Trello for self-managing teams

I’m a Trellovangelist. A dedicated fanboy of Trello, an increasingly popular Kanban style organizing tool that can be used in many different ways, from agile project management, to a issue-tracking system, to a personal organizer.


I use one of my many Trello boards to coordinate the web and social media work/study team at Brescia University College. As new web and social media tasks and projects are requested by University staff and faculty they are added to the board, and assigned to various team members for completion.

Or at least that’s how we used to do it.

An interesting side effect of using Trello is that workflows, and the implicit power relationships behind them, are brought to the surface and made visible by the act of using such a visual tool.

In Trello, it becomes very clear who is creating and moving the cards, who is an actor and who is at the effect of the actions of others. The flow of power and control are made visible as cards are moved from list to list, in much the same way as widgets are moved along an assembly line.

But a university isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – a widget factory.

So I decided to try an experiment. Using Trello as a tool for worker self-management.

Instead of sticking to the managerial role of assigning tasks to people based on my perception of ‘who should do what and when’, we now use a system where people select and pull the jobs they want to do, when they want to do them.

Here is how it works.

  1. I prepare work to ensure all the needed information is assembled, and drop the card representing the project on the ‘Grab a Job’ list.
  2. The work/study team members can then log in, review the available jobs, and drag the ones they want to do onto their ‘Is Doing…’ list.
  3. When the work is done, they drag the card onto the ‘Hey Dan, Check These Out’ list for feedback and project closure.

I’ve seen a lot of benefits to this new approach: When people get to choose jobs that they want, quality goes up. productivity goes up. Creativity goes up. Better schedule flexibility lets people trade time for money on their own terms, and makes it easy for them to work around their exams and papers, which is after all why they are really here!

It’s also more fun. There is an element of game play, with people jumping on to Trello to grab a job they want as soon as it is posted.

Also – to my chagrin – I’ve discovered that back when I was assigning the work, I all too often overlooked team member’s special talents and skills. Only now that they are able to choose their own jobs do people get the chance to really prove their artistry and editorial talent.

At this point I’d normally list the downsides of the new approach… but frankly I’ve not seen any. The benefits of engaged, self-managed work far outweigh the theoretical downsides of losing control of the widget assembly line.