Democratizing process automation for Trello's 50 million users

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright November 4, 2019
Trello adds templates and no-code automation to its task manager - can it become the workflow backbone for enterprise teamwork?

Screenshot of Trello community template gallery

User-friendly task management tool Trello has just celebrated passing the 50 million user mark, but this was not the Atlassian subsidiary's most significant news last week. Boosting its process automation capabilities, it has added quick-start templates, embedded automation and AI-powered suggested actions to the core product.

The announcements fit in with an industry-wide trend of building automated workflow into digital teamwork tools, but Trello's reach puts this on a different scale. Putting these shortcuts in the hands of millions helps to bring these new patterns of digitally assisted work into the mainstream. At a time when the adjacent field of robotic process automation (RPA) is facing challenges, this suggests a rising trend to democratize process automation.

For those unfamiliar, Trello is a simple and flexible visual project management tool, which essentially replicates in digital form the Kanban methodology of jotting down tasks on cards, assigning them, and moving them around on a board as they progress. By the way, this analogy became real last month when 3M, the maker of Post-It notes, launched an app that can scan a project outline directly from a set of post-its into a Trello board.

Flexible workflows

This simple concept can be used for anything from hobbies and home projects to organizing client projects at law firms or digital publishing at The Telegraph. It is to shared processes what a spreadsheet is to numbers — a blank canvas with myriad possibilities. That distinguishes it from other more structured workflow tools, says Stella Garber, Head of Marketing:

Trello is for much more flexible workflows, where teams can change things and can be adaptive, much more in a collaborative way. We don't see that as a negative to Trello ...

I think for some people who are looking to come into a tool with a very specific, rigid workflow in mind, that probably Trello is not the right tool for them.

As proof of Trello's adaptability, she cites her own experience of using the tool within the marketing function during a time of rapid growth:

When I joined Trello, I was the only marketing person and now our team is close to 20 people. And we still use Trello.

If we had rigidity, we wouldn't have been able to change our workflows using the same tool. But obviously the way we use Trello with 20 people is very different from the way we used it with three of us.

Automation for the enterprise

The new automation features are offered with the same flexibility — they're available but there's no obligation to use them. A brief overview:

  • Card and Board templates — Templates can now be created for cards within a Trello board, or of an entire board, making frequently used patterns easily and quickly available. For example, a template board for an employee onboarding process could be copied each time someone new starts, with template cards for frequently repeated actions. Template boards can be copied and used privately within a team or organization, or shared publicly. A new community template gallery showcases how existing users are using Trello to organize their teamwork, from planning user research at software maker Pivotal Labs to work order tracking at McCorvey Sheet Metal Works.
  • Butler automation goes native — Butler is a no-code workflow automation tool that was first launched in 2015 as a third-party 'Power-Up' plug-in. After its acquisition by Trello at the end of last year, it has now become part of the core Trello product. Users can set up Butler to automate actions triggered by rules or dates, or can add buttons to cards or boards to automate a series of actions on demand. Business accounts can add actions that trigger outbound events, such as sending emails or interacting with URLs.
  • Suggested actions — Using machine learning, Trello now analyzes board usage and will automatically suggest actions based on previous behavior. Machine learning also works with Butler to suggest automations based on board usage.

The new capabilities provide extra structure to help teams automate repetitive actions as they use Trello. Garber believes that its ease of use and adaptability makes it suitable for adoption as the shared workflow tool that runs throughout an organization:

We really see Trello being used across an organization. Legal uses it, HR uses it, marketing uses it, even tech teams use it. It becomes a common language, because a lot of times within a company different teams are using different tools, and they have a hard time understanding each other.

We really see Trello as being an operating system — with a small team or a large team — people can come in and create a whole new way of working.

My take

There are many different types of process going on within an organization. At one end of the spectrum there are highly structured processes of the type that have long been automated using transactional applications such as ERP and CRM. Robotic process automation (RPA) seeks to bring a new wave of automation to these processes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are frequently changing, ad hoc processes, or as the late Sig Rinde put it, barely repeatable processes. This is where Trello excels — it offers temporary rigidity while a process is running, while remaining fully adaptable to run the same process some other way the next time.

Traditional IT solutions to process automation — think business process management (BPM) — have sought to first define the process and then build automation for it. This is the approach that RPA tends to take, which is why I frequently characterize it as "robotically automating processes." Many of these longstanding processes need a complete rethink before anyone invests any money or resource into automation.

Trello is an example of a new approach that wasn't available in previous generations of IT. It's simple enough that anyone can use it to define, manage and automate a process without anything becoming rigid and immutable. Therefore the people who own and live the process can also be in charge of the definition, management and automation, with the ability to make ongoing changes in response to changing circumstances. They don't have to depend on IT experts or enterprise architects to intervene on their behalf.

I have a feeling that the history of IT means that there's a predisposition towards solutions like RPA because it's closer to the way things have always been done in the past. Whereas Trello seems too lightweight to be taken seriously. But therein lies its strength — it allows business people to adapt their own automation.

Across the spectrum of process automation, there's room for both approaches. They will meet at some point in the middle, but I suspect that solutions like Trello will advance further along the spectrum than most of us imagine at the moment. These new features improve its appeal for team use in large enterprises because they help support standard practices, although Trello's integration to other applications remains less extensive than many other workflow tools.

If you've been following my writing, you'll know that I recently wrote about the concept of the collaborative canvas for enterprise teamwork, which spans four different types of digital teamwork — functional, content, messaging and workflow. One of its tenets is that an enterprise must standardize on a single platform for each type of teamwork, even if it uses more specialized tools in certain areas.

Trello's ability to serve many different teams marks it out as a contender to be the top layer of workflow across an enterprise. These new features help it on that path, but it is not there yet. If it wants to fulfil that role, it will have to offer more sophistication under the covers to meet the needs of enterprise process governance, while retaining its simplicity of use on the surface.