Trello is an antidote to project management tools

If you’re anything like me, then you’re not the greatest fan of project management tools. When I say “project management tools”, I’m referring to large, sprawling application systems such as JIRA that businesses large and small alike seem to gravitate toward for project and issue tracking. As a side effect of being designed primarily around enterprise use cases, the feature sets are often labyrinthine and overwhelming.

For certain types of users, such as business analysts, this can be a boon; workflows can be infinitely tweaked and modified, issues can be categorised and filtered, moved in and out of sprints. And in the rare event there’s something that isn’t supported, chances are there’s a third party plug-in that will do it.

A typical JIRA issue I might encounter, including typical filled:unfilled field ratio.

But for me, all of this information and process management can quickly become overwhelming. Not only can it detract from the core requirement that is supposed to be represented, whether that be a bug fix, a new feature, or something else, but it’s also high friction. What do I mean by high friction? For me, when a task becomes wrapped in this level of process management, the emphasis is moved away from getting the task done, and instead toward digital paperwork: keeping the formal process in order and up to date.

This isn’t to say that formal process and thorough issue tracking doesn’t have its place, but when I’m trying to get stuff done, I’m just trying to get it done. Which is where Trello comes in.

Trello loosely takes a kanban approach to project management, where work is spread across a single board and split into cards, showing where each piece of work is in the process. I say loosely, because Trello doesn’t prescribe any sort of workflow to my boards, nor to my cards.

One of my Trello cards

The kanban approach to project management is great, because it gives an at-a-glance view of the status of a project, and importantly, any bottlenecks that may be unnecessarily delaying delivery. Andrew Connell has a thorough write up on implementing kanban with Trello. What Trello does is take this format, of cards in columns on a board, and lets me then go ahead and do whatever I like with it.

Using Trello feels liberating when coming from a regimented system like the typical process control of JIRA. I can create a new card by typing the text for it and pressing enter, and it’s done. It’s in the right column so I know it won’t get missed, and I can come back to it later.

And while cards can be just text and nothing more, there are plenty of other options available on a per-card basis. For example, the card above has a blue label. On the board this card comes from, I use labels to signal what system a card relates to, but Trello provides the ability to set names for labels, and use them however I want.

I can add descriptions to cards, engage other team members in conversation about a card inside the card itself, add attachments, a cover image (which is then displayed on the board with the card), set a due date, add a checklist, get notified of changes… you get the idea. But the joy of Trello is that I don’t feel obliged to use any of these things. If I don’t add a description to a card, I don’t get a big blank text box. The card just doesn’t have a description. The same goes for all the other features I mentioned. If I don’t use a feature on a given card, it just stays out of the way, rather than attempting to guilt me into filling it out. Coming from JIRA, this is enormously refreshing.

The flexibility of Trello shows in how people use it and the breadth of things they use it for. For consultancy work, I have a board per client, and cards represent atomic pieces of work within a system. I have a column for each person who might be involved in a project, which makes it very easy for anyone to see exactly what’s assigned to them. Anything that’s done is then moved into my own column, where I review, before moving the card to the ‘Done’ column.

In contrast to this, Trello themselves have a public board to help new starters at the company get up to speed. It’s a completely different use case to my own, and the board is laid out very differently, but the adaptability of the product shines through in how well it still works in such disparate use cases.

I love Trello because it stays out of the way and lets me get on with things. It’s quick to get up and running with, and super slick for managing both professional and personal projects, either alone or as part of a team. If you’re not already tied to some other platform (or perhaps even if you are), I recommend giving it a go at trello.com, or using my referral link, which gets me a free month of Trello Gold. I don’t always have a need for my own project management tools, but when I do, it’s always Trello that I turn to.