Want to be Agile? Here’s a great way to get started using Microsoft Planner

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Do you use Microsoft Project to manage your project tasks, resources, scope and schedule? If your answer is yes – quickly think of a number between one and ten. Now, also count (on average) how many times per week you find yourself shaking with frustration, wanting to reach into your monitor, crumple that digital Gantt chart – and slam dunk it into the recycle bin.

Now, think back to your original number between one and ten. Do you have these enraging interactions with Microsoft Project even more than you first thought? If your answer here is no – please stop reading now and give me a call – you clearly have a special talent, and I am hiring! But if your answer here was yes, or if you’re not using Microsoft Project at all – then read on, this article is for you.

For those of us who serve as a project or program manager, using Microsoft Project can sometimes be a bewildering and frustrating experience, especially for those of us who don’t know the program inside and out. Now, this isn’t a criticism of Project. When used well, it can be extremely valuable – automating a lot of your project reporting, and giving you instant insight into your resource utilization, performance against schedule, and so forth. But – the first words in that last sentence are key: “when used well”. And to use something well, you have to truly understand it. And to understand it, you’ve got to like it and invest the time and energy to really learn the ropes. You might even need some professional training. Otherwise, good luck! You just auto-scheduled yourself for an exasperating week.

Messy Gantt chart!

Messy Gantt chart!

Regardless of what application or physical tools you use to support your duties as a project manager – we all follow a process. And when it comes to process –  Agile is where it’s at! The shift from traditional Waterfall style project management techniques to the Agile methodologies is making waves in the project management community, and for good reason. Agile projects are proving to be more effective and deliver stronger results than their Waterfall counterparts. But why is that? What is it about Agile that gives it the edge over Waterfall?

One of the biggest advantages of Agile are the tactile, visual tools that are typically leveraged by the project team. Take a prime example – the Kanban board. If you haven’t heard about Kanban, it’s one methodology under the umbrella of Agile project management, where you break down workstreams into smaller chunks (tasks), and lay them all out on a big open space (typically a wall). The Kanban board has columns which represent a stage of progress from ‘Not Started’ through to ‘Complete and Delivered’. You stack your tasks up in the ‘Not Started’ column (often called the ‘Backlog’), add some sub-tasks, due dates, durations, etc. – and then assign a resource to each teask and watch your them progress through to completion. This captures a lot of the same information that you might track in a Gantt chart within Microsoft Project. However, here are the biggest advantages of the Kanban approach vs. a Gantt chart:

  • Clarity at a glance: see the status of any given task, who is assigned to it, what stage it’s in – just by looking at the Kanban board

  • Simplicity: The Kanban doesn’t bog you down with a huge grid with hundreds of subtasks, multi-level task hierarchies, dependencies, etc. etc.

  • It’s tactile: Your teams get to be more hands-on with the project plan, which drives understanding of what’s happening, and ensures clarity on who’s doing what.

Easy and clear Kanban!

Easy and clear Kanban!

So, now you probably want to use Kanban board. But maybe there are some obstacles to getting there. If your team isn’t all in the same place you can’t really use a wall. So, now you need a digital solution to the Kanban board. And in fact, Microsoft Project 2016 and 2019 have this. But, here’s the catch – to use the Microsoft Project Kanban board (a.k.a., Task Board) – you also need to populate Project with all the data that it requires for the traditional Gantt chart view. In Project, the Task Board is just a Kanban-style view of your project. So all the challenges you had with Microsoft Project to begin with are still present. So what to do?

Microsoft Planner has entered the game!

Microsoft has clearly recognized the frustrations that many people have with Project, especially when all they want is a Kanban board. So they made a smart move – they’ve developed a light, online Kanban tool called Planner. I’ve been using Planner now for my latest project, and it gives me everything that I want in a digital Kanban board, without all the fuss and complexity of Project. What’s more – it’s accessible online through Office 365, so I can share it with my team, my clients and stakeholders – and give everyone a single view of the project status, in an easily consumable format.

It’s great for the team – They know where to go to see what’s in the project plan. They can see who is working on what. And if they’ve got some time in the day, they can hop on to Planner, grab a task from the Backlog, and get working!

It’s great for the client – they get visibility into exactly where we’re at for any given task. No need to wait for my weekly status report, or ask “Where’s this deliverable??” Just check the Kanban board – you can see it’s assigned to Jeff, it’s 75% complete, and it’s due this Friday, and we’re on track. Planner also has some canned graphs and charts which show you summary information on how your tasks are progressing.

It’s great for me - When I check in, I can see who is doing what, where their tasks are at, when they’re due – and I’m confident that no one is duplicating any effort. The canned reports are helpful for me too, by showing how many tasks each team member has on the go. And the best part – it’s super easy to maintain! No more spending hours trying to define dependencies, enter resources, align start and end dates, eventually pulling my hair out undoing all the “helpful” things that Project automatically does to all other tasks in my project if I do something crazy like change the end date of a single task. It’s also super flexible – missing a particular task status or column? Just add it. Does the client have some unique verbiage they like to use to otherwise say “Delivered”? Just change the name of the column. Easy.

So, if you want an easy way to implement and maintain a digital Kanban board, and improve efficiency and delivery of your projects – jump onto Office 365 and start using Planner. You’ll be glad you did!