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I am leading a volunteer team which is closing on the final months before a deadline on a major project. The team seemed to have fun putting their ideas forward and came up with a solid design.

With the design phase nearly complete, most of the newer idea suggestions seem to be poorly thought through ideas which seem to lead into rabbit holes. These rabbit hole discussions are muddying the waters and distracting the team from focusing on completing the project. What is a good way to go about respectfully convincing team members to slow the flow of poorly thought out ideas and remain focused on project completion.

This part of the question is additional information added after asking the original question to help narrow to a good solution.

  1. I was very up front about this being a volunteer project. I am not being paid. I have no magic money tree though I wish I did.
  2. I have top notch people, who are both honest capable. The rabbit hole discussions are coming from people being over zealous more than anything else.
  3. I am not in a bind yet as everything is on track. I am looking for advice on how to keep it that way.
  4. I have experience working with good non-profit leaders who have pulled off phenomenal projects. Habitat for Humanity comes to mind.
  5. I have experience working with bad non-profit leaders. I can empathize with situations being described below. I have had to fire volunteers, and I have had to walk away. This particular issue is not at those extremes.
  6. I have nothing against meetings; however, holding meetings in this situation will slow work progress. I prefer avoiding meetings.
  7. This issue is more of a nuisance at this point than a problem; however, I am looking for a good way to snipe the issue before it elevates into being a problem.

    What I like so far and why:

    • "Make it work, make it good, make it great." This statement is short and sweet and embodies using common sense to prioritize the work.

    • "Make it clear that at this point perfectly fine ideas will be rejected." This hits directly at my struggle. I do not want to go about rejecting good ideas from a good team; however, I need to because of time and budget limitations.

    • "Provide place for developers to discuss this out-of-meeting." Diverting irrelevant discussion seems to be a good strategy for keeping it from slowing workflow.

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    If you solve this one, I'm sure they'll come up with a Nobel Prize for Project Management. Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 21:23
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    Prioritized task/burndown/backlog list. New ideas get added as "consider in future releases" unless they're clearly better than the current plan and do not force the schedule to slip. Make it work, make it good, make it great -- in that order.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 21:33
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    Pay people. Volunteers do what they want Commented Feb 11, 2016 at 23:19
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    I was looking forward to posting "Pay them." as a witty comment but it's both too short and @AmyBlankenship beat me to the punch. That aside, what industry are you in? I'd assume non-profit but I've been surprised before by the US private sector refusing to pay people for honest work.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 0:16
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    Volunteer should imply nonprofit, which is similar to the work people are doing on this site providing answers and comments. This brings up an interesting point because "pay them" is an irrelevant discussion I would like to learn how to wave off without stepping on toes while showing appreciation for the time the spent on making the comment in a way which discourages future irrelevant comments.
    – LongThrow
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 2:23

3 Answers 3

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Before starting to discuss any new idea, make it clear to everyone that you are very late in the design phase. And that means an idea must not be merely acceptable, not merely as good as what you have right now, it must have a very, very significant value that merits lengthening the design phase.

In other words, make it clear that at this point, perfectly fine ideas will be rejected. Make it also clear that at this point, perfectly fine ideas have to be presented together with clear and documented reasoning why they are significantly better than what you have now - which implies that the presenter of the idea must have studied your current approach and must be able to compare current approach and demonstrate why his idea is significantly better.

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Create a meeting agenda, and time box each meeting and each agenda item. Email out the meeting agenda at least 1 day ahead of time, and shutdown discussions not related to it, citing the agenda.

To increase the chances of everyone buying into the agenda, I'd suggest the following.

  • Make sure the team knows about the agenda, and has some say in how it is put together.

  • Provide place for developers to discuss this out-of-meeting (like a forum), which allows voting. Say the top X number of topics get on the agenda. Hopefully just having to write a paragraph will keep the truly un-though out ideas off the table.

  • Allow each issue a certain amount of time and then offer to add it to next weeks agenda if there is still heated debate when the time is up.

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  • Even though I've been working hard to avoid formal meetings and agendas, setting aside a time specifically for off topic discussion and consideration of these other ideas has merit.
    – LongThrow
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 16:09
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They're volunteers, so you can't do a lot.

Set agenda's, set procedures and do your best to make sure they're adhered too, but don't get too pushy or you'll have no volunteers. If they're not getting paid, then the project is not all that important to them and possibly the World at large. Failure in these sorts of projects is fairly common and team lead usually takes the blame unfortunately. It's best not to stress unduly over things, these people are just doing it for fun, when it stops being fun, they'll often stop doing it.

As team lead, the onus is really on you to decide which are the best ideas to implement, so weigh them carefully and get people to concentrate on those that are practicable. Make it clear that those are the ones to be worked on. If you're not doing that, then you're not leading anything.

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  • You do have the option of declining their assistance, if it's being more distracting than useful. It is possible, and sometimes necessary, to "fire" a volunteer.
    – keshlam
    Commented Feb 12, 2016 at 16:49

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