Best Practices for Using Collaborative Software with GTD - Next Action Associates

Collaborative software (a.k.a. ‘groupware’) is on the rise as companies grapple with demands for greater team productivity. This article follows on from a previous guide to understanding how the various elements of your company’s groupware solution can interact optimally with your Getting Things Done® (GTD®) system. That is, once you understand how the pieces fit together, it can be useful to consider some best practices in relation to the overall system.

At a high level, most groupware solutions are designed to improve team effectiveness. One way to measure this effectiveness is to see how quickly and easily a team can answer the following four questions:

  1. “What is our goal and who owns it?”
  2. “Who will do what by when?”
  3. “What is the status of …?”
  4. “Where can I find information on…?”

If teams can answer these questions clearly and rapidly, they are supporting clarified outcomes, visibility of objectives, accountability to those objectives, and good management of shared reference information. All else being equal, this clearly translates to greater effectiveness.

The reason it is important to step back and look at the intention of a groupware solution is that in our era of game-changing new technologies, we can fall into the trap of thinking that technology alone can solve problems that stem from human dynamics.

Simply creating more places to store information, for example, does not necessarily make it easier to find what you need. Likewise, storing information in relation to key projects does not in itself create clear objectives and accountability for those projects.

The over-arching best practice, therefore, for moving information into and out of a groupware solution is to be clear about the aim in doing so. Breaking this down more specifically, here are a few key behaviours to consider adopting:

Minimise “Inboxes”

Determine which parts of the groupware solution might constitute a new ‘inbox’ for you – that is, a place that must be checked regularly for new input. Attempt wherever possible to minimise inboxes that need to be checked. This is for purely practical reasons – the fewer places you have to go to know what is new and potentially actionable for you, the less time you will spend hunting around.

Filters, rules, and even email notifications can be used to aid the discovery process, but can sometimes cut both ways. It is often better to manually scan an important data stream than to rely on imperfect filters to bring you what you need (and hide what it thinks you don’t need) to see. This is particularly true if missed information can have critical consequences.

One way to minimise inboxes is to transfer the information from a groupware stream intended for many people into one of a select few places where you can subsequently clarify and organise the information into your own trusted GTD system. This should be done as part of a routine collection exercise as often as needed to harvest information that relates to your own active commitments. Transferring a piece of information from a groupware stream to a trusted inbox can involve copying and pasting text, urls, or even taking a screenshot.

Otherwise, you are essentially processing from everyone’s inbox, and that can be overwhelming.

Minimise the Locations of Reference Material

The intent of this principle is similar to that of minimising ‘inboxes’ in that that having to go looking for the right information wastes time. Minimise the number of places one has to look for general reference filing, such as company-wide resources that are not tied to a specific outcome. For action support, project support, and waiting-for support information that is specific to your own active commitments, consider creating cross-links between the groupware solution and your trusted GTD system as mentioned below.

Cross-Link Wherever Possible

Create links from the ‘master’ (trusted GTD System) lists to action support, project support, and waiting-for support materials wherever possible. If no built-in technology solution exists for integration, ‘permalink’ URLs can sometimes be used in a text field. Worst case, duplicate the relevant portion of content using copy-and-paste or screenshots. The key is that you are able to consult your trusted system first, and from there be led into other relevant sources of information, rather than having to go look for the information in the groupware solution all over again.

Favour Discrete Filing

Similar to the reasons that you may want to be wary of extensive automated filters, when it comes to laying hands on critical information, getting a search term wrong can have serious consequences. Much better is to think about your “future self” and put it in the way you will want to get it out with a label, category, or file folder. This usually does not preclude your ability to search later on, but greatly improves the chances of getting back to the information. There is admittedly a relatively small up-front cost of additional time to do this. Quickly finding what you need when you need it, however, can sometimes be priceless.

Collaborative software can have significant impact on teams overall, as well as each of the individuals who comprise those teams. Whether that impact is highly positive, negative, or mixed usually comes down to the use of the tool rather than the nature of the tool itself.

By keeping sight of the over-arching intention of team effectiveness, aligning with that effectiveness by assessing how your use of the tool helps answer four key questions, and following some of the specific best practices mentioned above to help groupware mesh with your own GTD system, you will be much further ahead.

In the end, do you feel like you’re working for your groupware solution, or that your groupware solution is working for you? Take a moment to step out of the digital stream and see.

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