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Let your team choose project software for your online collaboration

Cartoon: Why don't you collaborate by yourself for a little while?

by Alex in | |

How many project software tools does it take to collaborate effectively?

If you’re anything like me, your answer might run to the double digits. I mean, how can you work with someone unless you can communicate through a combination of e-mail, Twitter, Skype, SMS, and chat? How can you share work in progress and avoid duplicate effort unless the whole team uses Google Docs, DropBox, a shared Evernote notebook, a collection of citations in Zotero, MindMeister for mindmapping, a board of images on Pinterest, a common folder of Google Reader feeds and an agreed-upon tag in delicious? How will you keep track of your tasks and time unless you’re all using Basecamp and Harvest? And let’s be honest, how viscerally annoying will you find it to watch your new teammates take screenshots without using Skitch, update their status without using HootSuite or access PDFs without using Papers?

Lest you think I exaggerate, I have foisted everything except Harvest upon one or another of my Emily Carr colleagues this past year. As far as I’m concerned, the first two weeks of any project should be dedicated to the sign-up process and learning curve that will turn my new team-mates into Web 2.0 productivity nerds.

Strangely, however, some of the people I work with seem to be more interested in getting our project done than in choosing or learning the project software tools that I insist are absolutely required in order to work effectively. And since I notionally recognize that the term “collaboration” isn’t just a category of software, but also a philosophy and practice of working closely and respectfully with other human beings, I have tried to open my mind just a tiny bit to the possibility that not every aspect of group work requires a different web application.

What I’ve learned is that the geekiest person in the group is not, in fact, the right person to drive collaborative software choices. In fact, if you’re a passionate early adopter, you’re probably the last person who should drive which software gets used. After all, your early adopter-ness means you are both experienced and skilled at learning new software; you’re also much more likely to be familiar with the tools your colleagues like to use than they are to be familiar with yours.

So instead of jumping in with your awesome lifechanging software picks, how about hanging back and seeing how the rest of the team likes to work? Find out what they use already — most often a combination of Google Docs, email, and sometimes Twitter or Evernote — and then take the lead in strategizing how to use it for this particular project. And if you’re working together over an extended period of time, and the tools your colleagues like using are failing in some very obvious ways, then and only then can you think about introducing one or two tools that can maybe fill the most painful gaps.

The beauty of this strategy is that when you avoid overwhelming your collaborators with a tidal wave of new software, you actually create some space for them to notice and get interested in the tools you use. Maybe they are still taking notes in Word, but they see you using Evernote; maybe they are trading files by keychain, but get intrigued by your use of Dropbox; maybe they are writing down their appointments in an actual paper calendar (I actually do have several colleagues who do that!!) until they see the jaw-dropping beauty that is Calvetica.

People, when that day comes, you will be ready. And until then, you and your favorite software tools will just have to collaborate on your own.

First posted on December 7,2011

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