I have a pretty sweet gig making Tableau dashboards, but I worked for a start-up once. I’ve done everything from HR and management to sales development, analytics, and communications. It’s why I love small/new companies: juggling is fun when you know how to do it.
For deadlines, I use kanban. It’s the “task management-y” way of juggling. It’s visual, it’s colorful, and it uses sticky notes! How can it get any better?
New to kanban?
Here’s what you’ll need to get started (besides a unicycle):
- 1 large whiteboard (mine is 3 ft x 4 ft – get larger if you can)
- 1 set of Sharpies (multicolor is fun) if you want this to be last** OR dry erase markers (testing or it’s real short term)
- Ruler or yardstick
- Black Tape (optional)
- An absurd amount of sticky notes (multicolor recommended) – think you have too many? Get more! They should be SPILLING out of the basket. I like to get a ton of colors, but that’s just me.
**Sharpies lie and say they’re permanent. Write on a whiteboard with one. Then, use a dry erase marker and doodle over top of it. Wait until dry and wipe off. Success is a clean whiteboard. If you bought cheap markers or it was on there a few years, then you may need to repeat a couple of times. I’ve done this too many times to count – and have yet to kill a whiteboard – so you’re safe. You’re welcome.
How you make a kanban board:
- Use a pad of sticky notes for spacing. Mine is small, so pretty much everything is set for one sticky note wide. For most offices, this is not enough space, but I work from home and share the house with people who want more on the walls than whiteboards. I don’t understand, but love them despite their oddities. Anyway, mark the bottom with the width of a sticky note, plus a little padding. (If you use Sharpie or tape, you can use less padding, but trust me, you want some.)
- Consider how your work comes due. At one place, I had a lot of hard deadlines that were due on certain dates (THANK YOU, RFPs), along with monthly deadlines (invoicing), and other things that came and went by the month, week, day, or hour. My current set up is a little less demanding, so you see that above. I never had good handwriting before computers and it’s only gotten worse since: Headers are Key, Backlog, ACTIVE: Sometime this year…, This Month, This Week, M, T, W, H, F, WE, Holdup, @Feedback, Delay, and (my favorite) DONE!
- Make your bins. I’ve seen people use thin black tape, but I’ve always went the Sharpie route. It’s easier to remove and you won’t get canned for killing a whiteboard. At MINIMUM, you want the following:
- Key: you can put this somewhere else if space is a problem, but when using tons of colors, it helps. And if you’re going to do this right, it will be like holy Crayola!
- Backlog: this is the list of EVERYTHING that comes in, sort of like your inbox. Some of it belongs in spam and it rightfully never moves beyond that stage. At some point, the sticky note will dry up, fall off, and do the real-life equivalent of dying in the spam box. Some people call this out, but I find they usually have doors with locks.
- Selected or Priority: this is the stuff you plan to work on at some point and where you’ll pick work from (not Backlog). It’s a scary thing and the label can cause many fights. With the exception of this post, my kanban board will never see the light of day, so I feel fairly safe with my choice. Some people may split this up – high or urgent, versus low priority. Again, these people have locks on their doors.
- Active or In Flight or Working on or whatever you want to call this: bare minimum, you want some way to keep track of things you’re working on. I’ve been called ‘hyper-organized’ despite my messy desk, so I break this out by month, week, and day. At one place, I had ‘Due Yesterday’ at the very bottom to highlight those requests. If you have to answer “what are you working on?” frequently, start holding meetings next to this. Standing ones, because you should be able to walk away in a few minutes.
- Pending: this is something that’s held up for some reason. Project managers like to call this a dependency, but really, you need a signature, approval, feedback, or something from another human. This is another reason to hold meetings by the board. Standing, of course.
- Done: roll out the red carpet, bust out some balloons, find a kazoo, and bring on the parade! This is the best place for stickies to be. Celebrate it, take them down at regular intervals, but KEEP THEM or enter them somewhere. Save for your annual review, or anything else where you need to brag about yourself.
- Provide a legend for color. It makes for good vizzin’ but it also makes for good kanbannin’. You can split by type, person, place, or what have you. You can try to use one color, but that’s a your-bad, not a my-bad.
- Use the lowest level for tasks: we like to roll things up to the highest level, such as making dashboards. Do you have all the data? Have you explored it? What else do you need to do with it? The more you split things up, the easier it is AND the more stickies you can move to done (double-win here, kids). You can also show your boss just how busy you really are…in a standing meeting. Good news: if you start down a rabbit-hole, you can add more stickies as you go. I keep my notes to 4 or less words and put dates, as needed, at the bottom.
- Throw stickies on the wall! Start with anything NOT in motion at Backlog. Select only a few things to go into priority. This is painful in today’s society. Guess what? It’s my #1 secret to getting stuff done.
Got the board? Here’s to use it to save your sanity:
- Start EVERYTHING at backlog.
- Move only a few items to Priority. These are things you can do or your boss expects you to complete before your review.
- Figure out how things fit in your schedule. Be reasonable – it will save you long term. It’s okay to have ***just*** one sticky note in an area. Really.
- They can, and will, get moved back. Like Sorry, Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, and Life, it’s just how it is.
- The point of this is:
- Seeing what’s there – not the filtered version – everything. Call this visibility if you want lingo.
- Knowing who needs to do it. Sometimes, it’s not you, and that’s okay. You can stand by this thing and never say a word, but make sure that person knows. If you want to be real fancy, you can even HAND them the sticky note. Some call this accountability.
- Not getting locked in – priceless. Linear lists create linear work and work at this level isn’t linear. Neither is Twitter, but you cats can duke that out…the fancy kids call this flexibility.
- Being able to tell the whole story with or without overwhelming the audience. One friend’s response: “Holy Micromanagement Batman!” Another: “I’m stealing this ASAP!” Call it effective communication with or without a guide.
No whiteboard or find yourself on a plane more often than your bed? Try Trello – it’s free – as an online alternative. I use it as well, but find paper is most effective for getting started. Besides, who doesn’t want a cartful of sticky notes?