Is Your Team Feeling Scattered and Unfocused?

Not everything needs attention right this minute
Kevin Smith ·

In the world of design and development, your team’s getting a lot thrown at it. It’s true if you’re running a software shop responsible for churning out a single product, and it’s especially problematic for digital agencies with multiple clients. But when everything’s an emergency, nothing is. We need a better way of keeping on top of all those demands and knowing which ones we should focus on right now.

I’ve been through the ringer with project management systems: notes on loose-leaf paper, to-do apps, purpose-built tools like Basecamp, complicated Scrum tools, JIRA. The old adage I keep coming back to is this: Keep it Simple. The harder your system is to work with, the less likely it is to actually be helpful.

The method I’ve found that works time and again—for individuals and teams alike—is called kanban. At its core, it’s about simply visualizing each bit of work as a card up on a board. (Think of a Post-it® Note on a whiteboard.) If you’ve ever toyed around with a digital tool like Trello, you’re already familiar with the idea though you may not understand just how powerful it is.

Language doesn’t come naturally to us humans. It must be taught and learned, and it requires higher-level brain power to comprehend. Understanding visual elements, on the other hand, is wired into the deepest parts of who we are as a species. Had our ancestors not been able to scan a landscape and immediately identify a threat (i.e. what must be focused on vs. what can be ignored), they would never have survived.

Some research suggests our brains process visual information as much as 60,000 times faster than text. That makes sense, when you think about it. We can process visual information all at once, but text-based information must be consumed and processed in a linear fashion.

Getting started is simple:

  1. Get a whiteboard (or a digital equivalent like Trello or LeanKit).
  2. Create 3 columns: To Do, Doing, and Done.
  3. Make a card for each current and planned item of work, and put the card in the appropriate column.
    (Don’t get bogged down in defining what constitutes an item of work. You can improve on that later. Just get started for now.)
  4. Prioritize the work by moving the cards and putting the most pressing at the top.
  5. As you’re doing the work represented on those cards, move them across the board through the appropriate columns.

What’s so special about this? And how is this better than just a checklist?

A checklist is great for the grocery store, but it falls flat for ongoing work because your brain has to read all the items and actually think, “Is this something I’m working on right now or not?” You can’t see what’s currently on your plate, only what “not done”. It’s an unending list of everything you haven’t accomplished yet.

Whew, talk about stressful!

The steps above aren’t magic. They’re simple, but they include most of the elements a human needs to get a quick sense of what’s going on and feel great about what they’ve accomplished. (There’s something else you can add to the mix as you improve. I’ll cover that in an upcoming post.)

The key takeaway is this: don’t worry about anything that’s not in the Doing column. That column is your team’s job. Everything in the To Do column is for the future, but the Doing column? That’s right now. Focus all your efforts on moving those cards into the Done column. Then kick back and enjoy the sweet satisfaction of getting something done.

We’re not robots, after all. Rewards matter a lot for job satisfaction and ongoing motivation.

This isn’t a way of working that requires you to perfectly understand it before you can implement it. It’s not about some sophisticated process. Just get started with where you are right now. Put your current and planned work on the board. Don’t worry about trying to redesign how your team works just yet. That’ll all come later.

Just put the work on the board, and encourage your team to focus on getting Doing cards to Done.