How to organize anything: Trello
I’ve been organizing projects for a number of years now. Originally I was simply organizing my own efforts as a software developer, putting together a todo list so I wouldn’t miss anything or skip a step. When things at the company got bigger I started dabbling with Microsoft Project, and started making gannt charts left and right. While they were useful during the initial planning stages of a product and helped get a general feel for how much time we had to devote to certain features, once the project started, the meticulously laid out project plan quickly got out of date. Without employing a full time project manager to track status and deadlines we were never able to keep up with the project plan. And since we would rather have added productive developers than management overhead, we reduced our planning to a simple excel spreadsheet that was straight-forward to update.
That worked fine for a year or so until we added more developers. At this point we needed something that was flexible, easy to use, and highly visible. That’s when we started using the agile development method of 4×6 cards pinned to a cork board. Don’t laugh. That a software company would use such a decided low-tech approach is certainly amusing, but honestly it just seemed to work best. It was easy to write new cards, it was easy to organize them, everyone could see what was being worked on, and the spacial limitations naturally limited how many cards could be up and in flight at any given time.
We ran with that system for years, augmented with our internal fogbugz installation for bug tracking (bug tracking and fixing doesn’t work well on cards).
Since their launch back in early september our company has been using Trello to manage our development workflow for one simple reason: It’s easier than 4×6 cards. Yup, finally, after 6 years of working with 4×6 cards, I might actually have found a good replacement. Trello does a great job of modeling that simple workflow even though they are adding additional power.
The difficult part of a designing a piece of software like this is not so much how many features you add, but which ones you leave out. The magic is in keeping the product simple and flexible enough that people can devise their own workflows using the basics in the product. The fact that there are only three real concepts in Trello is what makes it so amazingly powerful. You have Boards, on Boards you have Lists, and on Lists you have cards. Boards can be anything, lists can be anything, and cards can be anything. You can assign someone to a card, and you can make notes on a card, the same way we used to do with 4×6 cards with post-it notes. You can label cards with color coded labels, the same way we did with colored post-it notes. And you can move cards from list to list, the same way we did on the cork board for all those years.
We put together five boards for our group, Backlog, Up Next, Doing, Testing, Done, but these could easily be split a number of different ways.
If you add the concept of priority by making the order of the cards significant (you don’t need to order them in a significant manner, but the cards retain their order) and you’ve got pretty much everything you need for a fully functional project management system.
Our migration to Trello happened very organically. I recently had a planning session with our Team Lead and took a bunch of notes on my white board. It was on my todo list to transcribe those notes to our cork board. I had procrastinated for a good day or two when I got word about Trello. Rather than transcribing and updating the cork board (which was in the other room) I made cards in Trello and invited the development team. One of our testers jumped on it and started using it immediately (within minutes) and by the end of the next day everyone was on board.
To hear a bit about Trello from the creators:
If you’d like to learn a little more about the creator check out this interview. It should be required watching for any software entrepreneur.