How to use Google Docs to Collaborate on Creative Processes

Today I successfully reinvented the wheel. I was thinking about how to create a process on how to create more ownership for an idea. What I thought of was a tool in which team members collaborative on a task by using an interface in which each team members can add thoughts, edit and delete things. So what I came up with was… Google Docs. Hurray!

So I thought that since I haven’t exactly come up with something new, at least I can have a closer look at how to use a tool like Google docs to collaborate effectively in a team. Most articles that already exist focus on the technical part of how to use Google docs to collaborate on creative processes. That’s not what I want to focus on here. I want to talk about the process of how to make the most of it.

But before we do this, I want to have a quick talk about group creativity as a whole. Many researchers and experts have argued that brainstorming doesn’t work. This article  for instance argues that brainstorming does not work, because of the so called ‘social loafing’ factor, which essentially means that highly productive individuals may unconsciously not participate to their fullest potential, because they feel that others in the group will get the work done. Another factor is that once an idea has come up within the group, it is difficult to get the group’s focus away from that idea. There may always be the urge to judge that idea, and even if one thinks of a ‘new’ idea, then this idea is likely to be somewhat related to the original idea.

As someone who is an advocate for diversity and as someone who believes that bringing different perspectives together leads to much more innovative outcomes, I do have to take this criticism seriously. A lot of experts in the field argue that when individuals work seperately, they come up with much more unique  ideas than if they group together. What this process lacks, though, is to synergize the different areas of expertise. Innovation is often thought of as bringing two seperate ideas from different fields together in order to create something new. And that’s why we have to combine individual creativity with group creativity if we want to be truly innovative.

The idea for large projects which require a high degree of innavoative thinking is then to have meetings in which the process is organized, followed by a period of individual work during which the focus is on idea genereation, then followed by another meeting to clarify understanding, and so on. It continue until the team comes to a point where, during a meeting, it is able to synthesise the information in such a way and improve on the ideas to a degree that they are able to make a mutually satisfying decision for which each individual member feels ownership. But let’s look at each step individually.


Step one: The first group meeting is the time to set the direction for the process

If you just let individuals go ahead an do the work on their own, they are unlikely to be focused enough in their effort to come up with relevant ideas. That’s why in the first meeting, you set the genereal direction of what it is you are trying to achieve. In order to do so, think about the following points:

1. Goals: what is it that you are really trying to achieve?

2. Team roles: what role does each individual play in the collaborative effort?

3. Task: what are the tasks of each individual in this project?

4. Collect and share information: share with each other what information already exists and bring each individual up to date

Step two: Now it is time to let each individual do the creative work

The focus here should be on idea generation, not criticism. A good suggestion at this point is to train each team member in the creative techniques developed by Edward DeBono. Create a section for each employee to make his or her suggestions in Google Docs, and a seperate section in which ideas can be developed and improved on. Encourage team members to use the comment section in order to share thoughts and to provide suggestions for advancing the ideas of others. Make it clear to everyone that at this point the focus is not on ciriticism for ideas, or judgement. There will be enough time later to identify the problems of certain ideas, and to discuss them.

Step three: Use the following meetings to clarify the understanding of each individual

The main focus at this stage should be on synthesising information. Here the real power of the group with their different perspectives and areas of expertise should come into play. Ideas that have been generated by individuals with their own unique perspectives, can then be taken further and developed in a way that a single individual would never be capable of.

Since we give everybody much freedom to do the majority of the work on their own, we need to use the meetings to ensure that everybody is on track. Clarify each individual’s understanding of the process as a whole and his or her role in the task. Give everybody the chance to share their feelings about how the progress is going, and what their concerns are. Establish a process through which ideas can be assessed, and potential problems and mistakes can be pointed out. Here the improtance of the section in which ideas can be developed an improved on comes in. Ideas that are established and worked on as a group, are owned by the group as a whole. So if you are ponting out potential problems, or criticise the ideas, you are not criticizing an individual. That way you can create an environment in which feedback is appreciated, without making people from collective cultures feel like they are ‘losing face’.

Step four: More Idea Genereration

If no decision has been made during the meeting, it is now time to seperate again and let each individual come up with new ideas, or develop already existing ideas. Remember, I am not suggesting exactly three meetings. What I am talking about is to have a constant switiching between periods of individual work in which ideas are generated, and periods of group work in which ideas are being synthesized.

Step five: The last meeting should be used to synthesise the information and come up with a decision

The process of this last meeting is essentially the same like the process of step three. Once you have gone through the process of continously synthesising information, identifying problems and mistakes, and finding potential solutions to the problems, you will come to a point where you realize that the idea you have generated is workable, and mutually agreeable to all members. At this point the time has come to summarize the progress, to make a final decision, and to set an agenda for the implementation of the idea. Congratulations, you have now developed a creative, and workable idea!


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