Optimizing Task Planning in MS Project Environments (Tools)

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+++ How project managers can enhance collaboration with their teams +++ Tools and options in Microsoft Project environments +++

By Johann Strasser

Like most of us, you’ve probably been responsible for planning diverse projects involving numerous individual tasks in Microsoft Project. As part of your task management responsibilities, you naturally assigned these tasks to the appropriate people and are now trying to balance the comprehensive project plans with the detailed tasks plans of the teams.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What tools are available for use with Microsoft Project
  • What the tools can (and can’t) do
  • The best way to integrate these tools in order to optimize your work management and your project team’s collaboration

Work management in MS Project environments – typical challenges

Parallel planning for project managers and teams

Your objective, of course, is to develop a plan that is accurate, comprehensive, and detailed enough. However, the result is often a plan that is bloated because it is too encompassing. You want your project team members to be empowered to handle the details. However, you don’t want them to be able to change your plans. As project manager, you need to retain control of the planning process. So, allowing everyone involved to edit the plans is out of the question.

Differing demands regarding the level of detail in the plans

Your plans need to be well-organized − with phases, work packages, and milestones − and presented clearly. Avoid excessive details, because this is unnecessary for both the planning process and the presentation. On the other hand, details allow you to precisely calculate the required resources and accurately measure the project’s progress.  This information should be provided by the team members, and they cannot edit your plan.

The solution: Cleverly combine the rough plans with the detailed plans 

One solution is to combine the rough project plans with the detailed task plans. The project manager hereby develops the project plans in Microsoft Project, and the team members prepare the detailed task plans using a task management tool designed specifically for this purpose. Both sets of data are linked with a suitable level of detail in a way that lets everyone involved easily use the data as needed.

Structured project planning combined with detailed work management

Fig. 1: Structured project planning combined with detailed work management

Microsoft offers not only MS Project, but also several other tools for handling the project tasks, and this article discusses these tools. It also makes sense to take a look at the market leader in project task management software: Jira by Atlassian.

Microsoft task planning tools

Fig. 2: Microsoft task management tools

Outlook

Although it allows you to assign tasks to another person, it can’t be integrated with MS Project.

The tasks in Outlook are also not included in the Outlook app for Android or iOS. The app only provides email, calendar, and contacts functionality, not tasks. If you use O365, however, Outlook tasks are synchronized with Microsoft To-Do. SharePoint task lists can be synchronized with Outlook tasks − but not with MS Project tasks.

Here’s what you can do in Outlook:

  • Assign tasks to another person
  • Display emails, calendars and contacts in the Outlook app for Android and iOS
  • Synchronize the task lists with SharePoint (O365)
  • Synchronize the task lists with Microsoft To-Do (O365)

Here’s what you can’t do in Outlook:

  • Link to MS Project – which means that tasks can’t be synchronized
  • Display the tasks in Outlook app for Android and iOS

SharePoint

SharePoint also offers task planning functionality. Project Server/Online has a separate workspace for each project – a project site. The task list in the workspace is automatically synchronized with the project plan’s tasks. In this list, you can bundle all the documents, risks, problems and other lists, and link to these.

However, what’s the best way to involve the team members so that they can help plan the details?  For this, you need to create another task list and link its tasks to the project’s task list.

The problem:

  • The user interface isn’t intuitive,
  • The task lists can’t be modified or subdivided, and
  • You can’t merge the tasks from different project and SharePoint sites in the MySite.

This means that the team members have to search all the project’s sites to find the tasks assigned to them, or manually synchronize these lists in Outlook.

Why?

Microsoft is working on several new concepts for work management, in which SharePoint no longer plays a role in project planning. If you are still interested in linking SharePoint task lists with MS Project tasks, practical solutions can be programmed or configured o accomplish this; for example, using O365 with Microsoft Flow or TPG PSLink.

Wunderlist and Microsoft To-Do

A few years ago, Microsoft purchased the tool Wunderlist and for a time now has offered Microsoft To-Do as part of O365. Both of these task management tools are cloud-based. What the future holds for Wunderlist is unknown. Certain, however, is that Microsoft wants To-Do to be the new command center for managing personal tasks.

Tasks in To-Do are automatically synchronized – in both directions – with the tasks in Outlook, and tasks in Microsoft Planner can also be displayed if desired. However, here as well, there’s no direct interface to MS Project.

Overcoming these limitations to reach your goals

You can develop a flow in O365 to automatically create a new task item for every new Project Online task. This requires a certain level of programming expertise to produce a truly usable solution, but it’s possible.

The advantages of Microsoft To-Do

To-Do definitely has the potential to offer a practical way for project managers and team members to collaborate. It lets you:

  • Sub-divide tasks into steps and organize them into lists that can be grouped
  • Re-assign a task to another person
  • Specify a deadline for the task to be completed
  • Attach a document to a task
  • Mark a task as done

Microsoft is working hard to expand this tool, so it’ll be interesting to see what additional collaboration functionality will be added for project managers using MS Project. The task management tool is already well-suited for personal use.

Microsoft Planner

The O365 tool collection has for a while now also included a planner created to support team collaboration. It offers less functionality than Project Server/Online but more functionality than the To-Do tool. You’ll find that it’s a good tool for enhancing collaboration between project managers and their teams. The O365 tool collection even includes an integration with Project Online. There is a limitation though: the integration includes only one link per task.
This means that:

  • You can only link each individual project task with ONLY ONE individual plan in MS Planner. In other words, you can’t integrate a task with several plans.
  • Also: the integration is simply a link for accessing the plan. The embedded function doesn’t synchronize any data.

To address the growing popularity of Microsoft Planner, we’ve developed a corresponding solution: TPG PSLink. It enables you to share data in a way that enables effective collaboration between the project managers and team members.

Synchronizing buckets and tasks between MS Project and Planner

Fig. 3: Synchronizing buckets and tasks between MS Project and Planner

  • Select a plan:As project manager, you can select a task from a list of existing MS Planner plans and link it to a task in MS Project. In this plan, the particular task in MS Planner is created as either a bucket (as a folder for your detailed task-planning) or task within a bucket.
  • Plan the details:Team members can add tasks and checklists to provide more detail to the Planner’s buckets. In doing so, the team members turn the project manager’s rough plans into more detailed plans.
  • Synchronize the project: The ongoing as well as completed tasks belonging to a bucket, including the checklist entries, can be re-synchronized with the associated task in MS Project. This lets project management exactly know what has been planned and what progress has been made in the project.

Please note: MS Planner doesn’t have any fields in which you can enter work, story points or similar information. This means that you can only analyze the number and status of the linked elements, but not the effort involved.

Why integrate the systems? With the proper synchronization methods, people in both roles can use the tools best suited to their needs without needless data duplication. This lets you achieve significantly better results with your project.

Microsoft TFS / Azure Boards

Team Foundation Server has now been available for many years, and the online version is named Azure Boards. It is a comprehensive tool for planning and tracking software projects. This project management tool lets you manage the project structures, functions, requirements, tasks, and components – and includes information about resources, status, etc.

SynchStructureProjectTFS

Fig. 4: Synchronizing any number of structures between Project and TFS

How an MS Project integration facilitates work management

As project manager, you can synchronize as many parts of the TFS structure as desired with your project plan. TPG PSLink lets you configure how you would like to handle this data sharing. We are often faced with the request to completely synchronize a project plan with TFS. This allows the project manager to combine the existing TFS structure with the rough plans in MS Project in order to plan the deadlines and milestones.

Atlassian Jira

Jira was originally just a software development tool but is now used in all industries to handle task management as well. It lets you define a variety of issue types with possible statuses and workflows in diverse structures, giving you the functionality needed to cover a wide range of use cases.

This gives you unlimited possibilities for facilitating collaboration between project management and the project team. A commonly implemented option uses TPG PSLink to synchronize the phases as versions and the tasks as epics.

task planning in MS Project environments

Fig. 5: Synchronizing any number of structures between Project and Jira

Within an epic, the team plans issues and their associated resources in the form of story points.

6_task_planning_details_issues

Fig. 6: Detailed work management with issues

After the work is performed, the hours are recorded in a log, the issue statuses and epics are updated, and all this information is then re-synchronized back with MS Project.

7_Synch_Actuals2Project

Fig. 7: Re-synchronizing the update with MS Project

Summary

Combining MS Project with suitable task management tools not only enables your team members can plan with greater accuracy but also ensures that the project plans are well-organized and clear – making them easier to use. This article has introduced you to the following tools:

  • Outlook– a comprehensive communication and collaboration tool, but without a direct link to MS Project
  • SharePoint– a suitable tool for project documentation, but it lacks easy-to-use work management functionality
  • Wunderlist and Microsoft To-Do– ideal for personal use
  • Microsoft Planner– an easy-to-use work management tool for project teams with a direct link to MS Project
  • Microsoft TFS / Azure Boards– especially well-suited for planning and tracking in software projects, and can be linked to MS Project
  • Atlassian Jira– flexible task management solution for a broad spectrum of use cases, and it can be linked to MS Project

Do you have experience with combining different task planning tools? What, in your opinion, requires particular attention? Please leave us a brief comment.

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