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4 concepts for working collaboratively in Google Apps

Put these four ideas into practice to improve document collaboration at work.

Working together

Most people learn to use Gmail and Google Calendar fairly quickly. A shared Google Calendar streamlines scheduling. Gmail filters and calendar integration reduce email processing time.

A lot of people understand that Docs, Sheets, and Slides are mobile and browser-based tools to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentation slides. They also grasp that a Doc, Sheet, or Slide can be shared.

Unfortunately, many people have learned to create documents in a one-document, one-person world. Several schools teach this model: "Do your own work!" Quite a few professionals practice this model: "Email me your budget" or "Send me your plan."

However, Google Docs provides a one-document, many-person world.

Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor, uses the word "collabrify" to name the change. Take software that works with a one-person, one-document model, "collabrify" it, and you'll have software that supports a one-document, many-person model. (Soloway and his team are working to make it easier for developers to add "real-time synchronous collaboration" to mobile apps.)

Work occurs differently in a one-document, many-person world than it does with the one-document, one-person model. I've found the following four concepts help people work more collaboratively in shared documents.

1. Give people space

Start by creating space for each collaborator to create. This reduces the risk that a person's work will be overwritten in the early stages of the collaboration.

For example:

  • In a project proposal (Google Doc), put a person's name next to the section(s) they should write,
  • In a budget document (Sheet), identify specific rows or columns — or even an entire sheet — for a collaborator to edit
  • In a presentation (Slides), put people's names on slides

2. Take turns

Don't delete or change other people's work. Instead, insert a comment or suggest an edit.

Select text, a cell, or a slide object, then choose "Insert Comment." An inserted comment allows additional dialogue. Several people may reply to a comment, and the comment stream can evolve into an extended discussion. In contrast, a "Suggested Edit" may only be accepted or rejected by the owner. Therefore, use "Insert Comment" to share thoughts, and Suggested Edits to correct errors.

(Tip: You can adjust the number of comment notifications you receive. To do so, view your document in a web browser, select Comments, and then click Notifications. Choose to be notified of "All" comments, only "Replies to you," or "None" at all.)

3. Stay positive: "Yes, and..."

Be positive in your comments. Wherever possible, adopt the improv practice of saying "yes, and.." instead of the more common phrase "yes, but...." Another way to approach this is to leave three positive comments before writing a critical comment.

4. Ask "Why?"

Ask for further explanation when you don't understand part of a document, spreadsheet, or presentation. "Why is Slide A after Slide B?" or "Why do you expect such an increase in costs?"

For complex collaboration challenges, have a discussion — either in person or using Hangouts. A discussion about a shift in strategy, for example, may benefit from a conversation: a fast, give-and-take of ideas and facts. A simple report likely requires less discussion.

More tools, please

In addition to Google Apps, other tools allow multi-person collaboration in a shared mobile workspace: MindMeister (mindmaps), Trello (project status cards), Smartsheet (spreadsheets reinvented), Quip (documents, spreadsheets, and messaging — all in one) are a few of the best. We need more tools that support one-workspace, many-user collaborative work.

Most of us, however, will benefit from remembering a few simple collaboration concepts as we move from working on documents alone to working on documents together. What collaboration tools do you use? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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