Sometimes we collaborate to produce documents to share with others. It could be a PDF with a description for an upcoming workshop, a set of wireframes that describe a website, or a presentation deck meant to persuade somebody to buy something from you. With collaborative software such as the Google Apps suite, a team can work together towards creating these artifacts. This can speed up their production tremendously. However, there’s another reason to work collaboratively on documents such as these; one that has little to do with communicating intent to others. Sometimes, these shared documents can be the place where the work happens .

For example, you may be part of a team tasked with selling a service. So you start a spreadsheet to track active and past leads. An effective way for the team to stay up to speed on the work is to meet periodically (e.g., once a week) to review and update this spreadsheet. Having the information readily available (and editable) enables the team to make decisions faster. The spreadsheet becomes the locus around which the group convenes to make decisions about sales.

If you have a large display or a projector, the team can share the document there and convene around the information that is critical for their work. And even if a team member is remote, he or she can easily participate in the conversation by following along with the shared document. While the team may be meeting in a physical room, it’s the shared document where the thinking is happening. The document functions like a meeting room that also doubles as shared memory; next week when the group convenes again, they can immediately pick up where they left off merely by joining each other around this shared document.

The structure of these shared documents impacts the effectiveness of the work. A spreadsheet lends itself better to tracking sales conversations than a text document. The spreadsheet allows the team to quickly explore scenarios by filtering and sorting information in ways that plain text can’t match. The team could track sales leads by looking at a text document, but the conversation wouldn’t be as effective; they’d have to start imagining implications of decisions rather than seeing them play out.

Since they are so flexible, spreadsheets are particularly useful for this sort of shared thinking. That said, teams must be wary of not over-structuring their files. I’ve seen teams give in to the temptation of adding more information to these documents than is necessary. For example, if you’re tracking sales leads, you may be tempted to add the name of the primary contact for each lead into the spreadsheet. That could be useful, since it may nudge somebody in the team who knows the person to speak up. But it would also add complexity, which adds friction to the process. If it’s a small team, this could be something they discuss verbally (e.g., “Do you know Tom Harris at Acme Corp.?”) rather than something that should be captured in the spreadsheet.

Even though spreadsheets are very useful, they’re not always the best choice. Because the document will be so central to the work, you want to be intentional about choosing the format that best fits the team’s needs. For example, if you’re tracking dependencies between tasks, a project management tool may be a better alternative than a spreadsheet. Even though its interface to the information may look like that of a spreadsheet, the underlying structure of a project management application is a bit more strict. Introducing the constraint of dependencies can help the team make better decisions by seeing their impact play out on delivery dates.

Whatever the case, it’s important to acknowledge that we collaborate on documents not just for the sake of creating documents, but because​ sometimes documents​ function as places where work happens. Some document formats are more applicable to some types of activities than others; knowing which work best for what helps the team get rolling faster. Keeping documents lightweight and organized can help your team work more effectively, leading to better decisions. (It’s helpful to ask somebody to be the steward of each document; this person is responsible for keeping the document on target, maintaining its structure and ensuring its content is fresh and relevant.)