Getting the most ouf of Trello project management

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Let's face it, no project management tool will magically solve all your team's organizational problems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and logically no tool will do the work for you. A project management tool however can, if employed the right way, cut through your inner chaos, help streamline processes and provide urgently needed overview of workloads and tasks distribution. At LingoHub, we have worked with Trello for quite some time. As I am also using it in some other contexts, I want to provide my insights into how to get the most out of Trello for your team, be it a larger software company, small developer team or startup.

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Introduction to Trello

Trello is a project management or task management tool that works with cards and columns. Much like a kanban view in other tools, this organizational principle provides a visual representation of tasks. The columns can be freely defined, and the cards can be moved around or re-ordered. One or several team members can be assigned to a card, which can be a simple or more complex task. For the latter, a card can contain one or several checklists for milestones or To Dos to be performed before the task is completed. Cards can be given color coding, you can add comments, mention team members or add attachments. It is a very flexible organizational tool if employed rigorously, which the following tips should help with.

Five ways to get the most out of Trello

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1. Spend more time setting it up than fixing it

You cannot outsource thinking to a project management tool, so carefully consider what kind of workflows you have in your team, how many team members will be using Trello, and which kinds of project areas you have that need to be reflected virtually in one or several Trello boards. If you do not clarify this in the beginning, Trello will not help you manage your team, your team will be occupied with managing itself in Trello.

Here are some thoughts to help you set it up: Which kinds of columns help you organize your work? Does each team member need one (say, "Joe's tasks", "Jill's tasks" and "Tasks to be discussed"), or would you rather use a column for a specific step in the process (such as "unassigned", "in the pipeline", "in progress" and "done")? Maybe giving different aspects of your product their own columns makes more sense. There is no general approach that fits all teams, you need to be aware of this. The tool should help you get your work done better and get organized, don't try to use Trello to force completely new company culture onto your team. Acceptance is the key to any tool, remember that.

Practical aspects: Don't set up too many columns, otherwise you will horizontally scroll without end and the idea of overview is lost immediately. Also, don't overload columns. There must be something wrong with your set up if you columns scroll several screens down. Please read the rest of these tips before you finalize your setup, as especially number 3. helps figure this out a lot more. The new search will help access things faster, but one major advantage of kanban view is to see things immediately.

Pro tip: Agree on colors to signal things, like certain product aspects or company areas. Managing a huge enterprise? Use various boards, say one for marketing, one for office administration, one for legal, and so on.

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2. One man, one card

This is the thing most people will always violate, but it is such an important thing to consider. A task cannot have several people assigned to it, yet if you absolutely thing no one person is going to carry this out, at least make it clear who bears responsibility. Who reports? Adding several people to a card will make sense in the following scenario: the card contains one or several checklists, and some items rely on others, so they are included in the card for information. Make sure to remove people from cards once they are no longer an essential step in the process.

For the same reason explained below, it makes no sense to include several people in cards, as this defeats the purpose of the kanban view: if you can no longer tell from looking at your Trello board who is doing what and who is doing more than other people, then let it be.

Here is a simple example: A card is called "Implement special offer graphic on landing page", it will include a 2-item check list: one is "Jeff: Provide Portuguese ALT texts for Dave" and "Dave: Implement graphics and ALT texts for English and Portuguese, do a frontend test". This card can have Jeff and Dave assigned, but once Jeff sent the Portuguese HTML ALT texts to Dave, or posted them in the card, Jeff is free to go, and will remove himself from the card. Jeff might have even mentioned Dave in a comment within the card and let him know that he's done with his part of the task, Dave can take over, implement the whole thing and the job is done.

3. Focus and granularity

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As I said in the first point, you need to think hard about how to set up your Trello board, and one key part of that is to make sure what you put into your cards. The biggest danger is to have cards that are not actual tasks, and so they will never ever be moved or be ready to be worked on.

A card should define a clear, well-defined, granular task or limited number of connected milestones. The control question is: Can someone cross this off their list without further discussion, in the defined amount of time?

An example: A card titled "Release new landing page" is wrong. No one person will probably release a new landing page, as several people are involved. This is not a task, it is a larger project, or a whole bundle of tasks for a product release. A helpful Trello card would be "Delivery: Graphics for new LP" and it is assigned to the graphics or UI person. It could contain a small checklist, one of the items would be "talk to frontend lead about requirements" and that item on the checklist can be crossed off once it is clear which graphics are needed. Another item could be "present drafts for feedback", and once all final graphics are delivered to whoever implements them. That card is DONE, and will be moved or archived. Crossed off, ready to roll. A mis-defined "Release new landing page" card will sit in this Trello board forever, have multiple people assigned to and will serve no other purpose other than to know that this is going on, whereas a more clearly defined one sit along a number of other Trello cards for other team members and one glance at the board will give the team leader the information about what the progress is.

Depending on the complexity of your projects, you can get more or less granular in your Trello card definitions. Wherever you can, avoid checklists within cards, as that will lead to a slippery slope into overloaded cards that again hold onto their columns for dear life and you can never get stuff done. The best part of work motivation is to be able to cross things off your list, so make things cross-off-able (this word does not even exist).

Someone has to buy the beers for Friday afternoon's team chill-out on the balcony, so create a card that says "Buy some beers and put them in the fridge", set the milestone to Friday 11am and assign it to - maybe your intern. Intern buys the beer, puts them into the fridge and moves the card to done. As simple as this sounds, this serves a main purpose of project and task management: The board(s) should reflect real life work load. The more things you combine into single cards, the harder it will be to get a clear idea about what tasks are currently keeping your team busy.

4. Make cards obvious and self-explanatory

I am probably already repeating myself, but we have run into this aspect a number of times. Make sure the titles of your cards are succinct and self-explanatory. Others need to know what a task is about without having to open it and read the description. And if they do know, and open the card, make sure there is a description there that clearly states what has to be done. Do not write a novel, just a short sentence that precisely says what this task is.

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Good example: Set up wifi in the office (title), and the task description reads "Set up the wifi router (UPS package in kitchen) in the main room, set up WPA2 encryption, post passphrase to intranet."

Bad example: Wifi (title), and task description reads "There is no wifi in the main room."

Your controlling question here should be: Will any team member know what this is about without having to ask me? If the answer is yes, then good.

5. Discipline will save your project management, nothing else

The last point I want to make in this rather text-heavy analysis is the aspect of discipline. Once all your team is on board for a new tool and everyone has opted into its logic, the one thing that will decide over success or failure of implementing a tool like Trello, is discipline. Only if everyone uses it, constantly, and exclusively, will it be a successful support of your company's work.

For example: If you use several tools at the same time, no tool will ever accurately be able to provide an overview of the team workload. Team members will fall back to whatever little gadget they normally use to manage tasks, often times sticky notes on paper, and the resources invested in implementing a new tool will have been in vain.

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Here is what we tried: Mondays are crunch time on Trello, or call it stand-up. Go through all tasks, and ask the hard questions I outlined above. Make sure that the board is in top shape every Monday morning. Force yourself and your team to lead a quasi parallel life on Trello. Here is what will happen, just like with most other online tools you are familiar with: as soon as it becomes clear that Trello holds all information, provides the easy answers and is also the source of working motivation, it will be the core hinge of your company and then the magic happens: it will cut your overhead. There is less emailing around, less disturbing others asking for information, the meetings get shorter because there is no more haggling over tasks, because they are already clearly defined, and everyone feels like work has become more focused and clearly organized. The best part: being able to move a Trello card from the dreaded "Doing" column, to the "Done" column.

Conclusion

I hope these thoughts can help you move forward with task and project management. Trello is one of many tools out there, be sure to compare before you decide what fits your team's or project's requirements best. As mentioned a few times above, no tool can replace discipline. Any of the available tools will fail if they are not fully used. If there are parallel structures, or only part of the team actually committed to it, employing such a tool will fail. At LingoHub we are already violating this rule, but we have a good reason for it: Trello serves our task management outside the development process (for which we use Jira). However for all non-development tasks, we stick to card everything that is going on.