There’s a kind of procrastination I find myself doing in which I look for the perfect piece of technology to complete the task I’m about to do. In the past I’ve literally spent days (if not weeks) looking for a good project tracking tool, or a group collaboration tool.

I’ve played with Google Wave (OBM) and toyed with PBWorks. I tried wikis and intranets, I implemented networks and created complicated Excel spreadsheets. I have used at least five different time trackers and even more wireframing tools.

None of those things ever helped get the work completed quicker, more efficiently or better in any way.

I have largely learnt my lesson from this and mostly stick to the processes I know.

So, when a client recently asked me to create a software solution to a clearly inefficient business process I panicked and told them the first idea that came to mind. That idea was a complicated online spreadsheet and I am yet to implement it because I fear it’s just another distraction.

I’ve never found anything in web technologies as efficient or simple for managing workflow as a well-planned whiteboard.

My favourite whiteboard is the one in Homicide: Life on the Streets. It sits up on the wall in the homicide office and features the names of the detectives and the cases they’re working on. An unsolved case is written in red marker and when it is solved it’s rewritten in black.

Red and black. That’s all. It’s easy to look at the board and instantly see where everything is up to.

There are, however, two problems with a whiteboard:
1) It is, to an extent, transient. There’s no permanent or historical record to refer to.
2) There is no way for people to refer to it remotely. People might need to access the information while “on-site”.

These problems/requirements complicate the issue. It’s quite easy to have an elegantly simple solution to a simple problem but this is not a simple problem.

It’s a problem that many businesses face. The person who started the business has a lot of information in her head. She has also tracked jobs and written notes in a series of notebooks. It made perfect sense to her when the business was just her and her business partner but then her business grew. Over time more and more people needed to access that information.

I’ve worked for people who would ponder on a problem for a frustratingly long time. They would sit and reject idea after idea until they ran out of time to act. I’m often the opposite and I’ll jump on a solution, try it and then discard it a while later. Neither is good for business.

What I keep forgetting, though, is that the excellent whiteboard in Homicide probably wasn’t the first system they tried in that office filled with detectives. There must have been a time when the Baltimore police department didn’t have an elegantly simple solution for keeping score of investigations.

The key is to ask at every step, “Is this leading to a simpler way?” My client’s problem started as a simple process and was complicated over time. My job is not to make it more complicated.

About Josh Kinal

Josh makes things on the web easy to use and understand. Sounds simple, but it’s not. His understanding of developing engaging content comes from many years of writing for print and radio. You might have heard him on Boxcutters, his popular weekly podcast about TV or years of appearing on Triple J, Radio National and 3RRR. He also holds a science degree and in 2012 was one of Australia’s few panelists at SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas