the sit­ting board asked around to find mem­bers will­ing to run for board po­si­tions, and even though there were many com­pe­tent and ex­pe­rienced po­ten­tial can­di­dates, very few ac­tu­ally wanted to run. This came as a sur­prise to the board and a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion fol­lowed on whether we should re­or­ga­nize com­pletely, size down or even con­vert to just be­ing a dis­cus­sion group. Our cur­rent model was born from these dis­cus­sions where we tried to iden­tify the prob­lems listed above and find a way to or­ga­nize our­selves such that we could cir­cum­vent these bot­tle­necks.

The new or­ga­ni­za­tional structure

We are now or­ga­nized in smaller one-pro­ject, self-or­ga­niz­ing, ag­ile teams which all meet at the same time, in the same room and work in po­modoro ses­sions with shared breaks in be­tween.

Every team has got their own phys­i­cal Kan­ban board where they put ac­tions writ­ten on post-its. We pre­fer a low-tech solu­tion here be­cause it en­gages ev­ery­one on the team and makes it re­ally easy to glance up to get an overview on the pro­ject to know what to do next with­out in­volv­ing any co­or­di­na­tors. The teams also do weekly stand ups, at the start of each meet­ing, a tech­nique from Scrum, where the ac­tion post-its, stored in a folder be­tween the meet­ings. are placed back on the Kan­ban board and new ones are writ­ten. This works great as a fast in­tro­duc­tion to where the pro­ject stands and what seems to be the most im­por­tant next ac­tions. By mak­ing ev­ery­one on the team liter­ally stand up dur­ing this ac­tivity we en­sure that they are not wast­ing time, but that they do the rounds to be able to sit down and get to work.

Group and team com­mu­ni­ca­tion is done through Slack. The struc­ture of chan­nels are perfect with our pro­jects. It is free for non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions and very ver­sa­tile with valuable plu­g­ins, such as the au­to­matic re­minder of google cal­en­dar events. Our main challenge with Slack is to en­sure that peo­ple are con­figur­ing their no­tifi­ca­tions set­tings such that they do not get over­whelmed by ir­rele­vant no­tifi­ca­tions and con­se­quently stops look­ing at any mes­sages.

Our board have a run­ning con­ver­sa­tion on a pri­vate Slack chan­nel en­sur­ing that ev­ery­one is up to speed. In ad­di­tion, the board meets for 1-1.5h ev­ery Mon­day to dis­cuss and make de­ci­sions on strate­gic and or­ga­ni­za­tional is­sues. Dur­ing the work­ing meet­ings the board is not part of any teams, but work as pro­ject own­ers, run­ning around ask­ing and an­swer­ing ques­tions, putting out fires and en­sur­ing that the teams have got what they need in or­der to work effi­ciently. This is com­pletely op­po­site to the old model where the board and a core group around them stood for 90 per­cent of the valuable work hours.

This new struc­ture has many benefits:

  • Even though we have only worked un­der the new struc­ture for 2-3 months we reg­ister very pos­i­tive re­sults in mem­ber mo­ti­va­tion, ini­ti­a­tive and effec­tive­ness. The board is down from 6 to 4, mem­ber count have in­creased from 20 to 30 reg­u­lar mem­bers, but we have man­aged to pro­duce a lot more valuable work hours (my guess is north of 300% in­crease) com­pared to last semester. We be­lieve re­duc­tion of un­cer­tainty and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­er­tia are two main con­tribut­ing fac­tors of this in­crease in pro­duc­tivity.

  • By tran­si­tion­ing from co­or­di­nat­ing meet­ings to work­ing meet­ings we en­sure con­stant progress. We think stu­dents in gen­eral find it eas­ier to set aside some hours one night a week than pre­dict­ing how much time they would have available the next week, ac­cept tasks that would fill this much time and ac­tu­ally find time dur­ing a hec­tic study week to do the tasks be­fore the next meet­ing.

  • By mak­ing the teams small and fo­cused on one pro­ject at the time, it is pos­si­ble to do away with the co­or­di­na­tor role. We are in prac­tice dis­tribut­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, em­pow­er­ing peo­ple and at the same time strengthen self-mo­ti­va­tion since they them­selves are de­cid­ing what needs to get done. Adopt­ing ag­ile tools helps us in­volve ev­ery­one in the co­or­di­na­tion of tasks and re­spon­si­bil­ities.

  • It is very scal­able. In prac­tice it could sup­port a small group of mem­bers, only enough for one or two pro­jects at the time, or we could eas­ily run 10 par­allel pro­jects (~40 peo­ple). A stu­dent group fluc­tu­ates in size over time, both be­cause of grad­u­a­tion and vary­ing work-load dur­ing each semester, and there­fore it is im­por­tant that the struc­ture can adapt to the situ­a­tion and still be use­ful.

  • The pro­ject struc­ture is easy to cus­tomize for nearly ev­ery kind of pro­ject. Larger pro­jects should be parted into sev­eral teams with an agreed upon com­mu­ni­ca­tion struc­ture be­tween them.

  • Since ev­ery­one is meet­ing the same place at the same time, and share breaks, we build a com­mon cul­ture much more eas­ily. This is also helped by the mem­bers work­ing on differ­ent teams and with differ­ent peo­ple through­out the semester.

  • Mem­bers can work on differ­ent kinds of pro­jects, and are not limited to the theme of their group. This is an im­por­tant change from last semester that many called for.

  • Pro­ject based del­e­ga­tion, where the board works out the frame­work and goals of a pro­ject be­fore a new team is cre­ated to work on it en­sures that we fol­low the over­ar­ch­ing goals and strat­egy set by the gen­eral as­sem­bly with­out the need to micro­man­age.

  • Bet­ter learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for the mem­bers as they have to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity and are work­ing on many differ­ent pro­jects with differ­ent peo­ple. Espe­cially we think it is im­por­tant to train them in wok­ing well in in­ter­dis­ci­plinary teams, an es­sen­tial skill for do­ing knowl­edge work.

But also sev­eral challenges and dis­ad­van­tages:

  • Find­ing a good way of let­ting mem­bers choose which pro­jects they want to be a part of, but there is a trade off when too many want to work on the same pro­jects or the board has spe­cial rea­sons for pri­ori­tiz­ing a not-so-pop­u­lar pro­ject.

  • The road from idea to ac­tive pro­ject is too long. We have got idea chan­nels on Slack to gather ev­ery new idea, and plan to do some cre­ative work­shops for cre­at­ing ideas for new pro­jects. The board then has to pri­ori­tize and pre­pare the pro­ject frame­work be­fore enough mem­bers must be available for tak­ing on new pro­jects and they must choose this par­tic­u­lar pro­ject. Only then the idea has be­come an ac­tive pro­ject.

  • Knowl­edge and ex­pe­rience from ag­ile tech­niques and team dy­nam­ics is im­por­tant, but not es­sen­tial, to ad­minister this kind of struc­ture.

  • We find hav­ing coffee, tea, fruit and snacks available dur­ing our work­ing meet­ings help re­duce the bar­ri­ers (thirst and low blood sugar) to work effi­ciently. Also, we have in­vested in some office sup­plies, such as the Kan­ban boards, mark­ers, post-its, note­books and so on. This re­quire some funds, but I’m very con­fi­dent that it is worth it.

Ex­pe­rience from this semester

The dom­i­nat­ing pro­ject we have done this semester is our largest event to date where the Crown Princess of Nor­way and Tore Go­dal, co-founder of GAVI, vis­ited us and had an open con­ver­sa­tion on global health in a lec­ture hall at the uni­ver­sity. The pro­mo­tional value was huge, but the part I’m most proud of is how we man­aged to get the teams to work and col­lab­o­rate in the plan­ning and the ex­e­cu­tion of the event. For this event we or­ga­nized six teams with re­spon­si­bil­ity for: Me­dia, De­sign, Econ­omy, HR, Prac­ti­cal tasks and a Co­or­di­na­tor team. Each team had 3-5 mem­bers. We have done sev­eral events ear­lier, but then the real work­load was much less evenly dis­tributed and they were all smaller in size. We be­lieve the or­ga­ni­za­tional change is the main con­trib­u­tor to this.

Uncer­tain­ties and reservations

At the end we want to high­light the un­cer­tain­ties and challenges with these ini­tial re­sults. We have only used this struc­ture for 2-3 months, and the pe­riod has been dom­i­nated by one large event, and may there­fore not be gen­er­at­ing typ­i­cal re­sults. We have not mea­sured any quan­tifi­able valuable hours of work pro­duced be­fore or af­ter the change. Other long-term met­rics such as more mem­ber­ship ap­pli­ca­tions, in­creased web ac­tivity/​in­ter­est or in­ter­nal ones such as new GWWC-mem­bers or sig­nifi­cant ca­reer changes will take longer to gather. For me, the fac­tor I’m feel­ing most pos­i­tive about is the higher mo­ti­va­tion and en­gage­ment I’m ob­serv­ing. This can not be quan­tified eas­ily, so we may very well be wrong on this. It is im­por­tant to add here that our group is not that differ­ent to many other groups at our uni­ver­sity. We do not know if there are some es­sen­tial qual­ities about the way we op­er­ate that are made pos­si­ble by the way our cul­ture in Nor­way or at NTNU, and thus are hard to copy for oth­ers.

The goal of this post is to sum­ma­rize our ex­pe­riences in iden­ti­fy­ing challenges in an EA stu­dent group and how to or­ga­nize in or­der to best adapt to these challenges, as well as re­port­ing our ini­tial ex­pe­rience in im­ple­ment­ing a new struc­ture for do­ing just that. If oth­ers have ex­pe­rience from similar ar­eas it may be very helpful to see if we came to the same con­clu­sions and if we could learn from each other. We es­pe­cially want to learn how to ask the right ques­tions in or­der to mon­i­tor the im­por­tant fac­tors mov­ing for­ward.

At the cur­rent stage we do not know enough to recom­mend any spe­cific struc­ture or el­e­ment to other stu­dent groups, ex­cept that we highly recom­mend other groups to think of how they may evolve the next 3-5 years and try to pre­dict what are the most limit­ing re­sources and skills for your group. Con­sider whether you should re­or­ga­nize to widen these bot­tle­necks for the fu­ture.

Jør­gen Ljø­nes
Co-founder and Co-pres­i­den­t
Effek­tiv Altru­isme NTNU
With a lot of help from oth­ers in our group!


Effek­tiv Altru­isme NTNU

Dur­ing a work­ing session

The visit from Crown Princess Mette-Marit and dr. Tore Godal