More Effective Meetings with Google G Suite

There are plenty of spirited articles that outline techniques for more effective and efficient meetings. But assuming you’ve done the basics that the theorists recommend, how can modern software tools help you squeeze that little bit of extra time and effort out of your meetings?

In this blog post, I’ll show you some simple tips on how to use Google’s G Suite (a.k.a. Google Docs) to reduce the running time of your meetings, efficiently identify and assign actions, as well as ways for attendees to get more value from the meeting and track what actions were assigned to them (at this and other meetings they attended).

And please don’t be tempted to give up after reading the first 1-2 items, thinking you know this stuff already. Trust me, the rest of them will be worth it.

Google G Suite

Originally named Google Docs, G Suite is the current name of Google’s web-hosted productivity software offering. Along with the usual Email (Gmail) and File Sharing (Drive) services, it also comes with a variety of “office” software products, including (but not limited to) Docs, Sheets and Slides, each of which support a wide range of very neat collaboration features.

There are, of course, similar offerings from other vendors but I’ve not used those as much as G Suite. But enough about thats, let’s get your efficiency up!

1) Sharing

Because Google Docs are stored in the Google Cloud (and not on your local laptop), more than one person can access them at the same time. And in terms of what these people (a.k.a. collaborators) can do, they:

  • Can View – people can see/read the contents of the document but cannot change it.
  • Can Comment – people can see the contents of the document, can make comments on that content but cannot make changes to the document itself. Their changes need to be reviewed (and approved) by the document owner.
  • Can Edit – people can edit the document directly themselves, or make comments on content created by others.

So assuming that you’ve already/recently created a Google Doc to track your meeting(s), and assuming you’ve outlined a very basic agenda therein, the first thing you should do is share that document with the others attendees, giving them Edit access.

That way, they can add their comments/updates ahead of time and give a verbal update during the meeting instead. Not only will this be a more engaging experience for them and others (allowing for a more focused discussion) but it will also save the chairperson the time of having to minute their verbal update, which will keep the meeting moving along. This could also give the chairperson just enough time to record actions relevant to those updates there and then, also saving them time after the meeting.

Once the meeting has concluded and once you’ve made any final adjustments to the notes/actions, you should then share the document to the final, wider audience with Can Comment access. This will automatically alert them that the meeting notes are available for review, but also allow them to ask any follow-up questions they might have but without consuming the time of all the original attendees – just the document owner.

2) Comments

Anyone with Can Edit or Can Comment access to a Google Doc can select sections of text and make a comment about them. These comments are then recorded in the document for others to see (or respond to). The document owner is also alerted (by email or mobile alert) when a comment is made in one of their documents.

It’s also possible to reference another collaborator when making a comment in a document (assuming they have access to the document). This can be done by referencing their email address (with a plus symbol before it) in the comment body. In this case, that collaborator will also receive an alert (as will the owner).

Once a comment thread (or discussion) has concluded (i.e. the question has been answered), the document owner can Resolve the comment, after which it will no longer be visible. It will always be recorded in the document history but only visible to the document owner thereafter.

3) Introducing Action Items

This is where it begins to get really interesting, so thanks for sticking with us until now.

In more recent updates to G Suite, Google enhanced the commenting functionality so that when referencing another collaborator you have the option to Assign the comment as an Action Item to them. The difference between this and an ordinary comment may not be entirely obvious yet, but keep reading and you’ll see the value shortly.

4) Auto-Assignment of Action Items

In order to initiate a regular comment (or Action Item) in a document, you first need to select some text, choose the Insert, Comment menu option, address the intended collaborator and tick the to option to Assign as Task. That’s a lot of typing and clicking, when you’re otherwise trying to listen to meeting attendees give verbal updates and transpose those into appropriate notes and actions (for them or others).

Fortunately, G Suite has a very clever feature that can help (subject to certain conditions). If the document owner (or another collaborator with Edit access) phrases an update to the document in a certain way (e.g. “John to follow up with the Sales team”) and the document has been explicitly shared with someone called John, then G Suite will automatically attempt to assign that piece of text as an Action Item to John (prompting you first of course).

This is not only another excellent time saver but another reason to share the document ahead of time (to the right people). It’s also a strong incentive to be more prescriptive and succinct in your narrative as the meeting chairperson.

5) Revealing and Reviewing Your Action items

So you and your colleagues are a few weeks into your new G Suite regime and you’ve personally chaired a good few meetings and attended several others. And in doing so, you know you’ve amassed a sizeable number of action items but have no idea which documents they’re in or how to find them (since your last browser restart did not preserve your open tabs).

So give this a try instead:

  1. Go to your Google Drive home page.
  2. In the Search box at the top, enter the criteria: followup:actionitems (or click the Search Options, scroll to the bottom and select the Follow up drop-down menu and select the Action items only option).
  3. Voila! You now have a list of all Google Docs where there’s an action on you (including ones not owned by you).

Note that this does not work for ordinary comments – you need to be sure that the original comments were Assigned as Action Items in their respective documents.

You’re Welcome!

A Simple Model for Managing Change Windows

One of the more common things we do in the Cloud Operations team at Red Hat Mobile is facilitate changes to environments hosted on the Red Hat Mobile Application Platform, either on behalf of our customers or for our own internal operational purposes.

These are normally done within what is commonly known as a “Change Window”, which is a predetermined period of time during which specific changes are allowed to be made to a system, in the knowledge that fewer people will be using the system or where some level of service impact (or diminished performance) has been deemed acceptable by the business owner.

We have used a number of different models for managing Change Windows over the years, but one of our favourite approaches (that adapts equally well to both simple and complex changes and that is easy for our customers and internal stakeholders to understand) is this 5-phase model.

Planning

The planning phase is basically about identifying (and documenting) a solid plan that will serve as a rule book for all the other elements in this model (below). In addition to specifying the (technical) steps required to make (and validate) the necessary changes, your plan should also include additional (non-technical) information that you will most likely need to share externally so as to set the appropriate expectations with the affected users. This includes specifying:

  • What changes are you planning to make?
  • When are you proposing to make them?
  • How long will they take to complete?
  • What will the impact (if any) be on the users of the system before, during and after the changes are made?
  • Is there anything your customers/users need to do beforehand or afterwards?
  • Why are you making these changes?

Your planning phase should also include a provision for formally communicating the key elements of your plan (above) with those interested in (or affected by) it.

Commencement

The commencement phase is about executing on the elements of your plan that can be done ahead of time (i.e. in the hours or minutes before the Change Window formally opens) but that do not involve any actual changes.

Examples include:

  1. Capturing the current state of the system (before it is changed) so that you can verify the system has returned to this state afterwards.
  2. Issuing a final communication notice to your users, confirming that the Change Window is still going ahead.
  3. Configuring any monitoring dashboards so that the progress (and impact) of the changes can be analysed in real time once they commence.

The commencement phase can be a very effective way to maximise the time available during the formal Change Window itself, giving you extra time to test your changes or handle any unexpected issues that arise.

Execution

The execution phase is where the planned changes actually take place. Ideally, this will involve iterating through a predefined set of commands (or steps) in accordance with your plan.

One important mantra which has stood us in good stead here over the years is, “stick to the plan”. By this we mean, within reason, try not to get distracted by minor variations in system responses which could consume valuable time, to the point where you run out of time and have to abandon (or roll back) your changes.

It’s also strongly recommended that the input to (and outputs from) all commands/steps are recorded for reference. This data can be invaluable later on if there is a delayed impact on the system and steps need to be retraced.

Validation

Again this phase should be about iterating through a predefined set of verification steps that may include examining various monitoring dashboards, running automated acceptance/regression test tooling, all in accordance with two very basic principles:

  1. Have the changes achieved what they were designed to (i.e. does the new functionality work)?
  2. Have there been any unintended consequences of the changes (i.e. does all the old functionality still work, or have you broken something)?

Again, it’s very important to capture evidence of the outcomes from validation phase, both as evidence to confirm the changes have been completed successfully and that the system has returned to it’s original state.

All Clear

This phase is very closely linked to the validation phase but is slightly more abstract (and usually less technical) in nature. It’s primary purpose is to act as a higher-level checklist of tasks that must to be completed, in order that the final, formal communication to the customer (or users) can be sent, confirming that the work has been completed and verified successfully.

 

Google Apps free account limit being reduced

If you’ve been considering moving your domain to Google Apps, and you are likely to need more than 10 accounts, you might want to consider moving before 10 May 2011 as they are tightening the rules on the maximum number of user accounts you can have on the free account from that date.

Here’s the official announcement I received from Google earlier today:

We recently announced upcoming changes to the maximum number of users for Google Apps. We want to let you know that, as a current customer, the changes will not affect you.

As of May 10, any organization that signs up for a new account will be required to use the paid Google Apps for Business product in order to create more than 10 users. We honor our commitment to all existing customers and will allow you to add more than 10 users to your account for xxxxx.com at no additional charge, based on the limit in place when you joined us.

Still though, a 10 user limit is probably good enough for most personal uses and to be fair, $50 per user per year, it’s still very good value for money.

Samsung Galaxy Tab: First Thoughts

I got the opportunity to borrow a brand new Samsung Galaxy Tab for a day this week. Nice!

The extra screen real estate really make a lot of difference when you’re trying to stay in contact with the office, and I setting up my Google account on it was a complete breeze (as it us on it’s aby brother, the Galaxy S). The absence of the physical buttons across the bottom on the front screen took a little getting used to but the power button on the side began to work better for me as the day wore on. They’ve also put a little more thought into the quick access icons which are easier to use.

Samsung Galaxy Tab

If I had any criticism really, it would be that removing my Google account settings from the device after I was finished with it was not very straightforward. In fact I had to do a complete factory reset of the device to do so, losing all the installed apps and configuration settings in the process. Now I know there are ways to speed us the recovery process here (AppBrain, for example) and that it’s probably not a very common thing to want to do with a portable device (certainly not with a mobile phone).

However, the increased screen size on this tab (and other pads) might tempt some small companies to buy a shared one for ad-hoc travelling employees to share, so perhaps it’s not that unreasonable after all.

In any case, it’s a really great device and did exactly what I needed it to on the day.

Google Street View launched in Ireland

Google have finally launched their Google Maps Street View service in Ireland. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it is the ability to zoom/pan down to ground level on a Google Map. I have used it once or twice but only really for US-based cities. However, it’s a wholly different (and addictive) experience using it to look at my own town, county and country.

The only down-side is that the simply isn’t obvious enough how to jump from a map view to the street view. To do this, you need to navigate to your location on the map view and then click and drag the small, yellow person icon (located above the zoom controls to the left of the map area) to the location on the map that you want to view the street view of.

Enjoy!

Realtime Aircraft Traffic from RadarVirtuel

A work colleagues sent me a link to Radar Virtuel recently and I was fascinated by the very existence of a website that shows flights in the air in real time. Each aeroplane symbol in the frame below is a real flight in the air, right now. Clicking on it allows you to see where it came from, where it is going and which airline it is.

You might need to dismiss the help overlay (blue X button in top right corner) to see the map more clearly. The grey overlay (circa 16 April 2010) shows the Volcanic Ash from the volcano in Iceland, and as was mentioned today, it is so rare to see the entire northern section of England and all of Ireland completely barren of any flights.

The site is more impressive during the day when there are more flights in the air.

Rocky Mills

Rocky Mills hails from Tramore, Co. Waterford in Ireland and has been an Elvis impersonator for over 50 years. One of his many claims to fame is that he has been singing Elvis songs longer than Elvis himself!

Rocky was honoured by his native Tramore in 2010 when he was asked to be the grand marshal of the Tramore St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Rocky Mills, Tramore Grand Marshal 2010

Whilst walking by the starting point of parade on the day in question, I was fortunate enough to overhear the following priceless conversation between a young girl and her father, who was obviously a fan, which went as follows:

Girl: “Look Dad, it’s Elvis”
Dad: “Why, that’s not Elvis …… that’s Rocky Mills!”

You can watch a full documentary made about Rocky Mills in 2006 on YouTube.

Average Car Mileage in Ireland

I have often wondered where people get their figures from when quoting average mileage on cars. Personally, I’ve had a figure of 10,000 miles per year floating around in my head for as long as I can remember, and think I originally got this figure from my father.

However, whilst perusing through the second hand car market recently, the issue of average mileage came up again but this time in relation to Petrol versus Diesel cars. To be honest, I’d never really given much thought to the fact that the average figure might different depending on the fuel type. However, according a Private Motoring Energy Usage report by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland in 2005, there is indeed a difference (of around 50%) between the two:

  • Average annual mileage of all cars: 16,894 kilometres (10,498 miles)
  • Average annual mileage of Petrol cars: 15,969 kilometres (9,923 miles)
  • Average annual mileage of Diesel cars: 23,817 kilometres (14,799 miles)

Whilst the report is now 5 years old, I can’t image the relative figures for 2010 are that different. It also looks like my father was not too far off the mark either!