18 Jul.

Using Microsoft Planner every day

Some time ago the Office 365 MVP community was made aware of something called “Project Highlander” which we were told was a team-based task management solution. This product became known as Microsoft Planner (aka Office 365 Planner).

Microsoft has for a long time had available Project Server and Project Online to provide organisations with enterprise-grade project management solutions, however they have been very costly solutions – even with the cloud model. The big issue with the Project suite is that unless users get trained on the product they generally craft relatively basic project plans and don’t utilise anything more than 5% of the feature set.

Beneath that the best that we could use in the Microsoft stack was Outlook tasks. And while Outlook tasks can be categorised, filtered, and even assigned to others – they are very basic in nature. Also who here doesn’t often head towards the “Dismiss All” button or keep snoozing their reminders.

Many organisations started to move towards other solutions that filled the void quite well, such as Trello. These offered a more agile way of working and were very team-driven, not just project-based.

This is where Microsoft Planner comes in – to ultimately bring back those customers that have implemented Trello or may be tempted to. And what’s great about Planner is that it doesn’t cost anything extra if you are already licensed for Office 365.

There are a number of frustrations I have with Planner that will be addressed on the roadmap (such as it’s mandatory connection to Groups – sometimes I don’t want a group, and the fact that tasks can’t be assigned to multiple people), so like with any Microsoft cloud product I simply put my hands out and eventually get what I want without having to do anything myself.

So let’s think about where Planner fits in to our working day…

The kind of people who generally use Office 365 are productivity workers and in this today’s workplace people are members of multiple teams, groups and projects. So we have a variety of things we’re working on at any one time.

There are also people who wear multiple hats (such as myself) and effectively are doing multiple jobs at the same time. So how do I use Planner to manage my tasks?

Let me put it this way: anyone who knows me also knows that I’m both highly disciplined and also frantic – I do not really have a middle ground. I’ve previously used Outlook tasks to manage my workload, but that didn’t help when it came to time allocation & management. I then switched to blocking out time within my calendar but that didn’t help with prioritisation. I’ve also tried using tasks lists in OneNote – but again this is a very me-centric solution and not ideal for team work management or visibility. I found it challenging to assign tasks to others, but also to provide visibility on what I was working on. Also within a team one of the most important things is accountability – and Planner brings that.

While there is no mobile or desktop app at this point I keep Planner open by browsing to https://tasks.office.com. This renders equally well on all mobile and desktop browsers.

What I see is my favourite plans as well as others that I am a member of:

To give you some context as to how these plans fit to gether:

Plan Description
My Work My individual tasks that don’t fit anywhere else. I am the only member of this plan.
CTO Any CTO level tasks that fall under me as the CTO-Cloud, or my colleague Nathan who is our CTO-UC. We are the only two members of this plan.
Management Where the senior managers of our business keep track of tasks and hold each other accountable. (We’ve only just started using it a week ago.)
Cloud Practice Team This is where I manage the primarily R&D tasks of the staff that report to me. Most of their scheduling is done in our service management platform so this is for anything else.
Sales Team Set up by our sales manager only a day ago so I’m yet to see how this turns out.
Pre-Sales For the pre-sales team that is managed by myself and my colleague Nathan (the CTO-UC). We actually set up a Group but got a Planner with it – so we’re yet to use the latter functionality.
Base Working Group Where those involved in the development of our intranet collaborate.

What I do love about using Planner is that whenever I’m in a meeting and we’re assigning tasks and actions to each other – instead of having to wait for the minutes to be circulated someone just had to put them straight in to Planner. This is very powerful when you don’t bring a notebook to a meeting (I’m firmly against bringing or having a notebook open unless you’re actually taking notes – I’m sick of looking at the tops of people’s heads when I’m talking to them) so you can just keep it open on a mobile and assign tasks from there:

Where a task belongs to me I assign it to myself so that it shows up in the “My tasks” view which I can then group my progress or plan (the screenshots are blurred to protect my super-secret content):

One thing to be wary of when looking at this yourself is that when you mark a Plan or Group as a favourite that will be reflected in Outlook with no way to remove it there:

I envisage that over time I will be a member of more Plans and Groups as they are a simpler way to collaborate and communicate without the overhead of a SharePoint team or project site. While those are still incredibly valuable and beneficial and ultimately the different toolsets (including Yammer Groups) will also come together over the next 6 months – at this point before going down one path or the other you do need to consider what is best for your team/group, what features they need, and how adaptable they will be to potentially changing down the track.

What I can tell you though is that Planner has changed the way I work dramatically. Using Delve Analytics to look at the patterns and usage of my email and calendar I quickly identified that a simpler way for me to work was to block out “focus time” in my calendar and then refer to my tasks in Planner for what I need to do there.

People around me are starting to get the Planner “bug” and starting to use it heavily as well. All it took was a few minutes to read up on how to use it (or watch a video), have a quick test – and BAM they were power users.

If you already use Office 365 – I urge you to look at Planner as I’m sure it will change how you manage your day.

 5 Jul.

An etiquette guide for Office 365

Working with many customers over the years and speaking with many end users I’ve found that everybody uses technology differently.

This is a no-brainer really, but part of the issue is that often people aren’t really shown how to use the technology and ultimately this is a failure of change management in organisations.

I have found that small frustrations can arise from discrepancies in how people do things within the Microsoft productivity stack. Little things like whether or not someone puts a description in a meeting invite, sending an email instead of cancelling an occurrence of a recurring appointment, short emails, long/wordy emails, using emails instead of instant messages, not responding to emails or Yammer posts, CC’ing everyone under the sun in email conversations, writing too much via IM when voice would be faster, REPLY ALL (!!!!), IM’ing people immediately after they come online when you have tagged them for status changes, and on and on and on.

We all have different ways of doing things, and there’s not necessarily one right way of doing them. However, we do all live in the same digital world so it’s important to ensure that we maintain a level of etiquette – similar to what we would expect in the real world.

Myself and fellow Office 365 MVP Paul Woods have taken it upon ourselves to write the “Office 365 Good Etiquette Guide” – an eBook available to everyone for free. Why? Because we’re nice guys who feel that if there’s an etiquette guide then maybe there will be a few less frustrations out there.

Our intent is to make the guide available by the end of August 2016, but here’s the kicker – instead of us simply telling you our opinions and viewpoints we’re opening it up for everyone to provide their input and in exchange we’ll give you a thank-you credit in the book. All you need to do is email your suggestions to ideas[at]office365etiquette.info and that’s it! Send as many as you like.

As the technology evolves and new features or integrations come along this means that behaviours may need to change as well – so where possible we will endeavour to update the guide and keep adding content.

We look forward to your input!