When you search ‘Trello project management’ dozens of articles show up, but they all seem to say ‘Use boards’. We know, however, how Trello boards break up with projects at scale. What are your options when you deal with large projects, 100’s of tasks and many teams? What are the missing features when using Trello for large projects? How to supplement those features?
Let’s begin with how the majority of Trello users manage small- or medium-scale projects in Trello. Many project managers stick more or less to one of the two patterns:
To do – In progress – Done
The most popular and simple pattern Trello users follow is called Kanban board. All you need is to set up ‘To do’, ‘In progress’ and ‘Done’ containers on your Trello board. In fact, chances are Trello itself will create the To do/Doing/Done containers when you set up your first board. You prioritize tasks by sliding them up or down in the ‘To do’ and ‘In progress’ columns. That’s basically it!
Example: you are an e-store owner and you’re seeing stagnation in your sales. You’ve kept that ‘Refresh the design of my store’ task in the ‘To do’ container for years. Perhaps the time has come to move that task to the top of the ‘To do’ list ;)
Instead of one board, you could obviously have a few of them, each representing a single project or a single team. Say, you might have five Trello boards: one for each of your four projects and the fifth one for the marketing team that works on their ‘perpetual’ project ;)
What’s are the downsides of using this approach for a large project?
- the Kanban board is usually too ‘coarse’ for projects with 10 or 20 team members. Imagine it is mid-September today and you need to schedule a task for 1st to 4th October. All you can do on the Kanban Trello board is setting the due date. Since there is no timeline, you, a project manager cannot let the assignees know that they are expected to start working on that task on the 1st of October.
- Now let’s suppose today is the 29th of September, 9 a.m. and your staff has just arrived at the workplace. With Kanban boards they can’t really tell what in fact they should be focused on on September 29th and what they are expected to do tomorrow. Now let’s suppose you have 100’s of tasks in your project and 50 team members…
Backlog – Sprint 2 – Sprint 3 – … – Done in Sprint 1
This one is called Scrum and is slightly more appropriate for the large projects. Sprints in Scrum usually last two weeks but – more importantly – they have to be of the same length, or cadence, from sprint to sprint; be it one, two, three or four weeks. How does this aid the large projects?
Now at least you can order: ‘In the upcoming week (or two weeks) you, Josh and Matthew, are expected to complete task A, task B and task C’.
Since you might have at a time, say, four sprints on your Trello board, then all of the sudden those ‘Sprint 2’, ‘Sprint 3’, ‘Sprint 4’ and ‘Sprint 5’ containers that line up your Trello board from left to right, well, they collectively make a quasi-timeline. And instead of two-week sprints you might use containers representing single weeks to make the timeline more granular…
You don’t like the agile terminology? Forget Scrum, sprints and cadence? Think ‘weeks‘ and so name containers on your board. The leftmost container should spell ‘To do’, or more properly ‘Backlog’. The rightmost column should be called ‘Done in [the most recent] sprint/week’. In between are lists representing the upcoming sprints or weeks.
You would want to archive the rightmost ‘Done | Sprint 1’ list once the ‘Sprint 2’ have become ‘Done | Sprint 2’. On the header of that Trello list hit ⋅⋅⋅ > Archive this column.
Example: you are a project manager for a construction company. You are building a hospital and you are planning work for your sub-contractors weeks ahead. You use Trello boards with columns titled, left to right, ‘To do’, ‘Week 15’, ‘Week 16’, ‘Week 17’, …, ‘Done’.
Viable, in theory? There are still some issues:
- You either have to maintain a separate board for each team/crew or you risk mixing crews up on a single board and confusing people.
- If you’ve elected the ‘separate board for each team/crew’ option, you, a project manager or coordinator are unable to see the entire workflow on a single board. In other words you are going to miss the big picture of your construction project.
- Even though you are able to plan a few weeks ahead, you still can’t plan months ahead, since you can’t zoom out your quasi-timeline. You rather store more distant tasks in the Backlog/To do container.
How to cut into full scale project management with Trello?
To overcome the Trello limitations when dealing with complex projects, you need to extend your Trello with this very special set of features. Let’s enumerate them one by one:
- a Gantt chart, a.k.a. a bar chart. A bar on the chart shows, how long will a task last compared to other tasks. Check the animation below for an idea of how the Gantt chart works.
- You can schedule the start & end dates of that task on the Gantt chart, so think ‘timeline‘.
- In complex projects dependencies between tasks are common. Think ‘I can pour a concrete slab (task B) only after rebar has been installed (task A)’. Those dashed arrows on the below animation represent the end-to-start dependencies.
- Many complex projects use resource planning, to accurately allocate capacity of valuable resources, such as engineers, experts, pricey construction equipment, etc. Resource management is non-existent in plain Trello.
- When you deal with projects at scale, with 80-100 tasks or more, you need to group them somehow – think ‘parent tasks‘ or, even better, ‘goals‘. For instance, you could group 20 tasks in that construction project under the parent task ‘Complete foundation of the hospital’.
Most importantly: the big picture
Large projects call for the big picture. Project managers need the bird’s eye view to report to their stakeholders on how advanced a project is at any given time. In Trello the big picture means two things:
- You need to be able to combine tasks from multiple Trello boards on a single timeline. Check the animation below.
- You need to be able to gain perspective: from one day to one month to one year and more.
Very few project management power-ups for Trello combine all the aforementioned features. One such app is BigPicture – Gantt charts for Trello. Notice, how using the ‘↔’ icon in BigPicture changes your perspective:
What does Trello officially say?
How to find a project management app for Trello?
You’re not sure, whether to pick BigPicture? What terms to put into ‘Trello Power-Ups’ search engine to get a list of the truly large-project-oriented apps? You’ve certainly tried the ‘project management’ key phrase only to discover dozens of granular, sometimes overlapping plug-ins such as Twitter power-up, a palette of calendars or tools that integrate Trello with various third-party platforms.
What ‘terms’ should you actually search for to transform your Trello into a powerful project management app, suitable for large projects or portfolios of projects?
- ‘PPM’, or Project Portfolio Management. It means what it says – in real life you rarely manage just one project. Instead you often have a collection of projects. O.K. – you might say – ‘I could just use multiple Trello boards, one for each project, so that they collectively represent my portfolio’. Could you, however, combine those boards-projects on a single view to see the big picture of your organization?
- Search ‘Gantt chart’. Gantt charts are great in delivering the big picture of your project(s). They let you zoom in and out the timeline, to change your time frame from a week to three months to a year or more. Although the Gantt chart is a ‘classic’ tool, it is enormously popular among full-time project managers. With Trello, which itself is a modern agile tool, the proven waterfall Gantt charts seem especially appropriate. Check a comparison of Gantt charts available for Trello.
- Search ‘Trello timeline’ – you might have considered the timeline granted in any project management software. Not in Trello though. The core Trello doesn’t have a timeline.
It’s time to research the above terms, especially the ‘PPM’
Have you ever had this thought: ‘the timeline might be a good thing in Trello’? When were you last unable to schedule the start date of a task? Have you ever felt like seeing multiple Trello boards on a single screen?
If you answer ‘Yes’, then perhaps it’s time to extend your Trello with a Project Portfolio Management Power-Up? Just try ‘PPM’ in Trello Power-Ups search engine? Do you see this?
At the time of writing BigPicture is the only true PPM app available on Trello Power-Ups!
Of course, to many Trello users PPM might be a new kid on the block. Let’s break it down into pieces and check how good is BigPicture as far as the ‘ingredients’ of PPM are concerned, namely ‘Gantt chart’, ‘timeline’ and ‘resources’…
Gantt charts make the core of BigPicture and ‘Gantt chart’ implies a timeline. There are quite a few Gantt chart power-ups for Trello. Check how do they compare to each other.
BigPicture is unconditionally free, as opposed to many competitors. But there is this: neither a single developer, nor a party of five, develop BigPicture. Instead a party of fifty, including extensive support team, take care of BigPicture development every day :)
Finally, when running a large project, we need to keep an eye on resources. Ideally there should be a compact resource module at the bottom of the Gantt chart. It would show green or red bars depending on how accurately a capacity of a team or an individual is allocated in a given day, week, month or whatever the perspective is. We’re working hard on the resource module in BigPicture for Trello…
Could Trello remain free as a professional project management tool?
We’ve all got used to the fact that Trello is available free of charge. Does it hold true with project management tools, added on top of your Trello? Of course, many of them are indeed free. But there is this serious limitation: compared to paid Trello Business Class and Trello Enterprise, Trello Free has the ‘one power-up per board’ restriction. Therefore if you want to keep your Trello free, you might want to seek a single, complete project management power-up instead of a cluster of power-ups. This is how BigPicture was conceived, it is the all-in-one project management power-up.
Even better, if you have, say, five boards/projects in your Trello you can attach BigPicture to a single board of your choice and then ‘suck’ data from other boards. This way you have four unoccupied slots available on the remaining four boards :)