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Setting up a collaborative workspace


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In this guide, we'll show you how to create the basic structures and rules for successful collaboration in Workflowy. Whether you're by yourself and occasionally inviting collaborators, or part of a large group that's working together on a daily basis - following this guide will ensure you have the knowledge and tools to succeed.

Successful collaboration in Workflowy depends largely on how well you structure your workspace and what processes you put in place before you invite collaborators. Even if they already use Workflowy, it's a good idea to establish some basic areas and rules before inviting them to the workspace.

There are 4 basic steps to get ready for collaboration.

  1. Decide what you want to do in Workflowy
  2. Figure out what processes and information that involves
  3. Create structures and rules for your workspace
  4. Review and tweak your space.

Let's go through them step-by-step.

1. Decide what you want to do in Workflowy

It's important to decide what you're going to use Workflowy for. Whether that's running your company's core functions, managing an internal wiki, working with clients, or organizing your household's chores. In other words, decide what you're going to put inside Workflowy and what you're not going to put inside - at least for now.

This first step helps us narrow down what we need to do in the next steps. Another way to think about it is to ask yourself, what is your goal with Workflowy, what do you want to achieve.

Let's make this more concrete by working with an example as we go through the steps. Let's say you want to open up a fancy bakery. Your goal could be to use Workflowy to handle client orders.

2. Figure out what processes and information that involves

Alright, now that we have a goal for our collaboration, let's think about what processes and pieces of information we'll need to achieve that. Let's start with the processes or the moving parts and then move onto the information or the more static parts.

There are two main approaches you could take here depending on how familiar you are with all the parts that lead to your goal. A top-down approach or a bottom-up approach.

Top-down approach

A top-down approach assumes you're familiar with the main areas or functions that contribute to your goal. You basically work your way down, starting with the main areas or functions and then adding the sub-areas and functions. In other words, if you already know how to do what you're trying to do in Workflowy, this is a good approach to take.

If you're already collaborating with other people outside of Workflowy to achieve the same goal, then it's likely you already have the knowledge to use the top-down approach.

Bottom-up approach

A bottom-up approach is used when you're unfamiliar with the necessary steps or functions that contribute to your goal. In this approach you would list all the steps or functions you think you'll need and then think about how they interact with each other to create areas.

For example, if you're a freelancer that wants to collaborate with clients but it's your first time freelancing - you might not be completely familiar with all the necessary steps or the information you'll need to manage that. In that  case a bottom-up approach might be better. You would start by listing out all the functions and pieces of information you think you'll need and then think about how they interact with each other to see what's missing and finally - how to group them into areas.

By areas I'm simply referring to a collection of functions and information that together represent a reasonable chunk of your collaboration. For example, in a small company the areas might be production, sales, marketing, customer support. Each of those areas is made up of multiple activities and pieces of information that together represent a chunk of activity.

In our bakery example, let's use a top-down approach. We'll start by creating a main bullet that will hold our collaborative workspace.

3. Create structures and rules for your workspace

Now, we'll add the main areas we'll need to accomplish our goal nested under our main bullet. Let's keep it simple and say the process has four key steps.

  1. The client places an order for something delicious.
  2. That order is then processed and baked.
  3. The decoration specialist (we're a fancy bakery after all) turns the baked good into a work of art.
  4. The client is informed that they can pick up their order.

So let's add that under our main bullet as distinct areas. These are the the areas that will hold the key moving parts of our workspace - it's where most of the daily action will happen.

Next, let's drill down and actually add those steps or functions that make up each area. Under Orders let's add the two main functions of that area - recording orders and letting customers know their order is ready.

Under Bakery, we'll create a simple three-step procedure that can apply to just about anything (Todo, Doing, Done). Orders can exist in one of three states. They can be in Todo waiting for a baker, in Doing when a baker is actively working on the order, and Done when an order has finished baking and is ready for decoration.

Under Decoration, we'll do something slightly different from what we did for Bakery. Since decorating is the second to last step, instead of having a Done item when the decoration is done, a finished order will  go back into the Orders area under Ready. There's a bit of nuance here that we'll cover more in depth in other guides but the key takeaway is that when one area passes an item to another one, you have to decide which area is responsible for that handoff.

There are two main ways the handoff can happen. You can either have a push or pull system.

Push system

A push system is when an item is moved by the person responsible for the area it's currently in, to the next area. In other words, the person is pushing it on to the next area once they're done with it or they've done what they needed to do with it.

Pull system

A pull system is when an item that is pulled into its next area by the person responsible for the new area. In this case, it's the person in the next area's responsibility to check for new items and pull them into their area.

In our example, we'll go with a push system because we want the person responsible for taking and delivering orders to only have to focus on these two things and not worry about checking in with the decorator if something's done or not. When the decorator has finished with their job, they'll move the order to the Ready section under Orders.

And finally, the person responsible for taking the orders will contact the customer that their order is ready for pickup. That covers the main moving parts of our collaborative process. Now let's take a look at what additional information we should add to our structure.

Adding information

Now, let's consider what pieces of information we should have as part of our process. After an order has been placed or delivered, it makes sense for us to keep a record of the client along with any special requests or requirements that we can then reference in the future to provide a better service. So let's add a Clients item under Orders for this purpose. It also makes sense to add a Recipes section under Bakery and Decoration as quick references for the bakers and the decoration specialist.

The decision to have multiple Recipes items that could be a single one under a section like References that is shared by all areas is a subtle but significant one. Whether you choose to have duplicates of similar types of information (recipes in this case) or not, depends on how much collaboration there will be between two or more areas.

Think of it this way, since Workflowy has essentially no fixed structure or preset systems, it all depends on the person or people that regularly use an area to shape the structure and define the processes of a given area. In the absence of a strict way of doing things, each area will tend to develop their space based on their needs and preferences.

The more people use and depend on a given section across different areas, the more likely it is that there will be a convergence on a set way of doing things and the less likely it is that change drastically.

In our case, since the bakers and the decorator don't really collaborate beyond handing off the baked good once their job is done, we don't really care how they prefer to organize and store their recipes.  Whichever way makes the most sense for them and is most useful, is what they should do.

4. Review and tweak your space

The last step is to take a look at the structures we've created and think about how they interact. There are a couple of questions we can ask ourselves to check that what we've come up with makes sense and will serve as a reasonable starting point.

  • Does the structure we've created serve to achieve the goal we set out to accomplish in step 1?
  • Are there any parts of our process that we didn't include but would benefit from being done in Workflowy?
  • Is there a clear separation between processes and information?

One change we should make to our structure to separate the processes from the information is to nest the steps in the processes under their own bullet instead of having them at the same level as the information bullets. I've simply named them all Process but feel free to get more descriptive.

And there we have it, a simple but well thought out structure and processes for our fancy bakery. Now we can invite our collaborators and onboard them with the confidence that we've though through the different parts that make up our collaborative space, the processes that should be followed and how those two parts work together to help us reach our goal.

We hope our example has been useful in both walking you through the steps of setting up your own collaborative space and in describing the ideas behind those steps. The most important thing is not that you now know how to organize a fancy bakery in Workflowy, but that you understand the general ideas behind how any type of collaboration can be thought about and structured.

Remember that one of the strengths of Workflowy is that you can decide to change the structure at any time as your needs or preferences evolve. Our goal with setting up this collaborative space is to create a starting point that is simple to explain, understand, and use. As you and your collaborators start to use it, you'll make changes and improvements as you get comfortable using your system.

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