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Microsoft Planner: An unsung gem in collaborative task management

Planning board with paper and string.

Microsoft Planner: An unsung gem in collaborative task management

The Planner collaborative task management tool found in Office 365 is a bit of an underused gem. It’s certainly worth calling attention to, particularly after an initial Office 365 launch when people have got used to the basics of OneDrive, SharePoint, Teams, etc.

As always with non-technical users, you can tell people about a tool, but it only really comes alive when they see an example they can relate to. Below are some use cases that hopefully help bring Planner’s purpose to life.

Planner: A Trello-esque experience

Planner uses task cards arranged into columns, with a set of columns forming a ‘board’ for a project. The kindest way of putting it is that Planner was ‘heavily inspired’ by Trello, which in turn is an online version of the Kanban board.

Planner used to manage the production of a complex report
Planner used to manage the production of a complex report.

Where to find Planner

There’s a Planner icon in the Office 365 App launcher (click the waffle in the top left corner and then ‘All apps’) or just go to tasks.office.com. Typically plans get created when an administrator creates a new Group. However, given Groups are almost impossible to find in Office 365, this isn’t much help. A slightly better option is to show the plan within a team site or Teams. To add a plan to a SharePoint team site from the homepage, go to ‘+ New’ and then ‘Plan’ — it will then appear in the left-hand menu. A much better option is to add the Planner modern web part to a page.

There is a dedicated Planner app for iOS and Android. This gives full access to the board and card creation, but not to some of the management features.

Planner use cases

Planner is ideal for coordinating work where there are many sub tasks but few inter-dependencies, so many things can happen in parallel. Contrast this with a classic project where one thing has to happen before the next. If you don’t need the complexity of a Gantt chart, then Planner works great.

A common use is for issue management. You might set up columns for:
New issue | Evaluating | Resolving | Closed

Each issue is created as a card and moved along the columns (Planner calls them ‘buckets’) as it progresses. You can allocate a person to be the issue owner and their name will appear on the card.

Editorial teams can use a similar setup with a card for each article and columns:
Story idea | Submitted | Reviewed | Approved

A more sophisticated use is for report production. In the screenshot above you can see we’re working on a compendium of cheeses (our research has revealed that there are even more varieties than ‘American’ and ‘String’). Each cheese has its own card, moving from columns:
Initial research | Draft | Edited | Ready for print

Each card can hold discussions about the individual cheese section, so it is easy for the report manager to see the history at any point.

One neat feature is the colored labels you can use to show if a section has stalled, for example, or has become urgent. Also helpful is the option to include checklists within each card for sub-tasks such as ‘collate photographs’ and ‘add website link’. We use start and due dates too, and these show as red when a card is overdue.

What’s great about Planner

Planner’s big advantage is its integration with the rest of Office 365. For example, if you have already given 20 people access to a Group, then everyone also gets access to the plan.

A useful tip is that plans can also be added as a tab within Microsoft Teams. The two work pretty well as a combination because you can have discussions about the work as a whole within the team, but keep the noise about a single section just to those who are working on it (but see below for limitations).

Planner inside Microsoft Teams app.
Plans work nicely within the Microsoft Teams app too, just add a plan as a tab.

As a manager across the whole plan or even multiple plans, you also get some useful dashboards. For example, if you apply due dates, you can see if each card is on track, and how each team member is performing for tasks in progress, completed and overdue.

Individuals get a ‘My tasks’ view too, so you can see cards across a range of teams. This is also in the teams app menu under the ‘…’ option on the left.

Planner progress graphs.
Project managers get an overview of task progress.

What’s not so great

There’s no denying that Trello is a more advanced tool for this kind of application. For example, it is much easier to add a card in the Trello app than the Planner one.

Notifications for things like discussion comments are also easily missed because they appear in Outlook under ‘Groups’ (tell members of any board to ‘Favourite’ the board’s Group to receive notifications). It would be much better if the alerts happened in Teams. I also miss the @mention feature in Trello, which can be a great way to get a team member to give input on a card they are not assigned to.

Despite these drawbacks, for Office 365 users there is one last killer advantage to Planner over Trello: it’s free.

This article was originally published by CMSWire.

Sam Marshall

I'm the director of ClearBox Consulting, advising on intranet and digital workplace strategy, SharePoint and online collaboration. I've specialised in intranets and knowledge Management for over 19 years, working with organisations such as Unilever, Astra Zeneca, Akzo Nobel, Sony, Rio Tinto and Diageo. I was responsible for Unilever’s Global Portal Implementation, overseeing the roll-out of over 700 online communities to 90,000 people and consolidating several thousand intranets into a single system.

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