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During the development of complex technical projects, such as ArabicOnline or HandsOnTurkish, we can often have hundreds of tasks open or still “to do” (upates, bugs, ideas features etc).

There is no way that any human being can keep all of these tasks in their memory nor can they prioritise them and then act accordingly. To add complexion, with multiple team members and multiple projects, many of these tasks need to be delegated to team members who might also be working on various projects.

As a result we needed some digital project management tools which shared, tracked and prioritised our tasks.

One of the original tools we used was Zoho. The potential of the system was incredible but assumed a large organisation which integrated time tracking, HR, hierarchies etc, all of which were unnecessary for us. Bearing in mind that we used the tool a few years ago, I found the task delegation to be quite time-consuming. I seem remember that about six or seven clicks were required to add a simple task. It quickly became quite obvious that the rest of the team didn’t take to this system.

We then tried Staction which was a neat little service, ideal for smaller teams and simply focussed on tasks and getting them done and reiterating that email shouldn’t be used for task delegation. The only problem (again, a few years ago) was marking a task as complete, which at the time wasn’t intuitive and wasn’t clear who undertook this.

After listening to Joel Spolsky give a presentation in TechHub, we then tried Trello. This was the most intuitive service and the most übersichtlich. The task-sharing and the team collaboration worked seamlessly. Trello, in the last few years has expanded and continued to develop the service to include image sharing, integrating of docs, colours, dates, themes, hashtags and all sorts. In fact, I was quite happy with the way it was originally. The fact that it conforms with the Lean software principles is a bonus and is a good enough reason to use it.

HandsOnTurkish Trello Dev

Our development board for the Turkish app


Despite all of this, the initial enthusiasm eventually petered out. The team are using the system less and less and I, also, have found myself overwhelmed by it. We had to many boards and too many cards.

The problem seems to be related to Parkinson’s law that when space is created, it will be filled. New motorways never stay empty. Hard disk space soon fills up with more and bigger files.

The problem we face with the cloud based digital medium is, however, that the space is effectively limitless. You can keep adding boards and cards till you go crazy in the head. The problem is further compounded by the fact that with a digital project, you can keep refining and creating tasks forever and ever. The ‘things to do’ can be limitless. The fact that 90% of feature backlogs are never completed is proof enough.

As a result, for my personal work, I have started going back to pen and paper. The paper is a defined physical space. A4, or better still, A5. I write down tasks and cross them off when complete, similarly to the ‘Pomodoro Technique‘. Then, for project management, tasks are collated and then distributed in blocks.

We still use Trello, but more as an idea and planning board and we look at it less often. It has cut down emails but has created another problem of being overwhelmed. Hence why needed a structure – in our case a physical framework.

Personally, I find the pen and paper enjoyable and suitable. The act of crossing something off gives me great satisfaction and symbolically represents the completion of a task. Having a defined amount of tasks also avoids being overwhelmed. It is quite easy, when faced with too many tasks, to slump into a state of inertia and not know where to begin. Joel spolsky himself stated that the original idea of Trello was called Five things – i.e. five things you work on: “two things they were actively doing, one thing that was ‘up next’, and a couple more that they were planning.” This, too, is an effective structure and achieves something similar to my pen and paper.

At the end of the day, there is also something refreshing about using a pen and paper, seeing as most of our work is digital! Then again, if all the world’s servers suddenly crashed due to an electro-magnetic blast from the sun, deleting all data, at least we would have something to show for it.