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Tools For Collaboration

Why Bother? 

Collaboration, to at least some degree, is a core requirement of the modern day workplace. Its importance is repeatedly reinforced and yet it is a very difficult concept to define and even more elusive to put into practice.

The obligation and requirement to collaborate effectively has in my opinion exploded in the last twenty years. People are being asked to contribute to, or keep an eye on, or sign off, or collate, or edit information from so many more sources, with so many more people. 

People are being expected to do more, which is why tools are created to help us cope with the numbers. But the tools aren’t keeping up, the tools maybe aren’t ideally designed in the first place, and we probably aren’t using them properly. 

“If you want a job doing well, do it yourself” - Napoleon

“Hell is other people” - Satre

Collaboration is difficult. Nobody really tells you how to do it, it’s just sort of implied. On a bad day, collaboration can slow everything down, and the rarified benefits of collaboration are never guaranteed. So why do we rate collaboration so highly. Why do we bother with collaboration at all? 

The Benefits of Collaboration

With my tongue in my cheek I will share The Laws of Collaboration which clearly state that:

  1. Collaboration will just happen and we will be bestowed the gifts of increased productivity and higher quality. When we collaborate it just takes us less time to do things.
  2. The more people involved in something, the better it will turn out.  Many hands do indeed makes light work.
  3. When working in groups, key information and hard-to-define skills are ambiently shared around the team.
  4. Asynchronicity is everyone’s best friend. Somehow, because work isn’t time-of-day dependent, when things are asynchronous, and people can do their work when it suits them, and quite how, we don’t know, but everything will happen quicker and smoother.   
  5. Collaboration makes everything easier, guaranteed. Yes, you can slog it out on your own, but by being in a group you are more likely to get things done. Didn’t you read the memo about working smarter and  crowdsourcing? It’s very convincing. 
  6. “Cross fertilisation” will happen, as if that is necessarily a good idea in itself. By the way have you seen Sharknado?
  7. Working with others also improves self-awareness, always an aid to working better in teams.
  8. Although working in teams can at times contribute to what’s called Group Think, let’s all agree to not worry about that right now.

But What Is Collaboration Anyway?

Collaboration as a loose concept is often thought of all wrong in my opinion.

When you think of collaboration you might picture scenes like this: people playing with Post-It notes drinking bad coffee in an under ventilated meeting room, brainstorming ( “There are no bad ideas” ) and whiteboards, all with a group of people who would often rather be back in their office.

Whilst brainstorming is an example of collaboration, it’s a very small piece of the whole collaboration picture. Collaboration can also be thought of slightly differently than teamwork, where everyone has their own role and there is no overlap. Good teamwork is of course a good thing in its own right, but collaboration might be said to be when people are working together and their roles overlap, often with empathy rather than dovetailing. 

Collaboration so often, but not always, brings new creations into being, new ideas, better ideas, new ways of doing things into the mix and when done well can ironically break down the problem of group think.

I said earlier that collaboration is often perceived as those meetings where people are brainstorming new ideas, but collaboration is far more multifaceted than simply being in the room at the same time.

Collaboration is…

So if collaboration isn’t the Hollywood version of collaboration, what is it?  Collaboration is difficult to define but might be said to include aspects like:

Let's Look At What Doesn't Work

In order to improve collaboration, to make it work smoother for everyone involved, to be more effective, change is necessary. 

I will repeat that, because you missed it.


Fear of or unwillingness to change, to try something new, to look at tedious commonplace things differently is what often kills any chances of improving collaboration before it has started.

In order to make good changes, we need to take a look at our deeply ingrained assumptions and maybe take apart the fundamentals of what we’re currently doing. We need to find the elephants in our work rooms. 

We might find them to be friendly malleable elephants, that we can persuade to behave slightly differently, but first let’s take a look at what’s not working. By that I mean that the change required doesn’t necessarily have to be a complete overhaul and revolution: small evolutions are often a far better way of making our working lives more effective and more collaborative.

Email doesn’t work

Let’s face it. The first culprit of things going wrong, collaboratively speaking, is email.

Email was founded on the simple idea on point-to-point communication, “sending a message”. If you haven’t read, and pondered the wisdom of the Email Charter, then take a minute or so to do now. 

Activity - 5 Minutes

Read the Email Charter and ponder if there are any tips which if your team adopted would improve people’s email load and general well being. Share it with your team.

Its best piece of advice in my opinion is:

“Respect Recipients' Time”

For me, the Email Charter doesn’t go nearly far enough, but for me the first item in the charter, “Respect Recipients' Time”, is far more profound than it may first seem. Imagine you work in a team of 10 people (to make the maths easier). You spend 10 minutes (to make the maths easier) to bang out an email. We’ve all done this. You didn’t spend 20 minutes writing a better, shorter, clearer email. Then you cc’d everyone in your team. 

Think about it. Even if some people scan read your email (although some will feel obliged to read and understand it, rather than skim it for the salient points, of which there may be none), think about the “time” you have just spent. 

The average person writes 40 words a minute. That’s 400 words.

The average person speaks 130 words a minute. That’d take just over 3 minutes to deliver in a meeting, assuming nobody like me butts in.

“Average readers are the majority and only reach around 200 wpm with a typical comprehension of 60%.”.  So at 200 words per minute for the “average reader”... it will take one person a couple of minutes, except if you multiply that by the number of people in the team, that’s now twenty minutes to read a ten minute message. And this doesn’t take into account the idea that only 60% of your message actually “stuck”, and doesn’t take into account those emails that you have to read a few times to work out what they are actually sharing or asking from you. 

Now imagine people replying to your message, or god forbid, sending their own messages. Even with my optimistic maths, which doesn’t take into account a 40% productivity loss when multitasking, or skipping between your email and your “actual work”, there isn’t enough time in the day, for everyone to send the same amount of emails. 

But we also have un-spoken truths such as:

“Some People Don’t Read All Their Emails”

We know that some people don’t read all their emails, and then send out emails. Some people get more emails than others. Some people are cc’d in on things that they only have a passing interest in.

Email is the tool everyone uses, badly. It’s a smelly comfort blanket. It’s riddled with issues but when your back is up against the wall, it’s what you always turn to, like a seriously flawed superhero.

Things Email Really Isn’t, Even Though We All Pretend It Is:

Email isn’t a way to get a quick answer to your question 

Remember, email is asynchronous. People answer in their own time. People may be on leave this week (and forgotten to set their away message) or only work on the odd days of the week.

If you want a quick answer, why not: 

  1. walk to their office: has the benefit of exercise, fresh air, and sometimes you gather information you never would have if the conversation would have been conducted over email.
  2. pick up the phone: has the benefit that, if you don’t get a hold of them, you know you may need to get a hold of someone else instead.
  3. use Google Chat. It is similar to a real-time conversation, except it’s also saved (if you want it to be).
  4. Use Google Hangouts. No really.

Email isn’t a to do list 

Lots of people use their in tray to keep a track of items that may still need doing, sometimes marking messages as “unread” to keep them at the top, or at least appear different to other “done” messages. Some people use the in-built features of email, like “stars” to keep items at the top and use Google’s “Starred first” Inbox type.


Some advanced beings even talk of “Inbox Zero” as if once your email is cleared, your work is done and you can go home feeling pious.

I am the last person to tell anyone how “to get organised” but if you have dozens or hundreds of unread emails and a feeling of anxiety about it, OR your colleagues resent you for it, then there is obviously something very wrong. You maybe need to find ways of unsubscribing from certain lists, learning how filters and labels work, and perhaps persuading some people to send you less email, because it’s clearly a waste of your time, theirs, and server space.

Email isn’t a means of feeling like you have achieved something

People forget this - it is easy to forget - but your work isn’t email. If you ever end the day by sending a load of emails, do you ever wonder what the recipients feel like? They’ve maybe received questions or requests that require clarification that can’t be “settled” until you’re back at your desk ( or reading your email again ). 

Email isn’t a good way to keep track of what who’s done what

Email is probably one of the worst tools for project management because the data, the stuff that really matters, is all in your head. You can’t look at your email and get an overview of the many projects you are working on and get any sort of clue what their status is.

It’s always a big ask, but in order to benefit from digital tools, you pretty much have to do one thing.


Whilst ideas and concepts and timescales exist primarily in your head, they are easily manipulable, randomly accessible (if you have a good memory), and organised the way you like. But this data probably isn’t accessible to other people, unless you or they are super-human. It can often become a little muddled and without you knowing, weigh you down with that background anxiety of wondering if you have actually done everything that absolutely needed doing.

Email isn’t a good way of letting people know what you’ve been doing

Whilst things are all “in your head” they are kept up-to-date quickly and automatically, but every time anyone else needs an update, your time is being spent giving that update.

Email isn’t a good way to get feedback

The classic no-no of sending out an attached document asking for feedback, even by someone who has mastered the arcane practice of “Track changes” never works, and yet I still come across it happening at the university. 

Essential Tip: With Google Documents you can share it with lots of people so that if one person makes a suggestion, everyone else can see that that suggestion has been made.


You can share a document so that people can’t make edits, they can only make “Suggestions”. These suggestions then get approved, or not, by the document author.


Email isn’t the best way to share large blocks of text

Personally, I hate it when I get a LONG email. Email clients generally are pretty useless at being configured to display information, or even print messages, and so when I receive a long email I struggle against the poor choice of font, the large paragraphs, and overall layout of the text I’m supposed to be paying attention to. 

Email isn’t your boss, or monkey

Even though you may have important, and difficult work to get on with, when your email says you have a new message, you go check it to see it to see if it is important. We all do it. Gmail doesn’t have the option to “only check email at certain times” and so we all find ourselves at the beck and call of the tool.

Often we might find we’ve checked our email and there’s a message that says “Great!”, and we’ve lost our flow. The only way to not check our emails at certain times, is, and this may sound silly, to not check our emails at certain times. The tool doesn’t support us in doing other things. 

But even if we have a cast-iron will, and resolve not to check our email in order to get some other task done, the phone in our pocket vibrates to tell us we have three new messages and the browser pops up a notification top right to tell us our phone is telling us the same thing. There is no escape. We are stuck in a knee-jerk mentality that can’t be good for us, and definitely isn’t good for getting the task in hand done.

I don’t have any answers here about how to “tune out” email and “tune in” to more intense focussed work. It is actually “easier” in many ways to give in to your email, and simply live responding or initiating emails, but somehow this seems wrong on so many levels.

Suggestions anyone? 

Email shouldn’t be the place you find everything

One of the biggest challenges we all face is that half remembered piece of essential information. Where did I read it? Was it a conversation? Was it out there in the wilds of the internet? Was it in a document somewhere? 

I am frequently amazed that people use their email to find almost everything. Email discussions become the repository for links to file stores and other systems, and the way to find people related to information and the repository of information itself ( that has probably gone out of date ).

Again, I admit to doing this myself, but again, it doesn’t feel right. Email really shouldn’t be the portal to all I need. 


Documents don’t work either

If you think about it, the whole idea of online documents is based on metaphors from the paper world. We understand pieces of paper and so recognise the concept of a digital document. A digital document is a discrete lump of information. 

And yet a digital document is wildly different from its paper predecessor. A digital document can be updated. A digital document can be (automatically) reformatted. A digital document can contain live or dynamic information. A digital document can be read by multiple people at the same time.

Why are almost all digital documents A4 when everyone is striving to create the paperless office and documents hardly ever are printed out? The monitors we read most documents on are landscape oriented and yet still most of the documents we read are portrait.

Folders Are Not Your Friend

Again, the concept of folders is based on single location for a resource, and yet normally that is the least useful organisational model for what we want to achieve. By having a fixed hierarchy of folders for the things we are trying to organise, all we normally achieved is something that makes our documents difficult to find. If we are lucky, our folder structure becomes learnable, but will continue to trip up every new project member.

Meetings Don’t Work Do They?

I often hear people complaining about too many meetings and not enough time to do the actual work, in meetings.  People can talk for hours about how unnecessary, long and boring meetings are, let me arrange a time where I can sit you down and tell you all about it.

Activity - 30 mins

In a team meeting ( and not via email ), having shared the Email Charter beforehand, have a debate about whether:

And then ask them:

If there are any items that as a group you are going to put into practice, if possible document them (along with a link to the email charter). For example you might have decided, you know what, when we’re sending emails internally we really don’t need to bother with Dear whatever… and Best Wishes etc, but the next new team member through the door doesn’t know this. 

You are already helping to creatively shape your email culture and how you get things done. You are collaboratively and transparently creating an open email policy. 

Ideally this page would be editable so that people might make other suggestions over time.

Activity - How You Collaborate Workshop

At least a couple of hours  

Run a team workshop about how you work together. How teams work together has often evolved over time, and has become the “way you do things around here” without anyone actually thinking about it.

Discuss what doesn’t work and identify some solutions that might be able to help. Remember “Change is necessary”. Whatever you try doesn’t have to be permanent if the team doesn’t like it. 

Because there aren’t any killer collaboration apps that meet every team’s needs, what matters most is developing a culture of “giving stuff a go”. This works best in small and frequent iterations.

Mini Case Study

In the Archaeology department at the University of York, they decided that emails cc’d to the team of things they may be interested in, or research calls they could potentially apply for, were clogging up their in trays.  It’s a difficult call, because people sharing interesting tidbits felt they were spamming their colleagues and yet there is a place for this sort of activity.

As a team they decided to move all of this activity into a Google+ private community. Instead of emailing interesting news articles or funding opportunities to their team, they posted them in the group. This instantly allowed people to post more useful links, and for people to be able to choose how and when they were notified about this sort of content.  Remember, “respect people's’ time”.

Because the mobile app for Google+ is nice, this turned the reading of this content to something that you might do over a coffee or on the bus, when otherwise you would have learned to ignore or filter these emails and not read them at all.

For me, this is a wonderful example that “the tools don’t matter” (except that they do) and shows how the biggest tool to improving collaboration is talking about it ( or is in fact, collaboration ).

Some areas for discussion that might be encouraged are:

Who Are You - As A Team? 

Who are you, as a team?  Type of team. Small team. Wider colleagues? Unknowns.  

Roles of team members. Equals. Team of makers, advisors, reviewers?   

Be sensitive to people who aren’t part of your core team. 

You can get most from them, an outside eye AND a familiarity with your project and each time they have to reacquaint themselves.  Why should anyone trust you? 

How can you build trust, demonstrate it.  

Tone / Who Are Your Audience. Don’t scare the horses.   

Know Yourself. Profiles, more than that. Profile images are useful. Don’t HAVE to be you.)

What are you doing? 

What are you doing?  What are your goals?  

A thing that is finished, like a report, an ongoing resource, like a knowledgeable? Specific or more vague in purpose?   • Report  • Presentation  • Infographic  • Video  • Story  • Web site  • Social Media Campaign  • A knowledge base  • A research bid  • Disseminating  • Promoting)

How will you know when you’ve finished 

How will you know if you’ve been successful? Reporting

Sign-ups, buy in, dissemination (word of mouth or retweets, reputation, cold hard cash, contacts from people, likes, copycats, arguments with senior colleagues, real change, feedback from customers or students (NSS?) or awards)

The project lifecycle 

 The How 

Principles  Manifesto and Etiquette.   

Group style - Dictator vs consensus, hierarchy, open  

Choose to Break the Group Norms.   

Transparency or professional discretion. Consider this.

The When 

Who sets the deadlines  

How often should I come back?  Should I come back or will I be notified?  

Tempo/Sprints/Notifications/Newsletters (New and notable on the wiki this month).)

Does everyone know where you all are…)

Management  Is everything happening that needs to be happening? 

Who Are You - As An Individual? 

Precise, attention to detail… Slightly chaotic, productive 

Open or closed 

Friendly or Efficient  Emotional or Logical Random or Strategic Routine or Change Decision maker or options explorer?

Mantra - The Tools Don't Matter 

We’re all struggling at some level with change. And at times it feels like the tools we need to use to get our job done aren’t helping.

The good news is that the tools don’t matter. Yes, it would be great if they were better. Yes you would probably benefit from spending a little time to learn to use them better. Nine times out of ten, your organisation needs to improve the systems you are working with because they are creating work that just shouldn’t need to be done.

The biggest thing any team can do to improve their own and everybody else’s work life is to have a discussion about how you all work together. It’s almost like it’s too obvious a subject to talk about. It’s almost as if it’s understood that everyone shares the same understanding of what collaboration is, what is expected of them, and what the norms are. And yet, in truth, every team or department is different and the ways they will need to collaborate and work together will be necessarily different.

Tools To Try And Why

Use The Basics Well

Google Groups for permissions and Email lists, Team Drive and Google Drive, Spreadsheets and Documents and Drawings      

Let the folders emerge…!  

Google chat (Slack)

Hangouts APPEAR.IN

Trello (Asana?)

Data Gathering Tools - Surveys etc

Google Forms and Apps Script 



Alt: Mentimeter?

Calendars  See Doodle  Make your calendar open  Put it in your footer.   

Google Sites and Awesome Tables.   

Google + Communities   Even More Basic Tools  Add-ons   Like Autocrat, CopyDown, YAMM  

The Wiki

Process Workflow Tools 

Connector Tools like (Making stuff just happen… )


Forum and Discussion Tools 

(Google Groups  Stack Overflow style)

Ambient Monitoring Tools

 RSS in general. 

Aggregators as a concept.  Like Feedly, inoReader, Pocket and even social media tools like Twitter and Google+.)

Collaborative Pooling Tools 

(Searches, Pinterest, Diigo vs Paperpile   Brainstorming  Ref/man Paperpile / Diigo/ Keep  Mood boards  Mural

Honing & Curating Tools (Voting)

Social Media Tools

 (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Idea Shaping and Research Tools

(Depending on your project lifecycle, your often want something akin to brainstorming, where lots of stuff is gathered at the beginning to share contexts and broaden horizons, to learn about related things you didn’t know about, or see problems that you didn’t know existed.  

 Organising, Creation, Outlining, Mindmaps  Thinking tools.)