Out of your Inbox, Into Trello: More Effective Whole-Team Communication

Nobody wants to be the bottleneck. Email is often the logjam that holds up the flow of progress while everyone waits for a team member to painfully extract a pivotal piece of information from an unfiled, untagged, unfindable email that nobody else has.

For teams to work effectively and productively, all team members need access to necessary information without relying on a gatekeeper. Even when email is used with the best intentions and communications are shared widely, the inbox often becomes a barrier to information access simply due to its individualized nature and conversation-centric structure. Only recipients of the email in question can find it and access the information within. Email intends for conversations to remain threaded together, and for information to be shared in the form of letter-like messages. This means that a huge portion of the words included in your email archive are unrelated to the email content, causing searching to be slow and ineffective. Since emails are archived, filed, or saved as conversations we often find ourselves trying to remember who the information came from when searching based on what it was about proves insufficient.

So we got this type of communication out of our inboxes and into Trello, eliminating the silo-ization inherent to email systems.

Why Trello for Team Communication?

There are lots of awesome tools you can use to liberate your team's conversations from the email inbox: Slack, Asana, BaseCamp, Jira/Confluence/Agile, Google Hangouts, Google Docs. Some of them are just for chatting and archiving the chat, and some integrate project management or collaboration with conversations.

We use Trello for organizing our team communication because:

  1. It's free (#thankgoodness)
  2. It's searchable
  3. It organizes our conversations around tasks and projects

Tools for instant messaging and conversation-based collaboration (Slack, Google Hangouts, Yammer) are crucial for keeping a team (especially one with a remote-first mentality) on the same page. We use Google Hangouts for instant contact amongst our team. But we don't want to keep all of our conversation and collaboration there because it's disconnected from the work we're doing. That's why we need a project management-type tool that still allows us all to communicate quickly and transparently. Trello is our place for that.

Trello lets us create cards for tasks and projects, populate them with detailed information, and either assign them to a team member for action to be taken or leave them there for someone to find later when they need them. As a supervisor, I can create a card with project specifics for one of my team members - instructions, a checklist of sub-tasks, a deadline, and attached documentation. I can assign it, or tag the team to let them know the card is up for grabs. Questions and answers about the project occur on the card, too. The conversation can include just me and the assignee, or we can pull in others. All of the project's progress and communication about it are tracked on the card, openly transparent for the team to see. If I get sick before we give the presentation we've been planning, somebody else can jump in and easily scroll back through the card to see where we're at and how we got there. And I don't have to forward them tons of emails from my sickbed. (Gross and gross - the emails and the sickness.)

With a project-focused organizational scheme, we boost the power of searching by keyword and decentralize the importance of remembering who said or did what. Trello also remembers who was assigned to a card and even who completed every task and made every change, so we also have a detailed archive of responsibilities and workflow completion. But because Trello is built around its search capability (auto-filled results populate fast) we never have the same difficulty digging up info that we do when searching within email.

Building a Knowledge Base

We also use Trello like a knowledge base. Completed tasks and past projects are archived in Trello (archiving cards, columns, or boards just removes them from view, keeping them in the background forever retrievable) so that all information recorded can be searched and referred back to. We have three additional methods of recording information that enters it into our Trello knowledge base: Remember, FYI, and Templates.

Remember cards contain information we need to regularly or sporadically access. They're in a Remember column that's like a little Rolodex for tidbits of shared knowledge. Contact information, account information, standards or style guides...that kind of thing.

FYI cards communicate information to our team members in the tradition of the memo. They're like a sticky note on a bulletin board. Individuals read the card, take any required action, and then check themselves off the list. The last person to the card participates and then moves the card to the archive, entering it into the knowledge base.

Template boards, cards, and checklists are standard structures that we implement for new team members (our re-usable, customizable Onboarding board), for periodic tasks (cards for projects that occur annually), and for repeat workflows (detailed checklists that are attached to each instance of a task). We deploy Template items again and again, tweaking the Template as necessary. They contribute to our knowledge base in that they teach new team members established processes.

trello sample search

Tailored to Your Team

Teams, like families, all look different. Whether your team works in the same building, the same office, is distributed across the globe, or has members who work from home occasionally, all teams need to share information, manage knowledge, and build transactive memory. Our team is embracing a remote-first mentality to ensure transparency and democratization of information. Even when nobody is working remotely we all still have unfettered access to team information, and combining our communication tool with workflow management allows anyone to pick up where someone else has left off.

Over the past five years we've experimented and iterated and hacked until Trello works exactly the way we want it to. (And we're working on a workshop all about it! Coming to a website near you March 2017.) Sticking to the same tool has allowed us to generate an information archive, but Trello's flexibility means that we've been able to keep changing and upgrading our own experience. The better we make Trello work for us, the easier communicating with our team becomes.

We've woven together a little suite of tools that serves the needs of our team to get work out of email and into places that make it easier.

  • Google Hangouts for communicating super fast in real time
  • Zotero Groups for organizing all research-related tasks and projects
  • Trello for managing all projects and tasks
  • Google Drive for collaborative editing in real time

The common denominators in all of those? Transparency and searchability. Because we realized early in our existence as a team the power of getting information out of the dark and into the sunlight. It's nice out here, everybody.

The Power of the Pair

creative pair

What's a creative pair? We are! Jess and I work in the same department, on the same project, from a shared office. We were beginning to think our personal overlap was getting out of hand when we started reading about creative pairs and decided to fully embrace our collaboration instead. Our workmates think it's funny when we finish each other's sentences, but tendencies like shared language contribute to our increased productivity as a pair. Just like in this quote from Joshua Wolf Shenk's book (linked below), "When we go back and forth, our ideas, our ambitions, our efficiency, our ability - everything gets bigger. The more we overlap, the larger we become, much larger than we were as two individuals” (p. 51), when it comes to Jess and me 1 + 1 does not equal 2. It equals something like 2.5 or 3. 

Creative pairs challenge the conventional structures of the lone genius and the all-powerful team. Pairs--who begin to talk, think, and be like one another the more they interact--are able to utilize transactive memory, balance each other professionally and emotionally, and are often praised for their compounded productivity. The relationship between two people in a creative pair has proven powerful, and organizations have the opportunity to capitalize on their collaborative accomplishments.

Does this sound like you and a colleague? Here are some of our best recommendations for working collaboratively with a partner or a team.

Recommended Reading

Powers of Two: How Relationships Drive Creativity, Joshua Wolf Shenk

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson

Recommended Tools


A perfect app for keeping a team of two (or more!) on track for tasks and projects. Uses a visual sticky-notes-in-columns setup. Checklists allow for the EXTREMELY satisfying experience of checking tasks off when complete.

Google Docs & Google Slides

We've all known about Google Docs for a while. Basic cloud-based word processing with ACTUAL real-time collaborative editing. Now check out Slides for the same experience creating slide decks with a partner or team. Comments, Group Chat, and Suggestion Mode are indispensable. Our most recent favorite feature: quickly locate your editing compatriot in the Doc or Slide deck by clicking their icon in the top corner. Zing! There they are.

Skype or Google Hangouts

Your pair (or team) doesn’t need to be in the same geographic location to keep in sync. Choose your favorite tool for audio and video conferencing and instant messaging. Then use the same one consistently to build up a searchable record of your conversations and all those links you'll be sending back and forth. Transactive memory, enabled by technology.

Zotero Groups

This cool feature of the citation manager Zotero allows your team to build a shared library of research sources, tag them, and use discussion threads. We are SO into this right now.


A super simple, super zoomable outlining app. Good for keeping your writing distraction-free. We use it to outline e-learning content, and you can share and edit collaboratively.


Basically, this desktop app/phone app/browser plug-in will organize your whole life. Save articles and items from anywhere on the Internet, annotate and tag them, make notes and to-do lists, word process, the list goes on and on. The more stuff you save in Evernote, the more useful it gets.


Keep track of allllll the pieces of the Internet you love to read. Feedly aggregates various blogs and news sites for you (remember Google Reader? This is the new that.) and then makes is really easy to share content back and forth with friends. It even works for academic journals that post new issues on a webpage. Use it to find things to add to your team's Zotero Group!

Recommended Practices

  • Working in the same space (shared office, co-work space, or virtual hangout)
  • Collaborative editing
  • Co-note taking
  • Shared accomplishment tracking
  • Friendship : )

Are you one half of a creative pair? What are your favorite collaboration tools?

Basic principles for organizing your digital life

Organized Desk

I just started reading the The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin, and I'm totally fascinated. If that sentence makes you want to punch me in the face, I won’t blame you — but if you allow the librarian in me to indulge in this vein of nerdiness for a few paragraphs, I think you just might like the outcome.

So, a few key points from The Organized Mind: our brains are awesome. We were created to retain an incomprehensible amount of memories, but retrieving said memories is the difficult part. Living in the Information Age now requires us to process more data at a faster rate. (Please note, this is a grossly simplified paraphrase).

My day-to-day life requires systems; without them, I get mega stressed. I get most stressed when everything seems fuzzy — when projects seem big and impossible because I haven’t taken the time to break them down into bite-sized, manageable tasks. I almost always need to brain dump before I begin! And since so much of my life is spent in front of a ding-dang computer, having systems for my digital life is essential.

Therefore, here my are 5 basic principles for organizing your digital life:

1. Get over the guilt

It’s not just pregnancy brain or baby fog or Monday morning mind — it’s science, y’all. We’re bombarded by information (images, music, words, text messages, new recipes, apps… you get the point). Lose your keys? So what! Misplace your kid’s birth certificate? Whatevs! Forget your lunch on the counter the fourth day in a row? It’s all good!

You’re not less intelligent or flawed, even if your coworker calls you a space cadet — you’re human. You’re human and your brain is performing, like, a million operations a minute. So get over feeling guilty or silly or frazzled… and then tweak your system.

2. Build systems that make sense to you…

...but that other people can figure out. When someone walks into your kitchen looking for a drinking glass, you want them to be able to find it. And just as that person is likely to look in a cabinet near the sink for that glass ( or in the event that someone else needs to find or use, say, a file of yours on the network drive) they’re also likely to look in standard locations first.

This is especially imperative if you have specific roles at home (e.g. bill paying!) or work (e.g. statistic keeping!). Good systems enable all potential users to work efficiently.

Good systems do, however, sometimes need a key, so don’t be afraid to create one.  Libraries, for example, use highly sophisticated classification schemas to organize books and materials, but you have to understand the key if you ever want to find anything. (Fun fact: when Melvil Dewey created his decimal system in 1876, he set out to create a way to organize ALL HUMAN KNOWLEDGE. Plan ahead, much?)

3. Commit and invest

This is a do as I say, not as a I do point. Pick one, or maybe two, containers for your digital life. For instance, use Google Drive or DropBox or Amazon Cloud Storage, but not all three. This will drastically improve retrieval because if everything is in one place you don’t have to remember where it is. Yeah! Commit to one thing and then don’t hesitate to invest in it (i.e., you may have to pay for or earn more storage at some point).

Using one place or container also creates an opportunity to eliminate redundancy and to reveal connections within your items. Evernote is especially wonderful for this. Need help choosing which system to use? Stay tuned, I gotcha covered.

4. Use naming conventions and be consistent

Because, duh. If you’re filing receipt images, decide if you’re a YYYY-MM-DD or a DD-MM-YYYY kind of person (hint: be the former. it’s better for long-term archiving).

You’re creating an index so that you can quickly access things later on. I like to control my own vocabulary: if I’m saving recipes, for instance, I will decide to call chickpeas chickpeas instead of garbanzo beans, and I will try my damnedest to do so consistently. This way I can find all of my recipes that contain chickpeas in one place instead of two. #authoritycontrolFTW

5. Work smarter, not harder

Even though information overload complicates life, the one thing that I absolutely love about the digital age is the abundance of tools and apps that allow you to automate life. Analyze the way that you work--what takes up the most time? Which parts do you hate doing the most? Start tracking the tasks that frustrate you most, because we'll be showcasing some of our favorite tools and apps for the most common issues. And in the meantime, don’t stress out if these principles seem overwhelming. Our goal is working less, and we’re gonna get there...eventually!

What are your favorite ways to keep your head clear and your digital life tidy?

10 Reasons to jump on the Trello Train

Note: I originally wrote this post back in 2012. We've gotten so. much. better. at optimizing Trello since then (and we'll be publishing more soon!), but everything you read below is still true!

Trello is a web-based collaboration tool that's kinda like using post it notes on a wall, kanban-style. Using boards, lists, and cards, Trello empowers you to organize projects and people (check back soon for a post on how our team uses Trello to get things done). Here's an example of one of our department's boards:

 One of our original Trello boards, circa 2012.

One of our original Trello boards, circa 2012.

And now, my top 10 reasons to jump on the Trello Train:

 1.   Keep (almost) everything in one place

So, let's start out with a few disclaimers. First, if you're looking for  powerful project management software that also combines extensive document management, then Trello isn't your pick. Secondly, we will give you a super exhaustive but also refreshingly concise list of said software options in the near future, so please stick with me and read the rest of the reasons why you should consider Trello.

That being said, Trello has a wonderfully convenient feature that allows you to attach photos, videos, and documents from your computer, Dropbox, or Google Drive. Dani and I are Google Drive fanatics, and we suggest attaching Google Docs because they will be automatically updated after editing and do not require re-attaching multiple versions.

2.   Cut down on email... like, a lot

It's a widely accepted fact that email is inefficient and disliked. So why not explore options to minimize (and eventually eliminate!) it? Because Trello allows you to comment on individual cards, you and your team can have entire conversations about a task or a topic directly in Trello, instead of through an email thread of 32 messages. When new activity on Trello happens, the notification button on the top of a board will turn red to alert you.

You can also subscribe to a board or a card, and choose to receive email notifications. Trello has a inspiring philosophy on email, so you will only receive an email summary of the unread notifications that you've missed. You can even choose to adjust the frequency of the emails--"instantly" and "never" are both options. OH! And, you can now create cards via email. Yay!

Since using Trello, I've noticed a significant decline in the number of times that I curse the "reply all" button.

3.   Stickers! Puppy dogs! Pretty Things!

Trello's mascot is a husky pup named Taco. Upgrade to Trello Gold, and you can stamp Taco's face EVERYWHERE! Or, you can use the standard set of stickers. Oh, and you can create custom emojis. What's not to love?

UPDATE: Our new favorite way to make things pretty in Trello is to add custom backgrounds. Check out Dress Your Tech for an amazing, expansive curated collection of desktop backgrounds that work wonderfully in Trello. 

4.    All hands on deck, even the old ones. 

Trello allows for real time collaboration, so everyone can work at the same time. It's also so easy to use that even, er, baby boomers and beyond can catch on.

5.   Accountability, or it's obvious when you're not doing shit

Members can be added to boards and/or cards, which is suuuuper helpful when you need to keep track of who's doing what. You can assign specific tasks to teammates, or they can claim tasks on their own. And because all activity is logged and visible, it's plain to see who's working, who has room to take on more tasks, and who needs a help getting things done.

6.   Deadlines. One more time--deadlines.

It's no secret that Dani and I work better under deadlines. With Trello, you can set deadlines on cards and set up reminders so that you don't miss said deadlines. You can also enable the Calender view power-up to view all of your deadline enabled cards by week or by month. Setting deadlines is also a gentler, non-naggy way to get your team to get things done and avoid a work flow bottleneck.

7.   Visual Organization

By default, Trello boards are set up with three lists--To Do, Doing, and Done--but changing the name of the list is certainly possible (again, more details about how we use this feature in the post to come). You can drag and drop cards from list to list, and it's all very nice.  Copying and moving cards, using color coded labels, and adding checklists are additional features.

Side note: I LOVE the flat design of the Windows 8 Trello App. And that might be the first time I've used the word "love" and "Windows" in the same sentence...

8.   Security and stuff

Although you have the option to make Trello boards public, by default they are private so any secrets you want to keep will be safe. Traffic to and from Trello servers is SSL encrypted, and backups are frequent.  You can also export data from Trello, which is nifty.

9.   All the screen sizes!

In addition to having a responsive design in web browsers of any size, Fog Creek Software (makers of Trello) have been working tirelessly to develop apps for just about everything. Currently, there are apps for  iPhoneiPadAndroid phones, and Windows 8. Trello for Android tablets is currently in beta.

10.   No monies, no problem

Trello is FREE! Yep, it's true.

You also have the option to pay $5/month and become a "super fan" with Trello Gold (board backgrounds, anyone?) or upgrade to Trello Business Class  if you want more administrative control.

So, what are you currently using as a  project management system? Fellow Trello users--have I left something off this list? Do you have a favorite collaboration tool? Use the comments to let us know!