5 Tips for Project Success with Trello

trello use case board

5 Tips for Project Success with Trello

Starting a brand new project is always a fun component of our work for me. The opportunities and possibilities that lay ahead, the clean slate, the ideating, and the chance to set up all the tools.

For me this is also a perfect time to bring incremental improvements to the process of our work. When we complete a project we often do a retrospective and so when we start a new project it’s a great time to pick up on those “stop” and “start” doing items. Making the 1% tweaks here and there which nudge us forward to better and better results.

So, having just cracked open all those tools for a new project I found myself reflecting on one of OneSheep’s secret weapon tools – Trello!

If you’re not familiar with Trello it’s a project management tool based around boards, lists and cards. Which I admit doesn’t sound super exciting, and it’s hardly secret with 14 million users. It was also recently brought out by Atlassian for $425 million.

However, the secret and thing that makes it such a weapon is the power and flexibility. You can use Trello in a huge number of ways, from information boards, to simple to-do lists, wedding planning through to product development and even high level government roadmaps! But it really shines when you apply a Kanban type approach to project management.

How Trello works

Each project is a Board in Trello (think of that as basically a single web page), on that Board you have Lists, running left to right, each List has any number of Cards (describing a thing that needs doing).

Those cards can have a title, description, tags, due date, people assigned, comments and attachments. You can then drag and drop these cards both between lists and up and down within a list. This is the key that allows for a process driven project management approach and really facilitates the visual ethos of Kanban.

But like I said everyone uses Trello differently because it really can wrap around and blend right into your own internal work processes and flows.

OneSheep’s 5 tips for success

So here is a peak inside the way we use Trello within OneSheep.

Since we’re mostly in the realm of software development, be that mobile apps, web apps or API and platform dev, all of our projects do indeed resemble more or less a Kanban style of project management within Trello. That’s certainly not the only way to do dev work, but is certainly one of the most effective, best practice based and most successful ways.

Our boards have the following lists:

Notes | Backlog | In Progress | Ready | Live | Feedback

And generally to-do items (features, tasks, etc) move from the left to the right during the life of the project.

Granted, we have a very focused problem, managing software development, so you won’t necessarily want a carbon copy of our approach, but hopefully you can cherry pick these following tips and ideas to enhance your approach, or even cause you to explore Trello in the first place.

1. Incremental Improvements
Because Trello gives you a visual workflow it’s very easy to spot when that workflow isn’t quite working. A to-do item suck in the “doing” list for a long time, no-one assigned to a card or everyone(!) assigned to card, missed due dates etc.

Use this visual information to reflect on your workflow and make tweaks, and clarify processes and concepts.

Example:
We use Labels heavily on our project development boards. First up we realised it was mentally very hard to switch between project boards if the Label colours meant different things. Red for “Bug” or for “Urgent” or for “Blocked”!? Green for “Feature” or “All Good” or “Client Action”.

Standardise those labels as far as possible.

Next we went through three or four projects where we tweaked the labels until we landed on a solid set that work well, covered 99% of use cases. Of course these are now super familiar. Those changes were a little hard at the beginning on each project but have really helped over time, as long as you communicate them well. Which leads to…

2. Clear communication and guidelines.
This tip I picked up somewhere else, I can’t remember exactly where – but thank you if it was you! At the top of the first list (top left) of every board we have a Board Usage card. This clearly outlines what each list is for and how, why and when a card may move between lists – essentially outlining the process and workflow we use.

Because we are service based, on each project we bring in new clients and so this is really important for that onboarding and transparency. Even returning clients or occasionally as a reminder for ourselves this is a helpful and good discipline. Trello’s card copy feature makes this a snap and it only takes a minute to tweak the card description for any project specific details.

3. Transparency and Involvement
Following on from clear communication is the idea of transparency. We invite all our partners into our Trello boards, no matter what level of engagement they have. You will always find at least one person from the partner organisation on our board. This helps the partner see exactly where a project is at at any given time. It keeps accountability for our team, process and communication, because we know every conversation about every feature is out in the open before the partner.

In addition it also means they get to speak up as soon as anything comes up a decision arises or they spot a new idea or feature. It results in deeper collaboration and greater ownership of the end product and we believe a far better project outcome.

4. Make space for opportunity and ideas
The first list on all our boards is “Notes”, like a working scratch pad, we use it in a number of ways. At the top is the aforementioned Board Usage card giving the outline on how the project and Trello is managed. That is followed by a Project Brief or Overview card. That card contains a top level description of the project and links to all top level assets, such as a pitch doc, InVision prototype, Drive folder of images etc.

Following that any template cards we want to create lots of, for us thats a Bug reporting card and User Story cards. Then the rest of the list is dedicated to ideas and fleshing out new features or opportunities we are deciding upon. As soon as something becomes more concrete it gets prioritised in the Backlog – the second list on our board.

Having this list has helped new ideas flourish, contributors feel connected and helps developers keep one eye on future directions allowing them to speak up about a feature long before it’s too late.

5. Go Round the loop
We have a Live list on our development boards to show what items have been developed, tested, approved and have gone live to users. Even through our lists are very much left to right that Live list is not the final list on the right. We have one more, Feedback.

When we first started with Trello, Feedback was part of the Notes list and things got very messy. But more importantly, Feedback was spun out into a list and put at the end, because that is such a key part of our process and ethos around continual improvement and user feedback.

To be clear we get user feedback all the way through, especially when an item is Ready. At that point the partner and outside testers will review and check we’ve met the spec or achieved User Acceptance. But the longer term deeper feedback comes from unbiased real world users. So, feedback items appear on this list as cards or part of a specific feedback build card. Feedback on cards can then go on the Notes list, be discussed and debated and problems understood and resolved before going again to the backlog.

So Feedback is our list list but really the first list too. In addition cards move freely back as they do forward. Based on feedback, or the need for further clarification. When cards free flow across lists it really helps keep “In Progress” work focused on things that are adding the most value.

Bonus: Create a Project Template
Here’s my new top tip, which incredibly I only just learnt recently. Once you have a solid Trello setup for projects and if you often start new projects, create a Project Template.

This isn’t a feature of Trello so much as a show of it’s flexibility and various methods.

Create your blank project, name your lists, set up your labels add template cards and your Board Usage card. Then name that Project as “Project Template”. Then from the Show Menu > More menu, simply click Copy Board. This will create a full copy of your board, labels, lists cards and all.

Happy Trello-ing!

Sam Peckham
sam@onesheep.org
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