Bob Morris is a Project Manager and a Principal Scrum Master at ThreeWill. He has over 20 years of experience with successfully leading technology projects and teams in both project management and senior technical management positions. This experience includes delivery of software product development, enterprise software deployment and I/T infrastructure projects.
Tasks, or more specifically the completion of tasks, is how work gets done on projects. The concept of tasks and task management has always been a fundamental part of project execution. It represents the specific “who, what, when, how” of the work performed on the project.
With all of the recent focus on promoting team collaboration on projects, a natural question is: How can team collaboration be promoted and enhanced through this traditional aspect of projects? Like most questions, the answers can be approached from both theoretical and practical perspectives. We’ll provide some brief (and hopefully useful) coverage of both perspectives below.
Collaborative Task Management – The Theoretical
As indicated in the figure below, tasks are usually represented by a relatively simple set of core attributes. It is how these attributes are used that influences the level of collaboration among team members. The colored boxes in the figure below represent key areas where collaboration can be/should be promoted.
Task inception usually occurs as a by-product of planning or ideation sessions with the project team. Once core attributes are set, collaboration on the task throughout its lifecycle is supported through three primary mechanisms: conversations, relationships, and visibility/tracking/workflow.
Probably the most obvious of these is “conversations”. This relates to the ability of the team to maintain discussions within the context of a specific task and to pull other team members into the conversation as needed. Providing the ability for all team members to view task conversations is a key aspect of project transparency.
“Relationships” can cover a range of important information related to a given task, including related artifacts (documents, web pages, videos, etc.) and other tasks (either loosely related or representing explicit dependencies). In the above diagram, “relationships” can also include relationships to resources (people or artifacts) that are external to the project team.
“Visibility/tracking/workflow” represents collaboration that should be an overarching, ongoing, always available area of collaboration that supports a shared understanding of project status, impediments, and key next steps for the project team. “Visibility/Tracking” can take many forms based on the preferences of the project team. This information is typically represented via lists/tables, card views/boards (Kanban or otherwise), or calendar/timeline/Gantt chart views. “Workflows” represent any process that can be automated for the team to ensure process efficiency, consistency and understanding.
Which of these collaboration areas are the most important for team task management? What is the most effective way to promote these areas for a project team? How can the team leverage tools to support these areas? The answers to these questions depend upon the unique characteristics of the work being performed, objectives targeted for the project, and capabilities of the team itself. However, there are a few guiding principles that are fairly common for successful task collaboration, including:
- Fit-for-purpose approach – selection of approaches and related tools for task collaboration should be based on “what works for the team”.
- Visibility – team members should have easy visibility into core attributes of specific tasks as well as relationships between tasks and to overall project timeline, objectives and status.
- Inclusiveness/Transparency – all team members must understand how all tasks fit together to accomplish project objectives and all team members should have the ability to contribute in a relevant and appropriate way to task completion.
- Clarity – effective collaboration generates a nontrivial volume of project information. Collaboration mechanisms must provide for a consistent/structured approach for all team members to contribute in way that maintains clear relationships between tasks and their related conversations, artifacts, and people. Comingling of these elements across multiple tasks can cause confusion, misunderstanding, and even hopelessness of team members in understanding the history, current status, and next steps for specific tasks.
Collaborative Task Management – The Practical
So, how should teams promote the key collaborative aspects of task management mentioned above from a practical perspective? In today’s technology-centric world, this question inevitably leads to a discussion of the latest software tools and their support for team collaboration techniques. However, there seems to be a never-ending stream of tools targeted specifically at project team collaboration and task management for small/medium project teams…certainly more than can be covered in a short article.
So, for practical illustration purposes, we’ll use the Microsoft Planner app to show how one of these tools supports key collaboration areas and list some of the other “high profile” options available. As part of the Microsoft 365 ecosystem, Planner is able to leverage the benefits of all Microsoft 365 applications, i.e., single subscription cost for all applications, shared management of security, compliance and operational aspects of the application as well as interoperability with other Microsoft 365 applications (most importantly the Microsoft Teams app).
Task Core Attributes
As indicated in the screen shot below (task detail for an individual task), Microsoft Planner supports all of the core attributes needed for task management and collaboration. It also supports a basic ability to define subtasks in terms of a checklist.
Tasks can be classified/tagged using two mechanisms in Planner. First, all tasks can be assigned to a “bucket” and multiple buckets can be defined for a project (although a task can be associated with only one bucket). Second, a task can be associated with one or more “labels” as indicated in the figure below. Currently, a maximum of 6 labels can be defined across all tasks in a project.
From a “relationships” perspective, Planner tasks can include “attachments” that are actually links to related content. These links can point to Files (local files can be uploaded and stored as group/team files in one step), SharePoint files, or general URLs/links to other content.
People “relationships” are all represented in the “assigned” area of the task detail screen. People relationships are a strong suit for Planner since, as part of the Microsoft 365 ecosystem, it has a built-in capability for secure sharing with “external users”, i.e., users that may not be part of the team or even users that might be external to the team’s organization/company.
Currently, task dependencies aren’t actively managed/enforced in Planner which is not unusual in lightweight team task management tools. However, dependencies can be tracked passively by using the attachment link capability to link to other Planner tasks. Also, external tools are available to add explicit dependencies if needed.
As mentioned earlier, having clarity around task conversations is important to avoid conversation “overload” and confusion. Planner has a built-in conversations/commenting capability. This maintains the conversation in the context of the related task – definitely a good thing. However, there are drawbacks with current conversation capabilities in Planner compared to other tools.
First, conversations are not threaded. So, for example, the representation of conversations within a task are not nearly as robust as conversations in Microsoft Teams. This is one reason that Planner is often used in tandem with Microsoft Teams. Second, there isn’t a built-in capability to conveniently draw other team members into a task conversation. Microsoft Teams has a function called “@ mentions” that allows specific team members to be alerted to a conversation. However, @ mentions are not supported in Planner.
There are work arounds for these drawbacks. First, if Planner is used with Microsoft Teams, a link to the Planner task can be posted in Microsoft Teams and a conversation related to the link can occur. However, these conversations are not transferred back to the Planner Task itself. So, team members can become confused if conversations are occurring both in Microsoft Teams and Planner comments for a task.
Second, projects in Planner are backed by an Microsoft 365 Group and related group mailbox. When comments are added to a task, an alert email is sent to the group mailbox. If team members “subscribe” to the group mailbox, they can receive notification emails in their personal email inbox for any tasks where they are assigned. However, there are two problems with this approach: 1) Users may not wish to deal with potentially unwanted emails in their inboxes and 2) a user not assigned to a task won’t receive notifications unless someone on the team manually forwards an initial email to them from the group mailbox on that task. Hopefully, conversation limitations in Planner will be addressed as Microsoft evolves the Planner app.
Planner provides multiple options for visibility/tracking of project tasks as indicated in the figure below. All of these can be filtered/grouped by buckets, labels, status, assigned to, etc. Probably the most useful option here is the Kanban-style board which shows tasks with buckets as columns or with completion status as columns. There is also a calendar view if tasks are assigned start and due dates. Finally, there is a “chart” view showing various roll-up task metrics. Also, as yet another benefit of membership in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem, Planner task information can be pulled into sophisticated business intelligence reports via Power BI.
Workflow is another strong suit for Planner by virtue of membership in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. Planner projects and tasks can be used with the Microsoft Flow applications for a seemingly unlimited number of workflow purposes. In addition to creating custom workflows, many pre-built workflows are also available for use with Planner. The figure below shows just a sampling of pre-built flows that can be leveraged for Planner.
Next Steps for Exploring Project Team Task Collaboration
As mentioned above, Planner is certainly not the only application in the small/medium team project/task management space and reviewing some of these alternatives can help both in selecting the right application for your team as well as identifying key capabilities that would have the most impact in improving collaboration for your team.
The table (in no particular order) includes a listing of just a few of the applications that support team task management/collaboration in this space. Each has its own specific strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of resources available on the web covering comparisons and recommendations for each of these applications. For quick comparison purposes, there are also many videos on YouTube that provide up-to-date comparisons of these tools. Disclaimer – Some vendors/users of these applications would say that they shouldn’t be limited to a conversation on small/medium team size applications.
Task Management & Collaboration – The Broad Perspective
Improving project performance for small/medium teams through effective collaboration is certainly a worthwhile business objective (as demonstrated by the variety of applications available for this purpose). However, there is a bigger picture and associated challenges that should be recognized for the practical application of one or more of these tools in any enterprise.
The above applications are not the only applications where project work (and related tasks) is managed in today’s enterprises. There are many other built-for-purpose systems that are used by teams to execute projects and manage work. Consider the figure below which depicts different types of work management systems in use at a theoretical technology organization where different types of projects are managed in different systems. Each of these systems can produce tasks. This presents real challenges for both “top down” and “bottom up” scenarios.
From a “top down” scenario perspective, there is a challenge for people working on tasks in multiple systems. Practical management of/collaboration on these tasks from different systems can be become overwhelming. For the “bottom up” scenario, many enterprises use a portfolio management approach that requires project level (and potentially task level) information for strategy development and monitoring. In many cases, the information in each of these scenarios is only available within the “silos” of the various work management systems.
There are some solutions emerging to these challenges, e.g., individual task managers (most recently Microsoft To-Do) that can combine personal and team level tasks for the “top down” scenario and systems (e.g., Microsoft Project) that can link portfolio management items down to individual project work management system tasks for the “bottom up” scenario. Deeper consideration of this “broad perspective” needs to wait for a future blog post. In the meantime, project managers need to keep in mind some of the challenges team members and upper management might have when adopting new project/task management systems.