Organize tasks effectively with an issue tracking system

Organize tasks effectively with an issue tracking system

It’s the first month of a new year, and this is a time that most of us are thinking about making little changes to our working styles and habits to become more productive. Adopting a new tool to help you around your daily tasks can create great improvements in productivity with little effort.

Compared to e-mail or spreadsheet based task management and information sharing, an Issue Tracking System (ITS) like Backlog is a useful tool particularly in software development, in which open communication between members is a key factor to successfully complete a project. As an ITS clearly indicates due dates, people in charge, progress of each tasks, and shares these information among all team members, you can easily find out who you should communicate with to learn about issue details and deadlines to deliver tasks effectively and on time. With time, an ITS also becomes a knowledge and information database that can enable newcomers to the team learn independently by tracking past activities of projects and understand their background.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a quick installation of any ITS would automatically cure all your work woes. It is important to understand how to correctly employ the tool to benefit your organisation the most. An ITS that is well maximised can become a powerful helper in the workplace. As an ITS provider, we have been using Backlog for over ten years and have heard many stories from our users about how they have developed their own ways to streamline work processes with Backlog. In this post, I will share a few main pointers summarised from these user stories to help you achieve the most out of your issue tracking system. The first three points will touch on how to introduce your team to an ITS, followed by another four covering ways to utilize an ITS for daily work tasks.

1. Start small

For those who are relatively fresh to ITS themselves, try experimenting with the system in a small team and on a small number of projects. Avoid introducing it to all members and projects you have at once. Save yourself the effort of having to convince a large number of people to dabble in a new and unfamiliar tool. Instead, perform trial-and-errors on the system with a small group of keen, cooperative coworkers to develop a new and more efficient workflow. Often, it is not until you use an ITS on a regular basis as a work tool that you can understand its worth. Yet, most people who have become used to working with an ITS find it difficult to switch to other task management methods or go without one altogether. The advantages of working with an ITS would quickly become apparent to the rest who would then be less resistant to adopt the new tool.

2. Minimize rules

Avoid making too many rigid and detailed rules and making your team adhere to them in the initial stages of adopting an ITS. Placing too many guidelines and restrictions is not only counterproductive but would also cause those who are new to the ITS to regard it as a time-consuming tool which they probably would avoid using. Keep in mind that most people are resistant to changes until they are proven to be beneficial to them. You should make only a few simple rules like this:

  • You can close a development task only after it has been reviewed
  • Due dates must be set for urgent tasks

Keeping rules to a minimum level in the early phase of ITS adoption enables members to use the tool freely and discover its usefulness by themselves. In the later stages when members are more familiar with the tool, they should start to feel comfortable with more complex rules should there be a need for them.

Avoid starting with no rules, though. Without rules, members might be left clueless about how to use to tool and lose the motivation to continue it as a result. Again, a few simple rules are optimum and required.

3. Customize look & feel

Before inviting members to the newly set up ITS, decorate and modify its look & feel with project icons or your corporate colors and so on. Many popular ITS today provide customization options. Backlog, for example, provides the following options to enable users to customize themes and designs:

After your team members have come onboard, encourage them to personalize their own icons or avatars (if the ITS you are using supports this function). A backlog user shared that whenever he invites someone unfamiliar to Backlog, he would specially add a task titled “Change your user icon”  and assign it to the newcomer.

Such efforts fascinate your team members much more than you would expect it to. Seeing is believing. Here are two examples of a project screen on Backlog, the upper one has a default theme design and the lower has a customized one:

Customized Theme

As shared above, you should focus on getting your team members to use the ITS for themselves at the beginning. If you are a manager, you may be eager to track and measure progress and performance. However that may be an impediment to letting your team experience a smooth transition to the ITS, thus failing to let them optimize the use of it. Let your members become well acquainted with the ITS before embarking on your goals.

4. Keep your team whole

With most ITS, you can create multiple projects and select unique members to join to them. Sometimes, managers end up dividing their team way too much. Keep a single ‘home’ project that includes every single member on the team regardless of their roles in it. This promotes transparency, a greater sense of involvement and ownership, which in turn propagates active communication and idea flow. Such cohesion is one of the key elements of team collaboration.

In our case, each product has its home project and a few other projects mainly related to customer support and marketing. Here are some examples of what we have actually created on home project of Backlog and Cacoo.

  • Develop press release for Cacoo Enterprise upgrade
  • Update SSL certificate 2013
  • Modify installation manual of package edition
  • Define specification for updating multiple issues

These tasks are related to various roles such as development, operation, marketing, and support, and thus should be shared with all members.

5. Create a task for every activity

Create a task for every activity on your project before starting it. Of course, some activities such as operations for sudden server failure cannot be created beforehand. In such case,  you should create a task after your work is done and record related information such as the cause of  failure and server logs on the task.

Some of you may not want to create tasks that have uncertain completion times, or are unsuitably big since the preferred task size should only take up to a few days for completion. Still, I would suggest that it is not always necessary to adhere strictly to such guidelines. Once you add a task on your ITS, you’re open to discussing about it with others. If there is a general consensus that the task is too massive, you and your team can then split it into smaller tasks of a reasonable size. For that purpose, you can use the Subtasking feature supported on many ITS. ( See: Backlog’s Subtasking reference )

Storing every activity on ITS makes it an important information portal for your projects, and it will greatly help you to track information in future.

6. Concise and well-defined task names

Since tasks are displayed in many places on an ITS, you should be extremely thoughtful in naming them. Ideally, you should be able to see a task’s abstract by just looking at its name on the project dashboard, task list page, and mail notifications.

A simple rule for naming tasks is to add verbs. For example, let’s consider about a task named “Navigation to security page”.  It is unclear whether the intended action is to create a navigation path to the security page, or to remove/edit it. Renaming it to “Create navigation path to security page” would make it extremely clear as to what should be done for that task.

Apart from task names, it is important to also ensure that every user has a recognizable user name. This goes the same for other elements on your ITS such as task categories, milestones, and so on. Give every component a good name to avoid unnecessary confusion.

7. Be open to synchronous communication

Communication based on ITS is essentially asynchronous. Working remotely in distributed teams is becoming a popular trend these days and if your team is spread out across different timezones, communication would mostly be asynchronous. Some designers and developers whose jobs require immense concentration dislike synchronous communication because it interrupts their work and lower their productivity. However synchronous communication is still required at some point because it cuts out time lags and delayed responses. For time sensitive tasks such as crisis control and providing urgent customer support, there should be continuous and uninterrupted communication within your team to solve problems as soon as possible.

Nulab Nulab is a member of Nulab, the creators of Backlog.