It is a cliché, but some of the most important discoveries have been by accident. I stumbled upon Google Docs when working with 2 colleagues on a report – we were in 3 different cities and had a tight deadline, and MS-Word was not working for us (even with the file stored on a WebDAV shared disk).  We were dependent upon each other’s work, and the locking was killing us.

Someone mentioned Google Docs, and in a moment of desperation we uploaded the report as a Google document and started working.  It was incredible!  We could work on the report simultaneously and even see what each other was doing… if we had questions we just used the built-in chat.  We finished the report in half the time we expected to take.

Based on this experience, I decided to use Google Docs on my most recent project, which involved 12 people working together across 4 different remote sites.  It was a resounding success, and I will focus on one example.

In the Agile approach I take to developing software, we drive the order in which we build the system by tackling the most valuable (and most challenging) features first.  This means that we spend quite a bit of time eliciting, agreeing on, and then documenting risks – sessions I usually dreaded because one person usually had to “drive” while the team agreed on the wording of the risks.  Always took too long and it quickly became boring for many people, who typically disengaged, became distracted and no longer participating in any meaningful way.  Worse so when they are not sitting around the same table as everyone else.

Not so with the Google spreadsheet we created.  We could collectively agree on the wording, and then one person would volunteer to write it while we moved onto the next risk.  It did not take much time at all, and we got through 70 risks … from that moment I was sold.  Everyone participated actively – no more one person driving.

The screenshot shows a redacted version of the spreadsheet.  On the right is the revision history, and you can see that between saves Google tracked who changed what (and highlighted in colour what the change was).  There were times when 12 people made changes simultaneously, each tracked independently of the other changes.

I would recommend Google Docs to anyone collaborating with a team of any size, whether you are co-located or distributed. Everyone needs an internet connection, but that is the only restriction.  Downloading Google’s Chrome browser is beneficial, but is not necessary (having said that, Google Docs performance in MS-Internet Explorer is so bad as to be unusable).

To find it, just Google “docs”.

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