How To Use Trello Effectively (what worked for our small team)

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Team Tint's Trello

I peeked over my stand-up desk to see what Eunice, our Designer, was up to. I needed an asset for our new splash page, and I couldn’t find it in our Dropbox. Each member of our small team had a different way of organizing their files, and Eunice and I had such totally different structures that I had spent the past handful of fifteen minutes trying to figure out whether it would be in the myraid of folders within Tint/splashPage1000 or Tint/design/frontPage. Total communication breakdown.

A couple months back, we tried using a variety of tools, including Trello, to organize our team’s work and effort. With each tool, a brief spark of utility would follow, then the tool would quickly turn into a ghost town. “Tim Sae Koo updated task: Pricing Page, three weeks ago”. Still getting nowhere.

However, we’ve recently made some changes to how we use Trello and it has changed our habits significantly, for the better. Note: I believe our approach is best with teams with six people or less.

So without further adieu, here is how we use Trello:

1. We threw out the Kanban.

One of the mistakes we made when we first started using our Trello board was creating a swimlane for each stage of our product development cycle. Usually, people recommend swimlanes such as “Planning”, “In Progress”, “Deployment Ready”, etc. The problem with this is that for a given feature, it might go back and forth between “In Progress”, “Acceptance”, and “On Hold” due to each task’s dependence with other tasks, changes in priority, etc. When a task that is being worked on by multiple teammates goes back and forth, it becomes unclear who should move the card. Not only that, when a task is “In Progress”, it is unclear who is working on it. After a week of Kanban, nobody on our team was using Trello because we had all assumed somebody else would move the card. So we abandoned the Kanban thing.

2. No checklists

Checklists are the most deceiving of all Trello features, and we used them extensively when we first failed at using Trello. The problem with checklists is that they are hidden within each card. There is no way another person on your team is going to see your checklist because it would require exploring through your cards. Yet, when using a checklist, it is easy to have the mental assumption that everyone will see it. One of my biggest mistakes was creating a card every day, and putting a checklist in it of my daily tasks. Not only was the card title completely meaningless (since it was just a date), nobody would know what I was working on! We found that checklists were totally uncollaborative and stopped using them altogether.

3. Each swimlane is a person

The success of using a project management app hinges on making sure every team member shares some of the responsibility in updating the data. Creating swimlanes for people creates clear responsibilities, and makes you feel like you are responsible for a clear portion of the board.

4. Each card must represent an action item or user story

Writing out the action in the card allows team members to quickly assess their teammate’s daily and weekly priorities.

5. Daily standups are a time to update / assess the board.

Putting down blockers and tasks on the Trello board under people’s names allows teammates to remember what other people said they would do, and more importantly remember what they themselves set out to do. And during the day, it becomes clearer that laying out your priorities on the board can do wonders to collaborative productivity. When interrupting someone’s work, you can see what they’re working on and clearly assess whether or not you should be working on the same task if they are interrelated, rather than wasting time being blocked the next day.

We hope that this post allows other teams to achieve higher productivity with Trello, and we would love to hear about your experiences and lessons learned!

-Ryo, Developer

33 thoughts on “How To Use Trello Effectively (what worked for our small team)

  1. Love seeing other peoples Trello work flow. Really nice article! We’ve been using Trello for a little over a year now. We mainly use it for Daily To-Do and Project Management. We’ve been slowly adopting Agile methodologies. This helps alot. Take a loog at for integrating email to Trello.

  2. Thanks for sharing your team work flow!

    Question, when a team member finishes out a task/card, do they simply archive it, or do you have a dedicated list for done?

  3. Excellent ideas here. We have between 4-6 people on a team, and backlog list. What’s a good way to show more “columns” at once, if you have a smallish monitor?

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I don’t know of a good way to show more columns at once, however, our at-a-glance snapshot of what we’re all working on is usually served by looking at the activity feed on the right sidebar. Since our team doesn’t have a lot of overlapping roles, we don’t have the issue of having a backlog list since we each have our own individual backlogs on our own individual lists, which means we don’t have to drag things around all the time.

  4. You said “Not only that, when a task is “In Progress”, it is unclear who is working on it.”

    What about assigning members to a card when some one is working on a card?

    1. You could assign members to a card, but it gets so difficult to see quickly who’s working on what. That’s why we have each person assigned to a column.

      1. I agree, the reason why the Kanban starts with is “visibility”. The reason why some agile adopt it also because of the “visibility”.
        What Tim tried to say is that the visibility was lost when using the Trello board.
        We might still use the color coding, but again, it is limited (too much colors coded also not so visible).

      2. I’m new to Trello so not sure if this is a new feature. But you can filter by members, to see only the tasks that have been assigned to one or more persons.

  5. This workflow example is great! Thank you for sharing! Could you please share what Labels and associated Colors you are using in the first pic that shows the boards?

    1. Thanks 🙂 The labels are indications of status. The tasks without labels have not been started. Here is our color-status mapping:

      yellow – in progress
      green – finished
      orange – blocked (cannot complete task until another task is completed)

      purple – an extra label we use to indicate that something is very close to being finished, but requires some polishing to be released.

      1. Very cool, thanks! I really like how you use purple. That would be perfect for us to let our designer know we need them to look at something, asap.

  6. Thanks for sharing trello work flow. I just started few months with staff of 5, i create 1 main board for the whole company stating each project and individual board for each staff member ”today to do list”. individual board member only me and the staff. Cards in their board is task of the day and project card that link from project card of main board (update is required only at main board), but it is less useful and kind of redundant,and it takes a lot of culture shift for members to use it as frequent and responsible as possible.

    how i link the cards of 2 board: copy the card link of main board and paste in on the description of a card of individual link.
    I may want to try your way of trello work flow, however maintaining a main board and closed down all individual board.

    Hope you can me give some advise on my trello.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts on checklists; I’ve eliminated them in favor of additional cards, and adding attachments to the cards. This works better for us. This also helped — linking to notes in Evernote.

  8. But… aren’t those checklists Icons on ‘Reach out to Website Builders” and “Growth Hacks” and a few more? I’m pretty new to Trello, so I may not be looking at that right. Just wondering…

    1. You are very observant! Those are indeed checklist icons. I should have been more clear. We stopped using checklists altogether for anything requiring collaboration. Whenever you use a checklist, you have to assume that nobody else is going to see it, and that it’s really only for your own personal use.

  9. Can 2 people in the same Org add cards to a board on the free version? I’m evaluating Trello here at work and I have one Org with two members. We’re both Admins but I cannot add cards to boards he creates and vice versa. If we can figure this out, I think Trello looks like a good fit.

    1. Yes, you can totally add multiple people to a single board on the free version. Just open up the sidebar on your board (there should be a button called “show Sidebar”) and then click on the “Add Members…” button.


  10. Why would they include an assignment and subscribe feature if you are supposed to use the lists to manage people? Wouldn’t it be better to have swim lanes like you started out so that a manager can have project oversight (keeping you from having to report in meetings/email/excel)? Wouldn’t it be better subscribe to cards that concern you, then un-assign yourself when your contribution is done and assign someone else while moving it to the right list?

  11. This is perfect and exactly what i was looking for, our team had been using Trello for a few months now and ran into the exact same hurdles, I’m really hopeful this will help us get over the challenges! Thanks!

  12. Trello board looks great. how do you manage finished cards? Do you have separate boards or list to move finished work. My doubt is, will each persons list be pilled up after couple of months?

    1. We archive all finished work at the end of the week. It allows you to have a mental summary of what you’ve been able to accomplish, and allows you to clear your lane so next week starts fresh!

  13. We did a hybrid Kamban/pipol, left most is the todo, middle swimlanes are persons, rightmost is done. works well. I find that checklists are good but not if you use trello on ipad.

  14. Hello, just stumbled upon this…trying to help get our small team organized, and we are attempting to use Trello according to your model. What do you do when a task is shared between two people? Put duplicate cards under each person’s name, or arbitrarily choose one person but assign both people to the card? Or something else? Many thanks! Great blog!

  15. Interesting approach. We currently implement Kanban (and some of the lists you mentioned). It does get kind of messy at times. I might have to approach our team with trying something new out for a few weeks. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Just wondering if this has still held up for you? Also, what are you guys doing when you take on a new/unique project? Do you create a new Org for the project?

  17. Great Idea to use Trello this Way. We are a 3 Men Team too and actually we use the “Swimlane” but i think we need a meeting 🙂

    greetings from germany !

  18. Found this quite informative, I’m having the same problem of getting my team organised, more so when I can’t tie the monthly expense bill with activity

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