Tools for dynamic projects

Project management tools to help you navigate complexity and the unknown

An example project

Gabrielle Young and I have just been working with Wellington City Council.

Wellington City Council employs 1500 people and spends nearly half a billion dollars per year. Council provides a vast array of services — kindergartens, festivals, cemeteries, water and sewerage to name a few. It is a huge, complex organisation.

Our brief was:

Build something valuable in three months.

Open scope. Very short time.

We broke it down to:

~4 weeks to understand the Council

~6 weeks to build something

~2 weeks to present and wrap up the project

Read about the outcomes of this project

The tools we used

Different people and projects suit different tools. These worked well for us. Perhaps try them, and modify to suit you and your project.

Task management: Scrum with Trello

Scrum/Kanban boards are a tech industry best practice tool for project task management. Scrum and Kanban are both methods of managing tasks using sorted lists.

Scrum uses lists of cards (“Sprints”) to be completed in a fixed time.

Kanban uses a pipeline of lists that cards flow through, with a maximum amount of cards allowed in each list.

We used a board to host a mostly Scrum process.

Our workflow

Brain dump

Make cards in the backlog for all the tasks you can think of. Better out of your head. Even if it seems silly. Your teammate might bounce off it, or it might be important later.

Every card should start with a verb

BAD card title: “Sandy dogs”

GOOD card title: “Return red plastic dogs to Sandy in Urban Design”

Compile the Sprint

A sprint is a set of cards to be completed within a time frame.

Choose the time frame:

Our project was changing so much at the start we did a one day Sprints. Towards the end of the project we did week long Sprints. For longer running web development projects, a common cadence is 2 week Sprints.

Choose the cards:

Go through the backlog and pull in only the most valuable and urgent cards into the new sprint.

Ruthless questioning

Look through every card in your sprint and ask: Why do I need to do this? Watch out for larger tasks, and ones that have been waiting to get into a sprint.

EXAMPLE: We were looking at the “Design Sprint 1 Presentation for Staff” card. This sat in the backlog for a week before being pulled into a sprint. When we added it, it was a core part of our work. This card would have taken about 30 hours to complete. Gabrielle felt that something wasn’t quite right about it. We asked ourselves

“Why do we need to do this?”

It turned out that the presentation to the Executive Leadership Team that we’d already done had fulfilled the purpose of the card. So we archived it and spent 30 hours on much more valuable tasks.


Prioritise the cards before starting the work. This:

  • Catches urgent cards so they are done timely
  • Makes it impossible to avoid challenging cards like “prepare Executive Leadership Team presentation”
  • Ensures the most important cards are done. With new and changing work, estimates of how many cards can fit in a sprint is often wrong. Sometimes there will not be time to complete all the cards in the Sprint. Some valuable tasks may not get done. Which is OK. It’s impossible to do all the valuable things. So do the most valuable things.

Do the work.

We often used “Pairing”, the process of two people working side-by-side on the same task. This is a best practice technique in the tech industry for complex and challenging work.

By working closely together, we found more creativity, maintained focus, did only valuable work, made less mistakes and learned more quickly. After meetings and work sessions we often gave each other feedback — actionable, specific and kind. This meant we learnt quickly from our mistakes, stopped bad habits and developed good habits.

Note: What we didn’t use

We didn’t use agile “estimation” or “burndown” — with our little team of two on this short project they would have had low benefit:cost ratio.

Perfecting repeated processes: Checklists!

Things we noticed doing repeatedly:

Starting the day:

Meeting new people:

Google doc meeting template here

Events: If the project was longer this would be the next list.

Wellbeing: Check-ins

At the start of every work day, we run through these questions.

The purpose is to relieve stress to enable higher quality work and better wellbeing.

The focus remains on the person checking in until they are finished.

Others in the team listen attentively. Nobody talks over the person checking in. Others may ask questions to help the person checking in better understand what they are feeling, or offer help. No advice is given.

How are you feeling?

I’m feeling a bit anxious this morning
Ah, where’s that coming from?
I’m really tired and low — I feel like I’m not going to be able to communicate clearly in our meetings today
Ok, I’m feeling clear, I can do most of the talking if that would help?
Ah, yeah that would be great!

What’s on top?

(What’s on top of your mind, is there anything cycling around.

Just had a beautiful waterfront ride to work


I had an argument with a good friend this morning, I’m feeling really shit about it.
Oh, would it help for you take 10 minutes to send them a kind message?
No thanks - I’ve got urgent things to do, messaging now would take too long. I think it’s not such a big deal now I’m talking about it. I’ll message them at lunch.

Are you feeling like a hero?

Ah yeah, a little this morning
Ok, what do you need to let go of that? Otherwise you’ll burn out.
Mmm I need to slow down, remember patience.
Ok, great, I’ll check in with you at lunchtime about it.

We didn’t do this — we burnt out. Which was really damaging to ourselves and the project. If we had asked this question, we would have avoided burnout by carrying a more humble attitude through our work.

Should you be working today?

Actually, I’ve pushed so far I think it would be damaging to me and the project to work now. Can I come in for the afternoon?
Sure thing. Is there anything you can think of that I need to take care of this morning?

Gabrielle took 4 hours off in the morning after a check-in like this. When she arrived in the afternoon she saved us 30 hours by avoiding an unnecessary task with her fresh relaxed mind.