How to Plan Your Project Using Index Cards

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If you’ve read my earlier article “The Five Biggest Drawbacks of the Planning with Sticky Notes”, then perhaps you’re ready to learn more about an approach that has all of the benefits of collaborative planning but none of the drawbacks of using sticky (or not so sticky) notes.

The approach that I prefer is to use Index Cards. They come in different sizes but I prefer to use plain 8 x 5 inch cards because:

  • They are large enough to fold in half, so that I can display information on both sides
  • They are large enough to write clearly in large letters so that the text is easier to read from a distance.  If you’ve ever tried to read the content of a sticky note from more than a few feet away, or over someone else’s shoulder, then you’ll know how important this is
  • They are small enough to be portable, even if you have a large number.  In some of my workshops I use several packs of cards and they fit easily into a case or back pack with all of my other workshop materials.  I now keep all of my materials in a case.
  • They come in different colours, which helps to focus on different elements of the plan as it is being created
  • They are cheap.  The cost of cards is much, much lower than that of sticky notes, despite the difference in size

The key benefits of using cards

The main benefits of index cards over sticky notes are:

  1. Planning with Index cards is fast!  You can produce an initial milestone plan in a matter of minutes.  From there it’s possible to create a high level plan within a couple of hours.  This includes discussions between team members on which artefacts to include for your project, a key step in fostering team working.  The typical time for a planning workshop using index cards is three hours from start to finish.  This includes an initial icebreaker activity, introducing the project to the participants, identifying the goal and what success looks like, the planning exercises and identification of the key risks, issues, assumptions, dependencies, constraints and decisions needed.
  2. Planning with Index cards facilitates knowledge sharing.  I use the reverse of the card to describe the artefact.  This helps participants to understand what the various project artefacts are and who will produce them.  This helps them to reinforce the company’s methodology each time they attend a workshop until the artefacts become second nature.
  3. They support collaboration.  There’s no need to wait for a subject matter expert to think up the content of a note, write it down (along the the others that they are writing) and place them on the wall.  All of the index cards are available to everyone and anyone can choose a card and use it to start planning.  It also allows people to discuss whether artefacts are required and who needs to work together to produce them.
  4. It’s easier to visualise the entire project when planning with Index Cards.  By placing cards on a table it is easier to see the whole project from any angle.  Participants at workshops often have better insights when they walk around the table because they get a different perspective.
  5. Planning with Index Cards supports iterative planning.  The cards are used to plan the project in layers.  Starting with the project goal and key workstreams, then building up the project layer by layer.  This allows the participants to understand the key elements of the project without becoming overwhelmed by the detail.
  6. Re-Use.  The cards don’t last forever, but they are reusable.  The cost saving isn’t the important thing though, it’s the time saving that comes from not writing new notes every time, coupled with the ability to use these as teaching aids for newcomers to the organisation.
  7. Planning with Index Cards ensures compliance with company standards.  Participants can (and often do need to) create cards for one-off artefacts that may be required for an individual project.  However by having a standard set of cards it is easy to enforce the adherence to the organisation’s agreed methodology.  This stops people going off and doing their own thing and helps to drive up consistency and quality.

So, what’s the catch?

I don’t think there is one.  There is an up-front investment in time needed to create the cards for the workshop the first time around.  Even this though is an advantage, as it maximises the time spent in the workshop planning, rather than writing notes – which is not in itself planning and wastes time.  Once you have a set of index cards you can use them for as long as the cards themselves last.  I’ve used the same set for up to five workshops before I’ve had to replace them.  Since I have mine stored as a word document I just print some more as and when I need them

That said, the approach may not work for everyone.  I’ve had one or two people attend my workshops who were raving fans of brown paper workshops and they had a terrible time because they just could not get used to the idea of not using sticky notes.  They are more than out-numbered by the hundreds of people who came to my workshops as fans of the brown paper and sticky note approach and left three hours later converted to using index cards.  You never know, that could be you!


“How to Plan Your Project Using Index Cards” © 2014 Bryan Barrow