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Microsoft Planner

Improving Microsoft Planner: Timlin’s New Project Management Solution

We’ve been working diligently with Microsoft Planner since its early release, and after three solid months of tinkering with the program, I have a few updates I’d like to share with the community. 

Setting the Stage: Why We Want Planner (or Something Like It) 

We evaluated planner for two main reasons. First, our business specializes in helping companies get the most out of Office 365 and SharePoint. We need to fully test and understand the platform’s capabilities when making recommendations and designing solutions for our clients. Likewise, we believe in “drinking the koolaid,” and we use these same tools every day to run our own business. There’s no better way to learn a platform than by using it to solve your own problems.

My second reason for paying attention to Planner (and the Yammer groups discussing it) is that it helped us to recognize and further develop our specialized skills with the Office 365 suite. This has become a niche skillset for Timlin consultants, and almost all of our clients and prospects seem to need it. This need is what excited us so much about Microsoft Planner to begin with, as we hoped it would deliver a Trello-type user experience with a robust platform for time tracking, resource management and document storage and search. 

Ultimately, however, we discovered that Planner is disconnected from almost every other relevant service – the opposite of what we hoped for and needed! We thus decided to create what we believe is the ideal modern project management solution. 

Vision: What People Want 

At Timlin, we see a major opportunity in the void left by Planner. Organizations need the end-user flexibility Planner does provide, but with a host of additional capabilities: project management, time tracking, resource allocation, portfolio management, organized data storage and reporting. Overall, most people want structure and formality in planning and flexibility in execution. They also want transparency and integration, which requires an open system with a familiar toolset and seamless interfaces to existing systems and data. 

Essentially, most of the organizations we’ve talked to want the capability of Project Server Online and the flexibility of Trello. They want to use a familiar, existing set of tools with no hidden application elements that create extra complexities in data storage and compliance. We’re working to deliver all of those elements in one integrated platform within Office 365. We will also work with our clients to configure this system, train their employees and support their teams to ensure that the solution meets their requirements. 

What We Are Building 

Based on feedback from our clients and consultants, Timlin is developing a set of tools that will sit seamlessly within Office 365. This solution will provide a user experience similar to Planner and Trello, but it will be fully integrated into SharePoint project sites and Project Server Online for full fidelity with traditional project management capabilities. 

We will also provide tools that allow users to integrate our card-based user experience onto an existing set of project sites. In turn, this capability will allow users to import existing sets of projects into Project Server Online. Visualize your team working on your projects in the following manner: 

Project Manager 

After a project manager builds a plan via Microsoft Project, a task list or Project Server Online, the project’s data synchs to the corresponding SharePoint site. Individual tasks’ metadata can be created, and the work can be assigned to determine whether the task should display as a task card in the plan. Task data will also appear in the relevant swim lane with any necessary flagged metadata. Additionally, the project manager can determine which data needs to be collected from various task assignees through the task card interface. 

Resources are assigned via standard plan or task management, or via the underlying data in the Project Server Online backend. There is a robust set of tools for portfolio and resource allocation. 

Certain configurable elements are also determined – whether or a plan requires time tracking, for instance, or whether any custom metadata elements need to be captured or created. To prevent data loss or management issues, the project manager also determines which data task assignees can change on the plan. 

Additionally, the project manager invites the task assignees and project members to the site or plan, where they can automatically view a Trello-style interface for all tasks, including assignment. 

Project Resources (Task Assignees) 

Task assignees can view the project board, swim lanes and any information about their tasks from the project management interface, including hours or work allocated, due dates and any other metadata derived from the original plan. Overall, the real value of solution to task assignees is the ability to manage their tasks in their own ways, with notes, links, attachments, lists, images and other data that helps them complete their work. 

Assignees can also update statuses, time sheets and remaining work from the task card, and that information flows back to the project plan for maintenance by the project manager. This data can be sourced in Project Server Online or in other manners according to the organization and configuration. 

Finally, the plan maintains a “living” presence by highlighting task updates, new and changing data and visual indicators about status and changes. This features makes new information clear and evident to everyone working on the plan in real-time. 

Wrapping Up 

Unlike traditional project plans or task lists, the information about a plan (and the tasks within it) remains fluid, able to be accessed and customized by members of a project. Visual icons on the tasks cards and plan indicate the type and quantity of new information, and notifications stream in real-time to quickly show people what changes have been made. The project manager can also choose a traditional portfolio or Microsoft Project view, either of which will provide key project updates via updates to end users’ individual task cards. 

Task assignees and project managers view and interact with the same plan in very different ways, and we need to embrace those differences while maintaining seamless integration. No matter the assignees’ working methods, managers can view summary and detail information across all projects quickly and easily, using standardized KPIs and measurements. This solution truly blends the best of both the formal project management and modern task management worlds. 

We’re currently building the structure to support this application, and we have plenty of interest and feature requests. Now is a great time to let us know how our application can help you, and we want your input on what features will make it a great product. Please send us feedback and feature requests, or reach out to talk details and timeframes. We look forward to hearing from you! 

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