Collaboration tools

Anyone who has been part of a team, be it as an individual contributor or as a lead/manager, would sense a feeling of deja vu after reading this succinct post. I personally have seen this being played in almost every organization I have been a part of. Having been on both sides of the table, I have also enforced collaboration tools on my team at FreeCharge. We started off with trello and found a very sweet spot with asana and the team has been happily using it for the past 6 or so months. This is not to say that the move was smooth or easy but it has now become a part of our workflow.

Let us answer the most important question, why a collaboration tool is needed when we have email? I am sorry to burst the bubble but email is not a team collaboration tool, email is an one to one collaboration tool. What are the shortcomings of email which prevents us from using it as a collaboration tool?
1. Gmail(de facto email :)) took a big leap forward with threaded replies but a task manager should have more levels of hierarchy. This is where asana shines for me, I love the infinite task hierarchy feature of asana, this is something that I really missed in trello.
2. Using email, it is a herculean effort to have a bird’s eye view of all the tasks currently in progress, about to end or scheduled to start.
3. A collaboration tool makes it really easy for you to track the progress of a task and see the wrenches in the system that prevent it from zooming ahead. This enables people to jump in and course correct things.
4. It is a single point of contact for you to figure out who is working on what and to whom you can assign something next. There is this really burning customer service(CS) issue, oh ok, Ram worked on this feature, let me see what he is upto today. Open the collaboration tool, click on Ram’s name and see when he is pushing the feature he is working on to QA. Wow, he is pushing it today itself, so, as soon as he is done, he can take a dig at this. Create a task for this CS issue and assign it to Ram. Also, make the CS agent the follower of this task so that he knows Ram will be on it soon and he can track the progress.
5. Someone higher up in the org wants to know whether the feature that was discussed a couple of weeks back is on track. You can be out of the loop and just ask the person to peek at the collaboration tool and he should have his answer.
6. Finally, the biggest reason for using a collaboration tool, documentation. How many times have you seen this scenario being played in organizations? There is a bug in some legacy feature, but you have no clue why the feature was designed like that in the first place. You ask your manager/lead as to why it was designed the way it is and he gives you a blank stare and says, let me dig up my email, we discussed about this. He comes back saying he is not able to retrieve the particular email thread. If only the team was smart enough to use a collaboration tool, this scenario would have turned out totally different. Using a collaboration tool you can aggregate all the discussions and decision points that went into a feature and you can return to it when in doubt.

Now that the reasons for using a collaboration tool are out of the way, let us come back to the question of making it a part of the workflow. As the article correctly points out, people use these tools for a week and then go back to email. Why does this happen? It is not because email is an awesome tool or that there is no better thing out there other than email. It is just the power of habit and to put it mildly, laziness. We have been so habituated to email that it has become second nature to use it. Also, individuals in the team do not see the reason for using a collaboration tool because an individual contributor of the team does not face the pain of task allocation etc which a collaboration tool primarily addresses. Since that person is not exposed to these problems, he does not see a merit in wasting his time on something new.

So, how do you make a collaboration tool part of your team? Education. Educate your team members as to the reason why this is being done. Do not just tell them that this is asana, going forward you have to use it. No, that is not the way to do things in a team. Tell them that these and these are the problems that you are facing and a collaboration tool will greatly alleviate these problems. Usually, when you are honest and people realize that you are trying to solve a real problem, they go out of the way to help you out. This softer approach has to go hand in hand with the draconian enforcement of the tool in the initial days. People always relapse and it is your duty as the lead/head to make sure that they start on it once again. When you see communication shifting back to email, let the team strongly know that this is not ok, this has to be done through the collaboration tool. A couple of these cycles later, you will have the whole team on board.

As said before, we have been on asana for about 6 or so months now and are very happy with it. Give it a shot, there is a free user tier which should suffice for most small organizations.

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