In today’s connected society we often find ourselves busier than ever at work and in our personal lives.  The internet and smartphones keep us connected 24/7 to friends, family and co-workers, creating new levels of expectations when it comes to sharing information, making plans and staying in touch in real time.   Anthropologically, society was built on our ability to work together, but even in today’s closely connected world the way in which we work together to completing a project is often fraught with complications, frustrations and poor communications.  Collaboration – especially with those daily, casual activities and projects – should be helpful, not complicated, so where does it most often go wrong?

Most often, the smaller, casual collaboration projects are the ones facing the biggest challenges, despite being an integral part of our daily lives.   PTA fundraisers, trip planning, family events or even a simple carpool all require a level of cooperation and organization that doesn’t need to be complicated, but in practical experience can often seem more chaotic and disorganized than the multi-million dollar product launch of a global corporation.   The large global organizations have the advantage in their ability to integrate and afford a dedicated, networked support platform that keeps a group on track.  Having a defined leadership and reporting structure, detailed job descriptions and accountability also play a helpful role in supporting a collaborative effort.   For smaller, casual collaboration opportunities like planning a neighborhood block party, the same needs for successful collaboration exist without the expensive backbone and societal infrastructure to facilitate the efforts.

Learning from the tools and best practices utilized by the big, global organizations, how can one turn a simple collaborative effort into a productive, positive and perhaps even fun endeavor?

It all ties back to the tools we use every day – and then finding ways to make the most of them all at once.  The Internet provides a common, accessible platform in which all participants can find the information they need on a project.  Email and messaging tools offer simple ways in which updates, opinions and ideas can be shared with any sized group, while other online websites and tools provide specific services or tools that can be used for completing key details like sending invitations, researching vendors or sharing photos.   Even the prevalent social networks that help keep up connected to friends, family and interests create new connections that can prove to be invaluable when working on a group activity. However, all of these tools are fragmented and accessed through multiple services, rather than being integrated into a single platform.  So, how do you make the most of all of these tools, and with so many choices available, still keep it simple?

Successful collaboration management is built on a common purpose, involves a variety of functions and requires significant interpersonal interaction.  Here are six starting points to consider before you take on your next collaborative project with friends, social groups and family:

1.       Find a common context. 

Ensure that everyone working together understands the overall objective and context for the project.  Often projects – especially delegating tasks and applying tools to manage those tasks – are organized around common stereotypes.  Instead, take the time at the start to really think about what the project should include and make sure all the collaborators understand the vision.  Creating a common context will ensure you are choosing the right leaders, assigning the critical tasks and using the most effective tools to bring the project to life.

2.       Designate a central online space

The ubiquity of today’s Internet allows for all kinds of information to be shared in real-time.  It also means that information can get scattered quickly into email strings, and individual sites for sharing documents, photos and files.   Find a place online to centralize your activities, allowing the team to have a single source for information-sharing regardless of content and format type.

3.       Remember collaboration is about people – keep it interactive.

While technological sources certainly can certainly help keep a project on track, don’t forget that the best collaboration efforts come from a meeting of minds.  Each person brought into a project brings new ideas and perspectives.  Creating ways to maintain interactivity within the group , both virtual and in-person, will help ensure great thinking, but also help streamline management and touch-base efforts once the project is underway.

4.       Look for unusual connections

Social networks have helped reconnect people online, renewing relationships with long-lost friends, staying in touch with neighbors, colleagues, customers and friends around the world, and finding new people that could offer help or input into the project via these social network connections.   It is easy to always turn to the same source for information – the same travel agent used for years or the same printer for collateral materials.  Take a look at the networks you have and encourage your collaborators to do the same, you might find new resources that will help the project take on a new, fresh approach, idea or solution.

5.       Don’t forget the clock

Time is especially important in collaboration efforts with so many people working on elements of the project all at once.  In developing or researching a central online source for capturing all the key project details, ensure that the project updates can be – and are – managed in real-time, with project update histories easy to see.  This way, the full team can remain updated on all decisions and progress across the project which helps minimize delays and conflicts.

6.       Explore emerging tools designed for casual collaboration projects

There are lots of products and solutions available on the web, designed to support collaborative projects.  Some are more tailored to specific activities, others offer extensive tool-sets designed for large, complex corporate projects.   In casual collaboration activities, look for one that offers an open (but secure), customizable platform that allows the team to evolve with your project context, easily add and create new tool-sets, allow information and the team to collaborate in real-time through a variety of channels, and one that can help find new resources and context through a dynamic social connection.

As our world becomes more and more integrated, with interactive, always-accessible interfaces, collaboration will become more important than ever.   While the opportunities are there, the risk still exists for even the simplest collaborative efforts to become unwieldy and disorganized.   Staying focused on the elements that make each project unique – no matter how big or small – and staying connected through a customizable, centralized source will ensure that a team can make the most technology has to offer in successfully completing their task.