introducing Trello to my team

As a new hire at a management consulting firm, I found it somewhat difficult to quickly assess what teammates were working on. There was a ramp-up period. It was long. It was boring.

People are busy, including my teammates, but I wanted to figure out what people were doing so I could help. And I wanted to do it faster and simpler than pestering everyone on Skype every day.

Enter Trello.

I like Trello because it’s very simple, it’s easy to use, and the free version is free for unlimited users. I did not want to have to ask for budget.

But our team — and indeed, to a large extent, the whole firm — defaults to Microsoft products for project management. Lots of excel spreadsheets with lots of text in the cells. Lots of version control. Files are stored on hard drives, or in personal Office365 cloud drives. Our internal homepage is a SharePoint site. It’s difficult and time consuming to make things transparent and viewable to all, so people don’t do it very often. When I hypothesized to colleagues in the firm that “there is a lack of transparency around here, and it could be a problem,” nobody disagreed. Fortunately, my team wasn’t against the idea of trying something new.

At this point, I had a hypothesis. I needed buy-in and I needed to demonstrate value. So I put together an MVP version of a Trello board with some of the projects that were in progress at the time, and shopped it around to each of my teammates individually for feedback.

The best way to describe the feedback was: “meh.” The approach needed to change from “here’s a solution” to “what is your problem?”

When I reframed the question in terms of problems, I got a lot more feedback. Quickly, I learned that our project managers would get the most value out of a tool like this. Our project managers need to submit a complex Excel spreadsheet each week that summarizes all the work we’ve done in that week. This then gets rolled into a larger spreadsheet each month, and ultimately an insanely complex project management spreadsheet with hundreds of rows of text that cover every possible work stream in the entirety of our contract. (Full disclosure: my firm contracts with the federal government.)

Compiling those progress reports is intensely time consuming.

Each week, each member of the team sent an email with bullet points detailing his or her accomplishments for the week. The project manager compiled those bullet points into the spreadsheet, and then edited them so they’d have consistent tone and structure. For example, each sentence should start with an active verb and contain specific details.

We had 11 consultants on this project at the time, so we’re talking about a more senior (read: more expensive to the client) team member dedicating multiple hours each Friday to updating this spreadsheet instead of solving client problems. Bullets from 10 emails into a spreadsheet. Every week.

Bingo. A problem to solve!

Chrome has some handy Trello extensions, one of which exports everything in your Trello board to Excel. Winner winner, chicken dinner. All of a sudden, we could provide a lot of value to at least one person on our team by exporting the entire bulleted activity list into a format that mimics the final product, an Excel spreadsheet.

On the flip side, we weren’t adding work to the rest of the team members by asking them to record their activities in Trello versus an email. Each of us still needed to contribute our bulleted, full-sentence, active verb-ed details of what we worked on each week. (It turns out the weekly report is a contractual requirement.) To make the writing standards more clear, we wrote specific instructions and examples in our first Trello list.

Today, our move to Trello is saving hours of time for one person each week. But I think we can unlock more value for our teams with this tool. It would be great for multiple teams — working on different things — to have Trello boards, so we can see where there may be opportunities to collaborate in real time. It would be interesting to see whether there are activity tracking problems we can solve with Trello’s email-to-board feature. Some team members see future value in on-boarding new employees; we now have a clearer repository of information that will make it easier and faster to get up to speed.

We’re working on a few things that I hope to be able to report later, but six weeks into using Trello on my team, we’re adding some value through time savings and can see more value in the future.

Key learnings from this exercise:

  • Focus first on a problem you can solve, not the solution
  • Even when value is only clear for a small minority, it still may be worth implementing a solution
  • Selling a new idea is easier if you’ve validated that new ideas are welcome