To move a project forward—and achieve project goal success—clear communications, clarified expectations and individual team member accountability are all critical. Businesses therefore rely on project management tools to facilitate teams and these necessities.

By J.T. Ripton

But to rise to the ever-evolving challenge of meeting team and process demands, there’s been increasing development in tools featuring both to-do lists and Kanban boards. Companies such as Quire are mixing the two styles and allowing businesses to get the best of both worlds.

This leads to the natural question of whether a business should be using Kanban boards or to-do lists for project management—or if they need both.

While task lists are itemized lists which outline specific team member assignments and due dates, Kanban-based tools help visualize work in progress by using a system of cards and “swimlane” categories. If you’ve ever used Trello, you’ve seen a Kanban board in action.

To determine the best project management software fit for your team, first consider your team’s specific needs and work dynamics. During system comparison, it’s important to decide on critical features based on industry, team size, workflow and mobility needs.

Will simple assigning and tracking be enough? Will your team need to see the comprehensive project as it’s progressing? Or is there a need for a combination of both? Let’s delve into the aspects of each tool to determine the best approach.

The Mechanics of a Standard Task List

Clear-cut and conventional, the to-do list helps team members recall ideas, notes and tasks in an orderly fashion. It also tracks a project from beginning to end and assigns responsibilities to individual owners under the guide of a manager who determines when the project is completed.

Each task has a clear owner and remains with that owner until it is completed. In context of the larger project, these completed tasks can be fed into a larger project workflow.

The major drawback with task lists is that it is easy to end up with a long list of tasks with each task feeling equally important. Not being able to understand task relationships and feeling as if each task is urgent can adversely affect team morale and hinder project progress. There is, however, a form of the to-do list that address this drawback.

The Hierarchical Benefits of the Nested Task List

The nested task list takes to-do lists to the next level. When tackling a large, complex project, the nested task list allows teams the ability to break ideas down into smaller, bite-sized pieces. The resulting task list is well-ordered and tactical, placing tasks and subtasks into hierarchical action items.

For example, a marketing campaign project that will likely involve team members from multiple departments is a good example of a use case for a nested task list. Each item of the project—from imagery to content writing to media outlet selection—will be divided into smaller steps, delivering a digestible plan of action.

Still this task list, much like its simpler form is not the be-all end-all when it comes to task execution, and that’s where Kanban can be a project management hero.

The What, Why and How of Kanban

The term “Kanban” is two words in Japanese: 看 (kan) and 板 (ban) that originates from Toyota’s much lauded “just-in-time” production system. While its literal translation is “a board to look at,” in practice it stresses that teams should be focused on doing “only what is required, when required, in the amount required.

Kanban boards present the visual representation of a project. They facilitate task management by focusing on task completion in a streamlined workflow that shows the progress of each member’s work and indicates any hiccups or stalls in action.

With a Kanban board, each phase is broken up and advances long to the next stage when completed.

Such an approach allows for a level of transparency where team members can see what’s being worked on, who’s responsible for each task, and what exactly should be focused on at any given time. This eliminates wasteful work, obstructive requirements, and inconsistencies while increasing productivity and efficiency. Still, Kanban boards do not necessarily facilitate initial planning in the way that a to-do list might.

Why Two Approaches are Better than One

While both traditional and nested task lists are beneficial for planning a project, Kanban board supports collaboration and execution better than the task list approach.

This has led to some project management solutions incorporating both task list and Kanban board functionality. Since all projects require planning, collaboration and execution, all projects can gain from both task lists and Kanban board.

The problem is that most software tools that offer both features treat planning and execution as two separate worlds within a project instead of one. This type of separation can tack on more tedium in managing and tracking tasks.

A better approach, once that some project management solutions such as Quire are starting to adopt, is synergizes both approaches by allowing team members to access a single project in both Kanban board and nested task list views. For instance, your team can access the Kanban board to check out what priorities need attention for the week then switch to nested to-do list to view the overall goal for the month.

Additionally, a larger team can have several Kanban boards for a project with different boards for different teams, thus allowing for a deeper dive into any given swimlane of a project.

Your Workflow Style, Your Choice

At the end of the day, the project management software your organization chooses is contingent upon the approach that best matches how your team likes to get things done, however. Don’t forget to consider the size of your team, where your project will be executed, and how many team members will be involved.

Equipped with a better understanding of how project management software task lists and Kanban board operate, that decision will hopefully be a lot easier.

J.T. Ripton is a freelance writer out of Tampa, who focuses on topics relating to business and technology. Follow him at @JTRipton.

Kanban stock photo by Visual Generation/Shutterstock