Successful collaboration

Jim McCullen — №15 with Mårten Mickos

Successful collaboration requires a number of skills and systems to help guide and control the efforts of the team. I use the Control Your Day (CYD) system to ensure that I deliver on my commitments to the people I work with, and I am relying on them to do the same. CYD uses Microsoft Outlook, along with proven GTD concepts, to help stay in control of a busy day. The concepts could be applied to other email systems and still provide the same end result – a system you can count on to manage and control your workload.

Core Components of CYD

  1. Use your email inbox as your collection point.
  2. Organize messages with categories instead of physical folders.
  3. View inbound and outbound messages that require your attention in one virtual search folder.
  4. Assign “next actions” to messages if you can’t action them immediately.
  5. Group “next actions” into contexts to make better use of your time.

Why is this important to collaboration? If you can’t stay organized and on top of your work load, then you will probably be challenged if you are working with a team to accomplish common goals.

Inbox as collection point

I am sure you already receive a fair amount of your work directly through your email system; however, there are many other sources of work besides email. In CYD, I suggest that you email yourself tasks and assignments so that you can view everything you have to do in one system, one view. You can send these messages from the web, your smartphone, or your tablet. You can even call in tasks using some of the web based tools that convert speech into text.

Use categories instead of folders

If you are using Microsoft Outlook or another similar email system, you may also use folders to store messages related to a specific subject, customer, project, or other criteria. While this does provide a simple way to group like-messages together, it also creates additional work. You have to make decisions on how you will set up your folder structure. Then, you have to maintain the structure, file the messages, and continually make adjustments. What happens when a message could apply to two different folders? You are forced to pick one. Here are some of the benefits of categories:

  1. Multiple categories can be assigned to the same message.
  2. Messages can be stored in one folder and then grouped by category.
  3. You can easily change category names and assignments for one or many messages.
  4. End of year clean-up/archiving is much easier.

Use one virtual search folder to view your received and sent messages

Control Your Day uses a virtual search folder, called a CYD folder, that shows you all messages from your inbox or Sent folder that require follow-up. The folder is sorted by due date so that the messages with the oldest due date appear at the top and items you have pushed forward to the future appear at the bottom. Think about your inbox today, as new messages are received; older messages are pushed down the window and out of your view. If you do not stay on top of the messages, you can quickly lose control. At the same time, you are sending messages out that you may want to check up on in the future. These messages also appear in your CYD folder in due date order.

Next actions and contexts

David Allen talks extensively about “next actions” and “contexts” in his book Getting Things Done. If you don’t have time to action a message, you should at least take a moment to assign the next action. This way, when you come back to the message, you won’t have to read it again to determine what you need to do next. This also works for messages you send to others. How often have you sent a message to someone else and when their response comes back, you have forgotten what you were trying to accomplish? Control Your Day uses the Contacts field in Microsoft Outlook (available on every email message) to allow you to store your “next action” and assign a context to that action.

A “context” is just a way of grouping together messages or tasks to allow you to focus on the right work at the right time. You can set up a virtual search folder to collect your next actions for a specific context. An example would be calls you need to make. You could enter the next action as “@Call John about the meeting next week” into the Contacts field and set the follow-up flag for this week. You would see this message in your CYD folder and in your @Calls folder (the virtual folder showing all messages with @Call included in the text). You can then block off a period of time in your day to make all of your follow-up calls. Here are a few more examples of context folders you might want to setup (@Agenda, @Web, @Work, @Home, etc.).

Control Your Day is a workflow system designed to operate within Microsoft Outlook. If you are using another email client, you could still apply the basic concepts above to strengthen your workflow systems and to improve the value of collaboration.

Photo: Flickr / Wellington College CC BY-NC 2.0

Jim mccullen

Jim McCullen

Jim McCullen is the creator and author of the Control Your Day workflow system and book.

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