How to Best Use Organizational Tools with a Group

How to decide if you should choose tools to fit how you work, or change how you work to fit the tools.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #177


Any time we use tools to shape the world, the tools shape us in return. I learned to use a screw gun and now I have a scar in the shape of a screw head burned into my index finger. But sometimes, we have a choice about who shapes whom..

How to Best Use Organizational Tools with a Group

A Get-it-Done Guy listener wrote in asking, "We have new productivity software from IT. It doesn't match the way we currently work. Should we change the way we work to match the software, or change the software to match the way we work?"

I usually talk about how we can help ourselves work less and do more. But that's only half the puzzle. Most of us aren't in it alone; we're part of larger organizations, like a Fortune 500 company, a non-profit trade organization, a little league team, or the Mafia.

How to Get Things Done When You’re Part of a Group

When you're part of a group, your ability to get things done also depends on the people around you. If you need things from them to finish your job, your productivity is at their mercy.

Bernice is planning a wedding ceremony! No matter how efficient she is at writing and sending invitations, she simply can't send out invitations until her boyfriend Melvin sends his guest list. Since he still isn't aware that Bernice is thinking of marriage, she's been waiting quite a while.

Bernice, always careful not to give away details that might upset her plans, sends Melvin a brief note. "Please send me the list, pronto!" Melvin, a bit confused, assumes she must want a list of presents he wants for his birthday. He happily sends the list. "Pokeman" figures heavily in his thoughts.

In this case, Melvin is sending a list to Bernice, but it's not the information she needs. Even when people are giving you stuff on time, it has to be the right stuff or you're still stalled.

Tools Change How People Work

When you adopt a new tool, that tool makes assumptions about how its user, your work group, does work. If you don't change the tool, you'll have to change the people.

People may need to change how they work, individually. Bernice adopted Google Docs to plan her wedding. She's used to clicking an icon to open a document. With Google Docs, she must open a web browser and log in to access her documents. She's finally over the hurdle of creating a Google account, and now she's trying to format her wedding documents. It's painful to watch. And just a little bit funny. She's searching for features her desktop word processor had that Google Docs doesn't. The tool's interface and capabilities are changing Bernice's life, and she's not happy about it. Actual little storm clouds are appearing around her head.

Tools Change How People Communicate

The new tool doesn't just change Bernice; it changes how Bernice collaborates with Melvin. Instead of emailing him a document with a cute little graphical cover letter full of hearts and cherubs, she now shares documents by clicking a Share link. Google decides how to send the sharing invitation. Now, Melvin must open a Google account and figure out how to receive a sharing invitation. He's an IT geek, so it's easy for him.

If a new tool makes information hard to find, people won’t make the effort.

Bernice is also sharing the document with Kieran, her wedding planner. Kieran is not an IT geek. Asking him to open a Google document is like teaching me to knit. Knitting needles are sharp. You can get tangled in yarn. Yarn can cut off circulation. Luckily, my friend Susie is an EMT. If your tool changes how people communicate, the new way of communicating must work for everyone.

Google Docs didn't just change how data got passed, but it also changed what data got passed. Bernice used to send all kinds of files, but now she limits herself to word processing documents and spreadsheets. And her former cover letters, which told the recipient why she was sending the file, are now auto-generated by Google. Now, unless she thinks to send a separate email message, she has to limit her cover letters to the brief space allowed by Google.

This seems minor, but it can be a major issue. When information is easy to use, people can use it. If a new tool makes it hard—someone must now navigate through four screens to get the info—people are much less likely to make the effort.

How to Decide When to Adopt a Tool

Now we know that tools change how people do their own work, how they communicate with each other, and what they communicate.

When adopting a tool, you can change the tool to fit the people. That means making sure the tool matches with people's working style, helps them communicate everything they currently communicate, and doesn't pose an undue burden in how they communicate.

You can also change the people to fit the tool. This means reprogramming the people. The more they have to change what they do, how they communicate, and what they communicate, the less likely it is that they'll be successful. Let's be blunt: all of us love change, as long as everyone else is changing to make our lives easier, and we get to stay the same.

To decide whether to use your new tool, list the changes people will have to make for the tool to be successful. That's how hard it will be to make the tool successful with your current people systems.

Now your decision is simple. If the effort to reprogram the tool is less than the effort to reprogram the people, change the tool. Otherwise, change the people.

Bernice has realized that while Melvin can make the change to Google Docs, Kieran can't. Planning a wedding without letting the groom know he's about to get married is tricky business. She doesn't need to extra burden of trying to change Kieran. After all, she's about to have her hands full, trying to change Melvin. I hope your tool works out more successfully.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Business Group mage courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.