On September 22, principal group program manager Howard Crow announced Planner, a new Office 365 experience aimed at helping teams organize around projects, tasks, and related documents and conversations.
This is Microsoft's long-awaited, modern, mobile- and cloud-first solution for task management and lightweight project management. Previously, the project was codenamed "Highlander." Planner will enter first release in Q4, which could be anywhere from 1 to 12 weeks.
Let's take a look at and behind the announcement of Planner. Because this is a newly-announced experience, I can only share what's been publicly revealed in the blog post and in Microsoft comments since, but I'll do so from a customer, rather than a marketing, perspective; and I'll share some of my reactions and thoughts.
As described in the blog post on Office Blogs, Planner is about keeping teamwork organized. The components of Planner are groups, plans, boards, and cards, which will organize information, tasks, documents, and conversations. In Planner terminology, a project is called a "plan."
Each plan will be part of an Office 365 group, in a one-to-one relationship. When you create a plan, you create a group. Each existing group will get a plan at launch. The members of the group are the members of the plan (think: project).
I've been preaching for years that each unit of work, down to the individual project, should be its own site collection or, now, Office 365 group. So this is, in my opinion, a straightforward and easily anticipated architecture.
Each plan will have a board. The board is the top-level component or container of the project.
The blog post mentions that the board will have members. Remembering that a plan is a feature of an Office 365 group, it's also accurate to say the plan or the project has members. The project is represented by the plan, and the primary "container" of plan activity is its board.
On each board are cards. A work item or task is represented by a card. The card (task) has due dates, attachments, categories and conversations associated with it.
You'll be able to attach Office documents and edit them from within the context of the card, which is very nice. Office documents, images, and other files added to a card generate a visual preview automatically so that the card is visually compelling and can be understood more easily.
The files themselves are stored in a OneDrive for Business container (just like groups), which will provide offline access for users with the updated OneDrive for Business sync client. It also means that documents in a plan will be part of Office 365 and OneDrive for Business information governance features such as e-discovery.
Conversations and Groups
Each card will also support a conversation. The conversation on a card creates a new conversation in the Office 365 group. That means the conversation is available in Outlook 2016, which has direct integration with Groups, Outlook Online, and the new Outlook Groups mobile apps.
As you might know, from a technical perspective, a Groups conversation is an email thread in an Exchange Online shared mailbox. Conceptually, your users "talk about a task" on a card instead of starting a "to:all / reply:all" email thread in their inbox. But the conversation now exists in the context of the group or the task, not just in the context of the individual members at that point in time. So a new member to a plan (or group) will have access to the history and conversation. In an email metaphor, they join the conversation mid-stream and don't have the old 'threads.'
Because a plan is a group, a user will be able to subscribe to conversations, which will bring posts to conversations into the user's email inbox. They can reply from there, and their reply goes right back into the group and the card. It's a beautiful model because users aren't forced to change their work habits right away. They can stay working in their inbox, as they've done for two decades. But the team and the business gets the benefits of a centrally managed and accessible conversation and knowledge capture.
We use Trello currently, here at IT Unity, and we're finding it amazingly helpful to move conversations out of the inbox and into the context of the task. It makes it so much easier to keep up to date on the current status of any task. It's a slow cultural shift, but a compelling one.
Cards provide notifications, so a user will receive a notification when they are assigned a new card or added to a conversation. The notification will appear in the new notifications panel in Office 365's suite bar.
In addition, as mentioned earlier, if a user subscribes to the conversation, the user will receive updates to the conversation in the user's inbox.
Cards can be organized on a board into columns called buckets. I'm not wild about that term and not sure why "Lists" wasn't used. Or even "Decks" (of cards, get it?). Or, hey, why not "columns" since that's how Crow and others describe buckets.
Colors, Categories, and Priorities
The buckets can be "prioritized and tagged with colored labels", says Crow, but it's not clear whether the cards in a bucket can be ordered in a sequence, or whether the buckets themselves can be ordered on the board. I certainly hope so.
I'm also not clear, yet, whether categories and colored labels are the same or different, how they will apply to cards and buckets, or how customizable these will be. I'm pretty confident that in the minimum viable product (MVP) we will see at launch, a category is a color and a label.
Planner provides three important views of tasks and projects.
- The Hub view is an overview across plans that will help you track overall progress.
- The My Tasks view drills down to tasks assigned to you
- The Charts view provides interactive charts for visualizing progress against deadlines, and identifying bottlenecks. The Charts view is for each individual plan. I'm not clear as to whether there is a Charts view that 'rolls up' multiple plans.
Finally, there's a OneNote notebook associated with each plan. Crow buried this under a heading about using Planner for education, so I missed this point the first time I read the post. I love this structure. We have a separate OneNote notebook for every project here at IT Unity, and it can be a godsend when used well. Again, a slow cultural shift but very helpful.
Crow used a screenshot of Planner in an academic use case:
Cloud-first, mobile-first, Office 365
Planner is a first-class citizen of Office 365, so it is integrated with other experiences and services, including SharePoint, Exchange, Groups and more.
As a first-class citizen, Planner is covered by all of the security and compliance features of Office 365, which you can learn more about at the Office Trust Center. That includes technical features such as multiple redundant backups, virtually instantaneous recovery and HIPAA, FISMA, ISO27001 and EU Model.
Unlike some third-party services, Planner will be deployed globally, in all of the Office 365 datacenters.
Planner will roll into Office 365 First Release in Q4. So when can you get it? Soon. I don't have any inside information but I would watch mid-November, when Microsoft's teams are scheduled for lots of appearances at events around the globe.
If you want early access to Planner, you'll have to enable First Release in Settings in your Office 365 Admin Center. You can now target specific users for First Release, so that a new feature can be tested.
A note, however: The "selective first release" is still all-or-nothing. All users targeted will get all new First Release features; and all other users will have to wait until general availability. You cannot, yet, target specific features to specific users on a specific timeframe. I'm really looking forward to Microsoft addressing that change management need, which is very important to customers.
During Planner preview, the following plans will have access: Office 365 Enterprise E1, E3 and E4, Office 365 Education E1, E3 and E4, Office 365 Business Essentials and Office 365 Business Premium. Planner will be added to several additional Office 365 plans after preview.
While Crow did a great job of positioning the value proposition of Planner, and he had a lot to discuss in the official blog post, there are, not surprisingly, some open questions. I've presented a few of them already.
Features and functionality
I'll be interested to see if Planner effectively separates the concept of assigning a task to someone (they're responsible for its delivery) versus someone following a task. As a manager, I need to perform certain tasks, but I also need to keep my finger on the pulse of other team members' tasks. I hope planner succeeds in supporting the important difference. It determines whether I am nagged about a task or simply able to see it in a stream or feed.
I'm not 100% clear what the relationship is between groups and plans. I'm assuming and I'm confident that there's a one-to-one relationship, which is supported by the screenshots in Crow's post. I wish there might be the ability to have several plans for one group. But I don't think that's going to happen.
The fact that a plan's documents are in OneDrive for Business means, sadly, very limited information architecture and information governance around documents in a plan. That's a limitation of the current modern experience that OneDrive for Business. There's no metadata, no content types, no retention policies, etc. I'm pushing hard on the team in Redmond to start talking about a roadmap in that area, soon. OneDrive for Business is still a pretty rich experience with a lot of value to add to a lot of use cases. It's just not where it needs to be, yet.
And what about the calendar for a plan? Is there one in the preview? Are planner deadlines tied to the group's calendar?
What about Project Online?
I'm also not clear if or how Planner will integrate with Project Online. My guess is that it won't, initially. I believe that Planner is built on the new Tasks capability (and perhaps even the API) in Office 365, which, as I understand it, is completely new and different than what Project uses. So there may be a time of disconnected experience between the modern Planner experience and the legacy Project workloads.
Certainly, Planner is nowhere near ready to replace Project for teams and organizations that use Project heavily. This will be a lightweight solution in comparison. But it will evolve.
Trello and Wonderlist: Make some room for Planner
Trello is a fantastic service. I adore it for a lot of reasons. I also love Wunderlist, which Microsoft acquired.
As I learned about Highlander, and as I read Crows blog, I was struck by the similarities in concept and experience to Trello. Trello also has boards, lists, and cards that support attachments, conversations, and notifications. Trello and Planner are trying to address the same customer needs, for sure.
I'll be very interested to see how Wunderlist comes to play as a Microsoft experience. I love Wunderlist for my personal tasks, and it supports shared tasks, but not as richly as Trello in my opinion. It's huge strength is rich offline access.
There will be room for all three, for now, anyway. Planner will come onto the scene like a steam train, but it's a brand new product and it will not be anywhere near as feature rich as Trello at the outset.
Setting expectations reasonably: Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
Which leads me to my biggest concern about Planner. It's been highly anticipated and long awaited. Expectations may be too high, and Planner will need time to mature into the tool we all want it to be.
Those people who had access to discussions around Highlander, and those who heard the rumors from Mary Jo Foley are excited. More importantly, lightweight project management and modern, mobile, social task management is painfully missing from Office 365 right now. Customers are hungry, hungry, hungry for this.
People have all kinds of ideas what they want from a solution like Planner. It's definitely going to deliver on some of them, but not all of them. Planner is going to be the first very potent and widespread experience customers have with Microsoft's new, agile approach to developing new solutions and with the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP).
The idea is that, rather than spending many years in a closed room developing software that misses the mark, a product is brought to market more quickly. Customer interaction with the product can be measured (telemetry), and feedback can be gathered in order to take next steps with the product.
The first release of the product is generally bare bones. It's just enough to be, in theory, compelling for customers to try. But it's not at all what the team has envisioned as the final, or event the next, phase of the product. Customer behavior and feedback is integrated into the development cycle to support an agile and responsive and, hopefully, more successful product or service.
MVPs have been part of Office 365 for awhile now. Delve (and Office Graph), Groups, Clutter, the App Launcher, and more have all been MVPs. People have noted the shortcomings of the MVPs, and Microsoft has delivered on its promise to continually improve and innovate each of them. Sure enough, it's working. Each of those components of Office 365 have gotten better and better with time.
But the thing is, people weren't screaming for Delve. Most people still can't get the value it promises because their documents and work aren't connected sufficiently to Office 365 yet. People didn't need groups—they had team sites. People weren't clamoring for Clutter.
But people are chomping at the bit for a better way to manage tasks. My money is on a lot of noise and complaints about everything Planner is not, rather than understanding that the preview will be a first look at a first version.
So take people's complaints and concerns with a huge grain of salt. Understand what Planner does and does not do, so you can make a choice to use it, or not, to support a team or project. But don't judge its long-term viability, and don't make blanket statements about whether Planner is suited for all purposes. It won't be, at first. Align it with the use cases that it is suited for. Give Microsoft feedback—I'm sure they'll have a User Voice and Yammer channel. And be patient.
I'm very optimistic about the future of Planner and of task and project management in Office. The underlying capabilities of Office 365—security, compliance, management, and global availability—are hugely valuable. There's a Tasks API in Office 365 that's been discussed publicly, but has been underplayed until Planner was announced. And there's a vibrant partner community out there. We're going to see a lot of innovation in this space, where data is stored in Office 365, exposed in Planner, Groups and Delve, and brought to mobile business applications.
I'm also passionate about this subject—thus this very long article, LOL—so I'll be sure our team of experts at IT Unity keeps you up to date in the journey towards Planner. Stay tuned! And let us know your thoughts below!
[Article updated October 26, 2015. Originally published September 23, 2015.]