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Steve Bennett blogs

…about maps, open data, Git, and other tech.

Tag Archives: productivity

Trello Tennis

(Credit: Flickr’s Carine06, CC-BY-SA)

Here’s my method of keeping track of stuff to do. Other tools just didn’t work for me. Most to-do list tools make two assumptions, I think:

  1. Work arrives from somewhere (eg, a manager), and is readily broken up into pieces roughly 0.5-4 hours in size.
  2. Your primary responsibility is processing these tasks without gaps, maintaining a high level of output.

My work, technology for academics, tends to involve ¬†coordinating lots of little projects with lots of different people. At any given moment, there are few tasks “in my court”, and they tend to be small. My primary responsibility is to keep all projects moving, and ensure that projects aren’t held up by a task being with me too long.

So, I ran with the ball in my court / ball in your court metaphor. It’s useful when:

  1. Your work is primarily about projects, and particularly a relationship between you and the main stakeholder in that project.
  2. You anxiously wonder whether you’re supposed to be doing something on a project.
  3. You have trouble remembering all the relevant bits of information for each project.

“Projects” here can be very small, and often include very early stage proposals that haven’t formed into anything very concrete.

Presenting: Trello Tennis.

Trello Tennis in (fictious) action

Trello Tennis in (fictious) action

To start with, the two most important columns:

  • Ball in my court: projects whose current state requires me to do something (as small as writing an email or checking something, or as big as preparing a whole workshop structure)
  • Ball in their court: projects whose current state is waiting for someone else to do something, such as providing feedback on a document, organising an event, or replying to an email.

The goal each day is to move projects from the “my court” column to the “their court” column. I periodically review “my court”, placing the most urgent items at the top. I also review “their court”, checking whether I should follow up or offer assistance.

More columns, that turned out to be useful for me:

  • All good/meeting scheduled: projects whose current state is that both parties are waiting for an event, usually a meeting. Neither of us has to do anything until then.
  • Wut?: the most dangerous column, projects where I’m not sure what the current state is after all. Am I waiting on them? Did I promise to research something and get back to them?
  • Somebody else’s problem (SEP): where responsibility for the project has been shifted to someone else. I don’t need to do anything, and I don’t even need to monitor it at the moment. Someone else may eventually hand it back to me, but until then I don’t worry.
  • Archive: the project is actually finished.
  • Blocked: there is a technical reason why the project can’t advance, and no one is currently doing anything about it.

Using Trello

Trello works really well for this.

The name of each card consists of both the project name, and a quick summary of my current task (if in my court), or what I’m waiting on if in theirs. Examples:

  • WidgetUpgrade – check if compatible with Ubuntu Precise
  • FoobarSystem – Anita fixing DNS problem
  • Maps for Psych – meeting Thurs 3rd 2pm

What’s particularly fantastic about using Trello is that each card can also track all the work on that project. Changing the title automatically creates a history trace, or I can add comments to record more information. Need somewhere to record a server name and login details? Use the card’s description field.

You can also use coloured labels to group projects, such as tagging by university in my case.

Of course, each individual project frequently has its own task tracking system: perhaps another Trello board, Github issues, Pivotal Tracker, Google spreadsheets etc. I link to them from the card’s description, ultimately tying together all information systems for all projects under a single roof.

The rules

Each day (or whenever):

  1. If there is anything in “Wut?”, attempt to clarify its state, then move it to the right column.
  2. Check each item in “Ball in their court” to see if it needs attention. Set alarms if you need. If it’s time to follow up, just move it back to “Ball in my court” and adjust the title.
  3. Review the “Ball in my court” list, ordering them appropriately – most urgent at the top.
  4. Work through items in “Ball in my court” if you have any free time. :)

To make this natural, I order the columns from left to right as follows: Wut, My Court, Blocked, Their Court, All Good, SEP, Archive. Stress is on the left, calm is on the right.

The goal is to get your board to look like this blissful fantasy:

A totally successful day in Trello Tennis land.

A totally successful day in Trello Tennis land.

These examples are actually tiny compared to (my) reality. By the end of 2013, I had 21 active cards, plus another 10 inactive (SEP and Archive). If you find this technique at all useful, or have any improvements, I’d love to hear about it.

Filtering for sanity

(Added 4 Feb 2014)
Sometimes it gets daunting looking at the huge mounds of work in front of you. Filtering can help cut through the distraction. Two types have worked for me:

Filter by organisation

Filter by client

Are you working for a particular client today, and don’t want to see anything related to any other clients? Assign one label per client, then turn on the filter!

Filter by … you

Filter by youTo focus on just one or two tasks that you need to finish, first assign yourself to those cards. Then, filter to only show cards that you’re assigned to. This feature is intended for collaboration, but it works nicely.

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Improving on the “administration rights required” workflow

Consider an action like creating a new “space” in Confluence. Because of the visibility of this action, people want it restricted. Controlled. Managed. So Atlassian makes it only available to people with administrator rights. Which seems ok, until you realise that the workflow of the non-administrator ends up looking like this:

  1. …doing stuff…
  2. Decide to create new space
  3. Attempt to create space, discover that you need an administrator to do it
  4. Find out who the administrator is
  5. Ask them to do it
  6. Wait
And for the administrator it looks like this:
  1. …doing stuff…
  2. Receive request to make a new Confluence space.
  3. Confluence? What? I’m busy configuring a new VM here…oh, fine.
  4. Go log into Confluence, remember how to create a space
  5. Get back to work
And probably there will be some miscommunication about exactly what is required. Confluence spaces are a bit of a trivial example. In other instances, you need a lot of information to perform the administrative action, and if there’s a mistake, it again requires the administrator to fix it. Eventually the administrator gets sick of being bothered with such trivia, and the non-administrator gets sick of hassling them, finding an alternative, or living with a misconfigured thing.
For the user: frustration, blockage, helplessness
For the administrator: disruption, menial tasks

Alternative workflow #1: approval only

For the non-administrator:

  1. …doing stuff
  2. Decide to create a new Confluence space
  3. Enter the form, fill out all the details, press Ok.
  4. (Confluence sends a “Is this ok?” email to administrator)
  5. Wait
For the administrator:
  1. …doing stuff
  2. Receive approval request.
  3. Since it’s from a fairly trustworthy user, and seems to make sense, click the link.
  4. Get back to work.
It’s better. The administrator now doesn’t need to know anything about the request. This workflow exists in some kinds of systems (CMSes particularly), but could be a lot more widespread. Ironically, although Jira is a workflow tool, it doesn’t actually have any workflows built in for administration.
For the user: blockage
For the administrator: disruption

Alternative workflow #2: private pending approval

Since creating a space has very limited potential for destruction if it’s hidden, how about this:

For the administrator:

  1. …doing stuff
  2. Decide to create Confluence space
  3. Fill out form
  4. Press Ok
  5. (Confluence sends email to administrator, creates space in “private” mode)
  6. Start working in new space. Do almost anything except collaborate with others in this space.
The benefit is clear: there is now no “waiting” step.
For the administrator, it’s the same as before:
  1. …doing stuff
  2. Receive approval request.
  3. Since it’s from a fairly trustworthy user, and seems to make sense, click the link.
    1. If more information is required, look at what the user has done in the new space, for a bit of context.
  4. Get back to work.
There is a mild benefit here, too: the administrator is no longer under as much pressure to immediately approve the thing, and can even see what has been done with the space.
For the user: flow maintained
For the administrator: very mild disruption

Alternative workflow #3: public until reverted

Most users aren’t destructive. And especially in professional environments, virtually all users can be trusted to act in good faith. (Managers strangely predict “chaos” if many users are authorised). So, let them do it:

  1. Decide to create Confluence space
  2. Create Confluence space
  3. Work in new space
For the administrator:
  1. Receive notification that a space has been created
  2. If it looks wrong, strange, inappropriate etc, discuss with the user, and possibly remove it.
  3. Otherwise, keep working
For the user: productivity, responsibility
For the administrator: productivity, trust