How Trello Can Help Your Team Self-Organise

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Editor’s Note: This blog was written when Management 3.0 was under the umbrella company called Happy Melly One (HMO). Any reference to HMO is from that time and does not apply to today.

by Pilar Orti

Trello has become a very popular project management tool with both collocated and virtual teams. I have been using Trello for a while now, mainly to organise my projects (and my thoughts) and to co-ordinate with other freelancers. What I hadn’t realised was the potential this tool has to help a team self-organise.

Last month I joined Happy Melly One (HMO). This is the “operations team” behind Happy Melly. HMO is divided into “Crews”, formed around specific areas of work. Most of the people who write for this blog are part of the Content Crew, in charge of generating content for both the Happy Melly and Management 3.0 brands. I’m putting together the online version of the Management 3.0 course, so I’ve joined the Management 3.0 Crew.

HMO is a purely virtual team, so collaboration tools form the infrastructure of the company. Most of the “talking” is done on Slack but the work is organised mainly through Trello.

Trello allows you to have different Boards for different projects, to which you can invite different people. The Content Crew has two Boards–one for production, the other for promotion–and the administrative “Org Crew” has another one.

Trello is organized like a virtual version of the Japanese just-on-time production tradition of Kanban, digitalizing what software developers have been doing for decades with Post-Its. The Boards are then arranged into Lists with each List having a number of Cards, which you can choose to order by priority or date added. The cards themselves can contain attachments, checklists, due dates etc. As always, you or your team need to decide how you want to use it and then structure it accordingly. When cards go unused, they go greyer with their old age.

Who’s In Charge?

In Trello, you can assign “Members” to a card, so it’s immediately clear who’s responsible for moving the task forwards. When you see your face literally stamped on a task card, you can’t help but feel responsible for it.
It’s also fast and easy to answer “Who’s in charge of …?” by just scanning the Trello board.

It’s worth remembering though, that Trello is only a tool. It’s therefore up to you and your team to set it up in a way that’s useful to you and that facilitates the kind of environment you want to create. If as a manager you are into having complete control over the work of your team members, you can lay out the board yourself, create lots of tasks and decide who’s going to do what. The way in which you use the tool will mirror your way of working.

However, when you have a tool that can help your team members organise their work themselves, it seems a shame to spend your time and energy doing it yourself. You just need to find a way of using the tool to clearly visualize what’s going on in your team.

For example, the right half of the Management 3.0 board is organised into Lists labeled “Doing”, “Waiting” and “Done”. The Doing list has all the cards with the tasks that are in progress. If we’re working on a task and get stuck, we “call” a member of the team by mentioning their name on the card. While waiting for a reply or an action from a colleague, we then place the card in the Waiting list.

Once a task is completed, guess what? We move the card to the Done list.
People can add and remove themselves from the cards as they become involved in a task. This is not only a great example of narrating work in a team; it also gives members a sense of autonomy, as they assign themselves to a task instead of a task always being assigned to them. (When you’re thinking about increasing employee motivation, giving room for people to assign themselves the work can go a long way.)

The boards also encourage accountability, as we publicly inform the team that we’re working on a certain task. It’s also very clear when you might be blocking someone’s progress and can help to prioritise tasks. (This is especially important when you work with a peer-to-peer recognition scheme like we do with Merit Money.)

Speeding Up Virtual Meetings

The Trello board can provide you with a tight framework for a team meeting.

With all the tasks laid out on the board, it’s easy to go down a list and check whether anyone needs help on their tasks. As you can quickly see who’s working on that card, it’s easy to make sure that everyone contributes to the meeting. It’s no longer a question of who has something to say, it’s a question of individual team members reporting to the team however much or little they want to say about their progress and to ask for help if they need it. This ensures that everyone has the chance to speak at the meeting and the order of contributions is determined by the order of the cards on the Board, not who manages to get a word in first.

The other advantage of running a meeting around a Trello board is that if a member is not at the meeting but you need to know their progress on a task, you can just check out their card and see where they are.

The Evolving Role of the Manager

This might be a scary thought, but if a team uses a Trello board, they no longer need a manager to tell them what to do with what due date. At HMO, a team member is the “Board Leader” and their role is similar to that of a Product Owner in SCRUM teams. They might be responsible for prioritising tasks or adding new tasks to the Board, but it might be up for team members to take on certain tasks.

In this way, it’s relatively easy for other team members to run the board when the Board Leader is on holiday or when the Board Leader’s responsibilities change. (For an optimum way of doing this, check out this post on Delegation Boards).

The manager has traditionally been the one in control: The one setting tasks and checking progress. This can lead to a passive team, where people just wait to be told what to do, without ever working beyond their job description.

With a tool like Trello, your team members can feel autonomy–a value linked to happiness at work–, they can see how their own work contributes to the team’s aims, and they can ask for help from team members when they’re stuck, instead of always seeking help and permission from you.

How does your distributed or remote team address project management? Do you use a different tool? Please share your experience below!


9 thoughts on "How Trello Can Help Your Team Self-Organise"

  • It's Wilder says:

    There’s only a few short paragraphs about the actual process of how the “management” board works and the photo is very blurry. As someone who’s interested in figuring out wether Trello is right for his team, can you elaborate more on the actual workflow process? i.e. How a project gets assigned, how the board is setup, how people are notified of new projects, etc.

  • Pilar Orti says:

    Thanks for stopping by.
    I think the best way of finding out whether this would work for your team is by trying it out. The way in which Happy Melly uses the board is very different to how I use it in other projects with other people. And the success of whether a tool works or not is really due to how people incorporate it (or not) into their workflow and daily communication.
    For tips on how to use the tool itself and the range of ways in which you might want to use it (and proper graphics) check out
    Good luck!

  • agileChilango says:

    I´m using trello to with a remote team, we have some trouble not because of the tool, we are having troubles becuase the autonomy that you get using trello is something that the team have never experienced. Using trello show me that aour mindset is very traditional

  • Pilar says:

    Thanks so much for sharing that, interesting insight – it would have been very easy just to say “the tool doesn’t work” or to miss out on the opportunity to help you change your way of operating. Good luck!

  • Ryan Malone says:

    I love Trello for small projects, but I am having trouble understanding how to use it our at digital agency where we have 150 projects running at ant one time. Does anyone have any examples of companies who can do there.
    Seems like going in and checking the boards every day vs. task lists would be a major hinderance.

  • Pilar says:

    Hi Ryan,
    Thank you for the comment!
    I don’t have any specific examples to share of how to manage so many projects at Trello – maybe others have?
    A few thoughts come to mind though:
    Probably maintaining the boards is key – archiving and deleting anything that’s no longer needed.
    Depending on how you work, different people could be in charge of each Board – can you clump projects together? You could even have different “Organisations”.
    Regarding checking boards every day etc, it really depends on how you want to operate. Probably setting expectations on when boards are likely to be checked (once a day? Once a week?) is the most important thing.
    I’ll hop off now and see if anyone else can share their experience. All the best!

  • Alexandre Thibault says:

    We use it for the support process, having a zapier task that checks what new bug arrived in Jira, that affects a released version, and create a card on the Trello board. That way, support agents and Firefighters (2 developers that go to work with production team for a sprint) can focus only on production bugs.

  • Ole says:

    @Ryan Malone:
    I have found a website where they are combining Scrum and Trello into a great powertool – look at their website, it’s really well explained + having a Trello “map” that you can use.

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