January’s community call recap: Project management tools for community managers

Our January call focused on project management tools and how they can streamline collaborations and improve efficiency. This post includes a summary of the call, as well as video clips of presentations from Lou Woodley (CSCCE; describing the tool Trello), Alycia Crall (the Carpentries; describing Asana), Anne Heberger Marino (Lean-To Collaborations, describing Mural), Ellen Dow (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, describing Todoist).

Using Trello to reduce distractions

CSCCE’s Lou Woodley kicked off the call with an analysis of how Trello solves three common project management problems that members of our community of practice face.

Problem 1: Members of a team are unaware of what other members are working on, and the team’s lead is too busy to keep realigning everyone.

Problem 2: Flurries of email create confusion, which leads to realignment meetings, which take up time that team members would like to use to accomplish tasks.

Problem 3: Version control falls by the wayside and different team members end up working on different versions of a document.

Lou explained that ticket-based task management systems such as Trello decentralize task management, let team members easily visualize who’s doing what, and build accountability for deliverables. Each of these qualities helps solve Problem 1. By allowing team members to move forward independently without losing touch with their coworkers, Trello also helps solve Problem 2. And linking Trello cards to evolving documents ensures that everyone works on the most recent version, solving Problem 3.

Lou also advocated for using Trello’s “in progress” card category to ensure that each individual is only working on a maximum of three tasks per project at a time — a practice she said can be “transformative.”

Overall, Lou’s take home messages were:

  • Implementing a ticketing system takes discipline at first, but if a team successfully resists the urge to slip back into communicating through email, they’ll benefit in the long run.
  • Limiting “in progress” items to three avoids distraction and increases productivity.
  • Getting used to using a platform like Trello can take some trial and error, so be prepared to iterate your processes with your team. 
  • Document and template your processes as you go. Trello allows users to create template cards that can be used again and again.
  • Remember to train new team members so that everyone uses Trello similarly.

About Trello

Subscription cost: Tiered plans ranging from $0.00-$17.50 USD/month. Trello also has a non-profit discount.

Trello is a web-based app that lets users organize projects (e.g. our new case studies project) or team functions (e.g. communications) into boards with each board containing multiple cards corresponding to discrete project deliverables. For example, CSCCE has a Trello board called “Q1 2022 communications” that contains cards such as “write community call summary blog post.” Each card can contain a checklist, and items on the checklist can be assigned to team members and given due dates. Trello users move cards from left to right across columns on the board to indicate whether tasks are backlogged, in progress,  ready for review, or completed.

Harnessing Asana to prioritize tasks

About Asana

Subscription cost: Tiered plans ranging from $0.00-$24.99 USD/month plus customizable “enterprise plans”. Asana also has a non-profit discount. 

Like Trello, Asana is an app that gives users the ability to track tasks, assign responsibility, and keep track of deadlines. The Carpentries’ Alycia Crall gave an overview of how Asana helps her organize her workflow. One of Alycia’s goals is to prioritize her tasks in a way that maximizes productivity, and she walked through how the app’s various pages let her achieve that goal.

  • On the homepage, Asana provides users with a quick view of tasks that are due soon, which gives the user an easy way to summarize their work at a glance and decide what to work on.
  • On the settings page, users can change how they receive notifications about each project. This lets users quickly gain information about the projects they’re most involved with while leaving less-relevant projects to wait until the user has time to catch up.
  • The “My Tasks” view shows the user all the tasks they’re working on and lets them filter by incomplete or complete. Adjusting Asana’s settings lets the user view their projects as a list, on a calendar, or as a board similar to Trello.

Alycia finds Asana’s ability to assign tasks to individuals or teams especially helpful. This feature transcends an individual’s workflow and lets the whole team focus on accomplishing the goals that matter most – which works well for a global organization with a highly collaborative team such as the Carpentries. And, rather charmingly, when a user checks off a task, Asana produces a cartoon animal that flies across the screen!

Outlining in Mural to channel creativity

About Mural

Subscription cost: Tiered plans ranging from $0.00-$17.99 USD/month plus customizable “enterprise plans”. Mural also has a non-profit discount.

Mural is a virtual whiteboard tool with a growing number of templates that can be customized from many project-related tasks from brainstorming to building team charters. Users can also create their own board layouts and use the online app’s sticky notes, connectors, and ability to  delineate different board areas to conceptualize projects and create workflows. Lean-to Collaboration’s Anne Heberger Marino described several ways that Mural’s highly visual interface lets her incorporate creativity into her personal business, from interacting with her clients to figuring out the type of work that drives her. 

Anne’s approach to using Mural for big picture planning also involves an element of reflection, adapted from the coaching toolkit: She adds icons to each of the post-it notes to highlight tasks she enjoys vs. those she finds challenging or less stimulating. 

  • When Anne went into business for herself, suddenly she was in a position to direct her work toward the projects that matter most to her. The only problem was, she still needed to discover which type of projects motivated her the most. Anne used Mural to annotate her projects with emojis that described the emotions she felt around each one. Over time, she’s used these emojis to identify the characteristics of projects that put her in her happy place.
  • Anne also sets up Mural boards to help clients with extreme collaborations. Scientists from far flung geographic areas can come together on a board to lay out the aspects of a project that matter most and decide on priorities.
  • Anne also incorporates well-established project management techniques into Mural. The Pomodoro method, for example, involves working intently for 25 minutes, then taking a five minute break. Anne uses Mural to visualize how many Pomodoro sessions she’ll need to get through her ToDo list.

You can find Anne’s custom planning Mural template here, ready to adapt to meet your own project planning needs. 

Tracking tasks in Todoist to keep all the balls in the air

About Todoist

Subscription cost: Tiered plans ranging from $0.00-$5.00 USD/month billed annually or $0.00-$6.00/month billed monthly

Like Trello and Asana, Todoist is a task-tracking app that helps users visualize their work and avoid dropping tasks. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Ellen Dow presented some of Todoist’s most useful features and described how she uses them to juggle multiple projects.

  • A list view allows Todoist users to visualize all the tasks that are on their plate. Checklists associated with each task help them move steadily through projects.
  • The content calendar and board views let users visualize tasks according to when they’re due, or categorized by the stage they’re in.
  • Todoist allows the user to assign tasks to team members. Even when Ellen assigns all of a project’s tasks to herself, she still finds the feature useful because it generates reminders and allows her to filter for urgent tasks.

Ellen’s take-home message is that Todoist does take time to set up and incorporate into a team’s workflow. But once it’s rolling, Todoist lets teams manage tasks fluidly and keep projects moving smoothly.

Got an idea for a future call? 

This month’s call was put together in response to multiple asks from members of the CSCCE community of practice to offer some guidance on project management. And, with record attendance, it clearly scratched an itch for lots of scientific community managers. 

If there’s something you’d like to see us cover on a future community call, please let us know by emailing info@cscce.org. Our February and March dates are already spoken for (and you can find out what we’ll be talking about here), but from April onwards we can work to schedule something with you!