My life got extra complicated in the last few months. I gave birth to my first child in January, and in between the stress of a new baby, unexpected hospital visits, and the worst winter in 35 years, it was a trying time. While I was able to step back from many commitments during my 8 week maternity leave, I didn’t want to be completely out the loop, and since I would come back to three conferences back to back, I needed to be able to jump back in and monitor collaborative projects from wherever. All of us have times in our lives that are this hectic or even more so, but even in the regular busy thrum of our professional lives it’s too easy to let ongoing commitments like committee work completely disappear from our mental landscapes other than the nagging feeling that you are missing something.
There are various methods and tools to enhance productivity, which we’ve looked at before. Some basic collaboration tools such as Google Docs are always good to have any time you are working on a group project that builds into something like a presentation or report. But for committee work or every day work in a department, something more specialized can be even better. I want to look at some real-life examples of using lightweight project management tools to keep projects that you work on with others going strong—or not so strong, depending on how they are used. Over the past 4-5 months I’ve gotten experience using Trello for committee work and Asana for work projects. Both of them have some great features, but as always the implementation doesn’t depend entirely on the software’s functionality. Beyond my experience with these two implementations I’ll address a few other tools and my experience with effective usage of them.
I have the great fortune of having an entire wall of my office painted with white board paint, and use it to sketch out ideas and projects. For that to be useful, I need to be physically be in the office. So before I went on maternity leave, I knew I needed to get all my projects at work organized in a way that I could give tasks I would normally do to others, as well as monitor what was happening on large on-going projects. I had used Asana before in another context, so I decided to give it a try for this purpose. Asana has projects, tasks, and due dates that anyone in a workspace can follow and assign. It’s a pretty flexible system–the screenshot shows one potential way of setting it up, but we use different models for different projects, and there are many ideas out there. My favorite feature is project templates, which I use in another workspace that I share with my graduate assistant. This allows you to create a new project based on a standard series of steps, which means that she could create new projects while I was away based on the normal workflow we follow and I could work on them when I returned. All of this requires a very strict attention to keeping projects organized, however, and if you don’t have an agreed upon system for naming and organizing tasks they can get out of hand very quickly.
We also use Asana as part of our help request system. We wanted to set up a system to track requests from all the library staff not only for my maternity leave but in general. I looked at many different systems, but they were almost all too heavy-duty for what we needed. I made our own very lightweight system using the Webform module in Drupal on our intranet. Staff submits requests through that form, which sends an email using a departmental email address to our Issue Tracking queue in Asana. Once the task is completed we explain the problem in an Asana comment (or just mark completed if it’s a normal request such as new user account), and then send a reply to the requestor through the intranet. They can see all the requests they’ve made plus the replies through that system. The nice thing about doing it this way is that everything is in one place–trouble tickets become projects with tasks very easily.
Trello is designed to mimic the experience of using index cards or sticky notes on a wall to track ideas and figure out what is going on at a glance. This is particularly useful for ongoing work where you have multiple projects in a set of pipelines divvied up among various people. You can easily see how many ideas you have in the inception stage and how many are closer to completion, which can be a good motivator to move items along. Another use is to store detailed project ideas and notes and then sort them into lists once you figure out a structure.
Trello starts with a virtual board, which is divided into lists of cards. Trello cards can be assigned to specific people, and anyone can follow a card to get notifications. Clicking on a card brings up a whole set of additional options, including who is working on the project, attachments, due dates, color coding, and anything else you might want. The screenshot shows how the LITA Education Committee uses Trello to plan educational offerings. The white areas with small boxes indicate cards (we use one card per program/potential idea) that are active and assigned, the gray areas indicate cards which haven’t been touched in a while and so probably need followup. Not surprisingly, there are many more cards, many of which are inactive, at the beginning of the pipeline than at the end with programs already set up. This is a good visual reminder that we need to keep things moving along.
In this case I didn’t set up Trello, and I am not always the best user of it. Using this for committee work has been useful, but there are a few items to keep in mind for it to actually work to keep projects going. First, and this goes for everything, including analog cards or sticky notes, all the people working on the project need to check into it on a regular basis and use it consistently. One thing that I found was important to do to get it into a regular workflow was turn on email notifications. While it would be nice to stay out of email more, most of us are used to finding work show up there, and if you have a sane relationship to your inbox (i.e. you don’t use it to store work in progress), it can be helpful to know to log in to work on something. I haven’t used the mobile app yet, but that is another option for notifications.
While I have started using Asana and Trello more heavily recently, there are a number of other tools out there that you may need to use in your job or professional life. Here are a few:
Many institutions have some sort of “cloud” file system now such as Box or Google Drive. My work uses Box, and I find it very useful for parts of projects where I need many people (but a slightly different set each time) to collaborate on completing a single task. I upload a spreadsheet that I need everyone to look at, use the information to do something, and then add additional information to the spreadsheet. This is a very common scenario that organizations often use a shared drive to accomplish, but there are a number of problems with that approach. If you’ve ever been confronted with the filename “Spring2014_report-Copy-Copy-DRAFT.xlsx” or not been able to open a file because someone else left it open on her desktop and went to lunch, you know what I mean. Instead of that, I upload the file to Box, and assign a task to the usernames of all the people I need to look at the document. They can use a tool called Box Edit to open the file in Excel and any changes they make are immediately saved back to the shared document, just as a Google Doc would do. They can then mark the task complete, and the system only sends email reminders to people who haven’t yet finished the task.
This section is only relevant to people working on projects with an American Library Association group, whether a committee or interest group. Since this happens to most people working in academic libraries at some point, I think it’s worth considering. But if not, skip to the conclusion. ALA Connect is the central repository for institutional memory and documents for work around ALA, including committees and interest groups. It can also be a good place to work on project collaboratively, but it takes some setup. As a committee chair, I freely admit that I need to organize my own ALA Connect page much better. My normal approach was to use an online document (so something editable by everyone) for each project and file each document under a subcommittee heading, but in practice I find it way too hard to find the right document to see what each subcommittee is working on. I am going to experiment with a new approach. I will create “groups” for each project, and use the Group Headings sidebar to organize these. If you’re on a committee and not the chair, you don’t have access to reorganize the sidebar or posts, but suggest this approach to your chair if you can’t find anything in “General News & Discussions”. Also, try to document the approach you’ve taken so future chairs will know what you did, and let other chairs know what works for your committee.
You also need to make a firm commitment as a chair to hold certain types of discussions on your committee mailing list, and certain discussions on ALA Connect, and then to document any pertinent mailing list discussions on ALA Connect. That way you won’t be unable to figure out where you are on the project because half your work is in email and half on ALA Connect. (This obviously goes for any other tool other than email as well).
With all the tools above, you really have no excuse to be running projects through email, which is not very effective unless everyone you are working with is very strict with their email filing and reply times. (Hint: they aren’t—see above about a sane relationship with your inbox.) But any tool requires a good plan to understand how its strengths mesh with work you have to accomplish. If your project is to complete a document by a certain date, a combination of Google Docs or Box (or ALA Connect for ALA work) and automated reminders might be best. If you want to throw a lot of ideas around and then organize them, Trello or Asana might work. Since these are all free to try, explore a few tools before starting a big project to see what works for you and your collaborators. Once you pick one, dedicate a bit of time on a weekly or monthly basis to keeping your virtual workspace organized. If you find it’s no longer working, figure out why. Did the scope of your project change over time, and a different tool is now more effective? This can happen when you are planning to implement something and switch over from the implementation to ongoing work using the new system. Or maybe people have gotten complacent about checking in on work to do. Explore different types of notifications or mobile apps to reinvigorate your team.
I would love to hear about your own approach to lightweight project management with these tools or others in the comments.