Trello: A Swiss Army Knife For Tasks, Prioritizing And Project Planning

This post was originally published on the LSC Technology Blog in May of 2013. Note that “LSC” is Legal services Corporation, my current employer.

One of the great services available to the legal aid tech community (lstech) is LSNTAP’s series of webinars on tech tools.  I’ve somehow managed to miss every one of these webinars, but I’m a big fan of sharing the tools and strategies that allow us to more effectively get things done. In that spirit, I wanted to talk about my new favorite free online tool, Trello.

Trello is an online Kanban board.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you are still likely familiar with the concept: most TV cop shows have a board in the squad room with columns for new, open and closed cases.  Kanban is the name for these To Do/Doing/Done boards, and they are a powerful, visual tool for keeping track of projects.

You don’t need Trello — you can do it with a whiteboard and a marker.  But Trello’s online version can become very useful very fast.  Like the best apps, the basic functionality is readily usable, but  advanced functionality lurks under the hood.  With no training, you can create a todo list that monitors what’s coming up, what you’re working on and what you’ve finished.  Explore a little bit, and you learn that each task can have a description, a due date, a file attached to it, it’s own task list and one or more people assigned to it. Because Trello is just as good as a one-person productivity tool as it is as a team coordination tool.

I can report that the IT team at LSC has dived into it.  Here are a few of the things we’re using it for:

  • Our project big board.  We keep all of our upcoming projects, with due dates and leads, in a Trello board.
  • Individual task lists.  The developers track their major deliverable dates, the rest of us the small things we’re working on.
  • Strategic Planning – anyone who has ever done a session involving slapping post-its on the wall will appreciate this simple, online version of that exercise.  SWOT analyses work particularly well.

At this year’s Nonprofit Technology Conference, where I first learned about Trello, it was successfully being used as a help desk ticket system.  I’d recommend this only for small programs.  A more powerful free ticket system like Spiceworks, or a commercial product will be able to handle the volume at a 50 person + company better than Trello can.

But here’s the real case for a tool like Trello: it goes from zero to compellingly useful in seconds.  While I won’t knock enterprise project management systems, I lean toward the ones that give me great functionality without taking up a lot of my time.  I’ve hit a couple of stages in my career where the immense workload begged for a such tools, but implementing one was too big a project to add to the list.  I bet that you’ve been there, too. Trello lacks the sophistication of a waterfall system like MS Project or an agile one, such as Jira. But it can get you organized in minutes.  And, in our case, it doesn’t replace those more sophisticated systems. It supplements them at the high level.  We do both traditional projects (deploy servers, install phone systems) and agile ones (build web sites, program our grants management system).  We can use the proper tools for those project plans, but keep the team coordinated with Trello.

Here’s our 2013 project board:


Note that we only assign the project leads, and the main use of this board is in the project review that kicks off our weekly staff meetings. But it’s helping us stay on task, and that is always the challenge.

What are your favorite tools for team coordination and project management?  Let us know in the comments.

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