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Reviving a moribund project with Doodle

Doodle: Scheduling meetings

Maybe this is the GTD-er in me, but I have to admit a frustration with projects that peter off because there's no one person near the helm who's dedicated to defining and managing the group's actions. It's a Project Manager role, and if a group doesn't choose and empower one person to take care of it, stuff simply won't get done. Whether it's deciding on a good night for dinner with friends or organizing the next board meeting, we all need a little help turning generic good ideas into real-world coordinates for action.

So, lately, I've found myself informally assuming this role, driving a surprising number of gone-fallow projects just by using Doodle to propose a simple check-in. The bottom line is that this process of getting a stupid 15-minute call on the calendar of several busy people will tell you so more than you can imagine about where you and your project stand. But where's Doodle enter in to it?

As I've mentioned before, Michael Näf's web application is an extremely simple tool for fixing a seemingly simple problem: at what common time and date are multiple people available for a call or meeting? It accomplishes this by emailing participants and asking them to visit a web page where they can choose all their available times from any number of suggestions that the host has laid out. The results are tallied, the winning time emerges, and you're ready to block the time on everyone's calendars. Bob's your uncle.

On the face of it, this task seems so idiotically simple that you could be forgiven for wondering why it requires a web tool to help accomplish it. You just send an email to 10 people asking their availability for a notional meeting at some point in the future, and they each respond with timely, thoughtful, and generous options for their time, right? Mmmm hmm. Sure.

Thing is -- as anyone who has ever undertaken this seemingly modest job can tell you -- scheduling a meeting can be fractally complex as you play whack-a-mole with participants' multi-time-zone schedules.

First, even if a group of people all theoretically agree that a call or meeting is a good idea, it's typical for all the various players to just mill around for days or weeks, tending to their lives and giving each other the thumbs up, until one member -- usually the poor schmo who actually needs that call or meeting to happen -- gets stuck with having to wrangle the scheduling. So, off goes the schmo to play half-time email secretary for a week. But, Doodle, above all else, can be a proactive way to put a stake in the ground. You propose a handful of different times when you are available, then ask people to identify which of those will work for them.

Do you get what's happening there? You're no longer talking about whether a meeting is a good idea or whether it should happen at some point: you're putting specific dates and times in front of people, which renders all the ontological debates foregone. People just need to pick from a list or propose more times. In any case, you've put something out there.

Of course, as is often the case, you will still find slow responders or people with zero availability (or, let's be honest, zero interest), so you sometimes have to start over, working with the members of your group who are really there to play ball.

Either way, you are the one getting things in motion rather than gamely waiting for some hero to arrive and start your orange for you.1 Only now, you can start making decisions with a better indication of whose attention you can count on to move your atrophied little project to completion.

Another thing I like is that Doodle is not a person. It just collects information and makes a logical decision. It's a web page, so it has no agenda to discern or tone to misinterpret. It doesn't have to pick through two dozen emails and cope with badly worded updates. Plus it never calls in sick or gets frustrated with people. Your task can be accomplished with a person, but why bother? This is why we have computers, yo.

Doodle is just a little robot who's happy to work hard, stay up late, and, when necessary, take the heat for you. It not only gets the ball back in motion: it quickly gives you the feedback (or telling lack of feedback) needed to make smart decisions about who you can count on to help get things done.

Not bad for a Swiss robot with a funny name.

1. Metaphor credit to Janeane Garofolo, author of the statement, "I have a very 'Can you start my orange?' outlook on life." (People asked)

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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