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Communication, communication, communication: Slacking and Trelloing in our museums

Fixing internal communications is difficult and I will physically fight whoever says otherwise.

I guess it’s difficult because everyone works in different ways, nature is chaos and AI isn’t ready to deliver us from ourselves yet? Until then, we’re keeping with the modest aims of making our different teams’ work more visible, making collaboration easier and encouraging discussion. Ultimately, we want to move away from silos, email-ageddon and confusion.

We haven’t done it yet, but we’re a bit better than we were before. The illusory goal of ‘doing alright’ will depend on more testing, more talking, more doing stuff. Forever, until we die.

Where we started

A few months ago we explored Agile methods for running our 18-month, Arts Council England project. While we haven’t got our teeth into a proper Agile product yet (we have plans), what we have done is got a handle on our workload and workflows.


The simple concept of Agile boards and working in sprints made our work more visible, structured and scheduled. While the visibility and practicality of our Agile boards was great, however, the post-its multiplied and started feeling unsustainable.

So we started using Trello instead.

Please ignore my face.

What Trello has achieved for some teams so far at the MERL and Reading Museum is overview. What was once hidden and scattered is brought together on team boards. You can get an overview of how much one person has on their plate; how many blogs we are writing; the scale of tasks to be done for an event; the progress of a team’s activity.

So what the hell is Trello

For us, Trello is a task management tool.

Imagine writing a job on a post-it. Now imagine you had infinite space on that post-it. That you could put a due date on it, categorise it, colour it, add pictures and other documents to it, and bring it to the attention of other people.

The attraction is easy to see – what was 5 post-its on a physical board became one card on Trello. You organise these cards under different columns, which can be as simple as To Do/Doing/Done. Or, you could have a card for every page on your website, tagging developers when there’s an issue, making a checklist for proof-checking and setting dates for publication.

Adoption of Trello was almost by accident. We began using it in our team, and then when we launched Reading Museum’s blog it seemed the natural choice for tracking blogs from Idea to Published. Then teams at Reading Museum adopted it for all their other work, and it’s a success we want to duplicate at the MERL.

The end goal is to have all teams tracking their upcoming and current work on Trello. This would mean anyone would know where to look for, say, the Events diary, Library projects, the Strategic Plan. When we have minuted meetings, they’d be put straight onto a card on the relevant board, and Actions are made into cards rather than mouldering until the next meeting. Rather than having to pin people down in the corridor, screaming into their faces WHAT IS HAPPENING, you would just check the relevant Trello board.

Oh, and for personal workflows we have a Starter Board that walks you through everything, which I shamelessly ripped off/adapted from Zak’s at Bristol Museums. Sorry and thank you Zak.

How’s that Trello thing actually working out though

We think Trello is great, but it may only seem great because we’re comparing it to the less than ideal situation that preceded it.

The problems with Trello came rapidly: cards are duplicated across boards; it’s hard to remember where you put things; too many boards cause confusion; checklists spiral out of control.

An example of a very long checklist.

Our current, experimental solution to this is to segment our boards:

  • Overarching teams (library, archive, digital, Events) have their own boards where each big project or thing has a card.
  • These cards are broken down into individual tasks on a checklist
  • Those with personal boards can then take an individual task, make a new card in their ‘Doing’ for it, and when it’s done update the main card on the overarching board.
  • For those without personal boards, they just work directly from the overarching boards.

Whether this is a complicated workaround remains to be seen. We could just be smarter at filtering and searching instead.

We also found we were missing our physical team board in our team’s weekly catch-ups. While Trello is amazing, it’s hard to get an overview on a small screen. So, our team have big projects on post-its just to show what people are working on in the week and what’s planned in future.

What about Slack

If Trello is helping us with workflow and project management, Slack is meant to tackle discussion and visibility.

Our age-old problem is that a lot of discussion is happening on email, without the cc’d realising that the un-cc’d could be helpful but aren’t in the discussion. Essentially, our emails are hundreds of ships in the night resulting in a hundred harumphed ‘Well, I wasn’t told about that’.

Slack is a mix between a chat app and a forum. It’s meant to bring discussion into the open, so others can get involved or just be able to see what’s going on.

Slack is something we have not entirely mastered yet, but it is still preferable to email. The vision is to move internal discussion onto Slack, to action and track things on Trello and to set anything in stone by email.

We’ve heard plenty of horror stories about Slack and how it can spiral out of control without strict rules, as well as inducing FOMO. Our solution is to have thought carefully about our Slack rules, enforce them properly and carefully categorise our channels.

You can see our draft channel rules here.

What’s next

Many people at the MERL and Reading Museum love Trello – its versatility means it’s already been adapted to a load of different purposes. The difficult bit is beating it into a functioning tool that everyone uses. Rules need to be made, kinks ironed out, training carried out, maintenance done.

It’s also currently a confusing environment. Our old system is shared drives, email and meetings. Our prospective system is still kind of shared drives (we’re planning on migrating to OneDrive), email, meetings, Trello and Slack. There is a massive risk of alienating people with an overload of different platforms and a confusion over which is meant for what.

The solution, for the MERL at least, may be coming soon as we trial a suite of tools that include the functionality of Trello and Slack but all in the same environment. More on that when things actually happen.

Culture change

But platforms we use isn’t the whole picture. By getting people to work on Slack and Trello we are embedding a way of working that is collaborative, open and iterative. I think this is what I’ve heard referred to as the digital mode of working, but all I know is it breaks down silos, makes our work visible and makes us more democratic.

Blogs from the #digiRDG project team tracking our experiences changing Reading Museum and the Museum of English Rural Life.

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Adam Koszary

Adam Koszary

Formerly Programme Manager and Digital Lead for The Museum of English Rural Life and Reading Museum. Now something else. https://adamkoszary.co.uk

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