Simple, free collaboration using internet tools

Since joining the steering group for LocalGov Digital, I’ve been getting back into the swing of things when it comes to working remotely with people spread across the country.

In 2018 it feels like an obvious point to make, but the internet really does make this stuff easy. However, knowing how things are inside many organisations, there is still a whole lot that can be achieved by simply making open internet tools available to people to use to do their jobs.

Collaboration in LocalGov Digital is based on three main tools, all of which are free and can be set up by anyone with an email address and five minutes to spare.

Slack

Slack is the key communications channel, and is a real time text chat application which gives a group of people the ability to talk to one another in themed channels. It’s very easy to use and can be accessed on the web, or through mobile and desktop applications.

The downside with Slack is that it is ephemeral, and stuff can get lost or forgotten about. This is particularly true of the free version, which only archives a certain number of messages. It’s definitely worth storing useful stuff people have shared in a more permanent space when you spot it.

Google Drive

Google Drive is the space where more long-lived collaboration takes place. It delivers word processing, presentations and spreadsheets along with a filing system – all based in the browser.

The ability to have many people working on the same documents, whether typing in directly or adding comments and suggestions is really powerful and it dramatically reduces the need for emailing things round.

Getting the most out of it does need a bit of planning though, particularly looking at folder structures and so forth. It’s tempting to just chuck everything in a flat structure and let the search do its job, but in reality having some order really helps people find their way around.

Again, as well as being web based, there are mobile apps too, which means that folk can get involved on any reasonably modern device. Handy.

Trello

Trello is a simple web app for making lists and sharing them with people. You create a board, add some lists and then add items to the list. People can then comment on them, add due dates, add additional sub task lists, label them and so forth.

Really it’s a bunch of different features that can be used however the group collaborating decide to use them, which makes it really powerful. Using Trello, we can see at a glance how certain actions are progressing and which need a little nudge to get going again.

And guess what? As well as the web, there are mobile and desktop apps for Trello. Boom.

Thoughts on getting the most out of these tools

  • Sometimes a human API beats a computer’s one – while all the tools above can integrate with one another, sometimes it isn’t always all that helpful to do so. Often, it takes the eye and skill of a human being to link this Trello board to that Google Doc, or post that link in this Slack channel
  • Don’t assume they are instantly easy to use – compared to many fully fledged desktop applications, these things are easy to pick up. That doesn’t mean that it will happen straight away however and it’s worth working with your team to ensure they are confident in using them
  • It’s worth thinking about information security – whilst not letting it get in the way of doing good work. Not every bit of data is appropriate to be stored on these tools, particularly when you are using the free, consumer version of them, and it’s worth thinking about the nature of what you are sharing before you share it.

Photo credit: Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Rethinking performance management

There’s so much I want to blog about at the moment, but pretty much no time to do it. However, here’s a nice little thing we’re working on that might be of interest.

Performance management is one of those things that strikes fear into the heart of any public sector worker. Somehow, we’ve ended up building up processes, generating reports, all without much actual impact and little effect on the outcomes we want to be delivering.

Performance management is a part of the service I deliver, and Mark on my team who delivers this has been spending a ridiculous amount of time chasing colleagues across the organisation to get updates that he can copy and paste into reports, that then get printed for the senior leadership to not read, because they don’t have time.

There must be a better way!

One of the things that I love about the digital agenda is its realism. We deal with the reality of things, not what they would be like in an ideal world. In reality, nobody has time to read long performance reports, and nor do they have time to keep them updated. But it’s still really important to keep an eye on how various things are progressing.

So, what are we doing?

We started by shifting away from a document-centric approach. This is a recurring theme of a lot of my conversations at the moment and probably needs a post of its own to go into. It sounds obvious, but it’s the content of the documents that matter, not the documents themselves, and separating the two can have really transformative impact.

So, instead of a big document, we now have a Trello board. We have four main areas of performance measures to track, so each has a list on the board. Each commitment is a card on the board, and they are colour coded for easy identification: a simple traffic light style rating in terms of how they are progressing, plus a coloured label to identify which bits of the Councils they relate to.

Clicking on a card brings up a bit more detail – a list of the actions outstanding for that commitment, plus, if necessary, a little commentary on the latest that has been happening.

The purpose of this dashboard is to provide senior people (well, anyone really, but you know what I mean) with a quick overview of what is going on. Rather than dumping the detail on people by default, we give a high level perspective, which can then be dug down into greater detail if needed.

That detail is stored in Google Docs. Each commitment has its own Google Doc, with much more detailed implementation plans in them. They are linked to from inside the relevant Trello cards, allowing people to quickly access them.

Using Google Docs also means there is only one copy of these documents, and they don’t need to have someone copying and pasting information into them.

So, to summarise the benefits of this approach:

  1. No more big paper documents
  2. No more chasing of actions to be pasted into documents – it’s now up to individuals to update their Google Docs and Trello boards themselves
  3. More real time updates – no longer tied to a reporting cycle – if people have something to say, they add it when they have it, otherwise they don’t
  4. Much more manageable, in that we don’t have everything in a single document which is a pain to scroll through and find stuff
  5. Cross cutting issues which involve people in different directorates are now managed in a single place with no duplication

It’s also worth saying that this hasn’t cost us any money to do, and will help us to decommission a bit of software previously used for the purpose, which will save a few quid while providing a more useful service.

Importantly for me, it frees Mark up from a load of boring admin and means he can spend more time doing proper in-depth analysis of issues.

When we showed this to the folks at CLT (Council Leadership Team – the chief and four directors) they were delighted to move away from big document, paper based reporting and into something more real time. They now have the Trello board up on a big screen during a meeting, rather than looking down at bits of paper.

What’s also really pleasing is that this is a nice way of showing how simple, cheap digital technology can have quite a significant cultural impact within the organisation. Already many teams are using Trello to manage their work in a more visible, collaborative way.

Importantly though, when I was asked whether Trello was now the official way for people to manage work in the Councils, I answered no. It’s a way of doing it, but there are others out there that might be more appropriate depending on the work to be done. There isn’t a single solution.

We’re now working on the next stage of performance management and business intelligence in the Councils. It’s very early days, but we’re going to be trialling Tableau, which looks really cool. More on that soon.

Using Trello to help run a workshop

trello

I’m a bit ambivalent about Trello as a project management tool – I know others love it, but me, I prefer something that looks a bit more spreadsheety.

If you’ve not heard of Trello – here’s a video that explains it.

Anyway, I did manage to make use of Trello in a pleasing way during a session at Channel Shift Camp, which I facilitated, which was called ‘transformation ticklist’.

The aim was to produce a checklist of things that really ought to happen when redesigning a product or service. With only 45 minutes we weren’t going to all the whole thing done, but we could at least make a start.

My original plan was to use a traditional post-it note and flip chat approach, but being lazy, I didn’t fancy doing the write up afterwards. What else could I use to get the same effect?

I settled on Trello. I created a new project board, cleared it of all lists bar one, and displayed it on a big screen in the room so everyone could see it.

The first thing we did to start building the transformation ticklist was to have people shout out ideas for things that need doing in a transformation project, in no particular order. All these were recorded in a list as individual cards in a list called ‘activities’ in Trello.

Then we identified the stages we’d need to go through that each of the activities could be put into, and these were created as new lists on the board.

The final activity was spent taking activities from our first list and distributing them around the various stages.

You can see the public version of the ticklist. Also email me if you’d like access to it for editing and so on.

What went well

Using Trello for this workshop went pretty well. People liked the idea, possibly because it was a bit new, and it certainly saved time on writing up, messing about with post-its and so on.

What went not so well

The system isn’t as hackable as pen and paper. We wanted activities to take place across the life of our ticklist, rather than being part of a linear process and this was difficult to make clear. Also, the writing on the screen was too small at times for people to be able to read comfortably.

I’ll definitely be trying this again in future, and would love to hear if others give it a go!

 

Trello, neat organising tool

Apologies for the light blogging this week, I’ve been doing a lot of travelling about.

Trello

Still, I came across Trello yesterday, a cool and lightweight planning tool. It allows you to create lists of actions, which can be filled in with all sorts of information, and dragged and dropped into different orders.

Here’s a video explaining it further:

Well worth a play for simple collaboration and project management.