Get out of the inbox and spreadsheet box


I’ve been consulting with clients to optimize how they “track” their work beyond spreadsheets, to increase efficiency. After work I helped my boys build their trains and I couldn’t help but notice a few similarities:

Select the right pieces to make progress.

Trains are made with straights and curves and the boys pick what they want. Similarly workplaces and initiatives choose what they will use to organize and collect information from their dispersed teams (whether tracking contact details, projects milestones, progress updates, and other essential pieces of data).

Most organizations use massive spreadsheets to track their work for obvious reason. However, can you relate to the challenges of a spreadsheet becoming overgrown, getting wider and wider as your team tries to document over time what happens. And, there’s no way to attach emails, files or tasks that remind people to follow-up. Might there be another “piece” (of software that is) to help you through these obstacles? Many clients select an internal forms in a shared workspace system because adding updates is easier, new information alerts the right people and reminders ensure follow-up. Of course they still need the button to generate a dynamic spreadsheet for reporting purposes, but not the day to day tracking. And, just as the train will circle back to the start of the track, work groups with a system keep searchable, historical records of what happened. Don’t be derailed by the confines of a spreadsheet “box”.

Communicate to ensure everyone knows where they are going.

As my sons operate in parallel, laying down their selected pieces, it’s not long before the choices they made in silo create conflict on the best path forward. The same is true with any initiative — It’s not efficient to copy every person on every email but if email is the only source of truth, critical decision-making assets have to be constantly emailed.

Having all assets in one place, rather than scattered about, can save countless hours of searching.  A client boasted in our last meeting that changing how they track and communicate significantly increased their accuracy to get things right the first time, and transparency with select team members was the key to avoiding costly mistakes. Seeing the high level activity in a system (something you can’t do in an email inbox) can reveal bottlenecks and opportunities. While email may be the delivery method of choice, the centralized home for the information should not be the email “box.”

Grow quickly: the need for speed.

My kids lay down their track quickly, as the part they like best is driving the trains. Work teams also desire efficiency. One reason a number of clients were previously deterred from making adjustments in their processes was the seemingly unproductive time it takes to create a new track, or time for “on-boarding.” One of our clients said, “The system I was looking to implement was like building an ice skating rink that would take months to build before we could use it…thank you for providing one that we could skate on while we build and grow.”

A manager should avoid throwing a team off-track when adjusting their  “workflow.” If you go, for example, from simply using email to a hard-core CRM, you will likely hit a user-adoption wall. Or, if your team doesn’t see “what’s in it for me” you may face a long, uphill implementation battle. A custom software construction project can be a financial risk, so instead consider a scalable option that allows you to get the team onboard quickly, along with the flexibility to adjust the system on the fly. A more simple solution that actually gets used is a better investment than a large-scale custom build that turns into a nightmare Pandora’s “box.”

Getting outside the box

Finally, unlike what’s found "inside the box” of trains, I suggest thinking "outside the box” (as in outside the email inbox and spreadsheet box) when selecting how your internal workplace or external initiative is tracking and communicating. Our company helps managers at the core stay connected with their dispersed teams. Whether a start-up or a focused team at Fortune 100 corporation, government agency, or NGO, the work is far more fun and stress-free when you stay on track.

— Seth