Image: Microsoft. Project will have the same option for starting a Teams chat about a specific task that Planner already has.
Image: Microsoft. Project will have the same option for starting a Teams chat about a specific task that Planner already has.

Managing tasks and projects with a group of people? Microsoft has a lot of tools for task management (including To Do, Outlook tasks, Azure Boards for developers or building your own with Lists) but there are two overlapping offerings for team projects.

Microsoft Project and Planner come from the same team, share many technologies and have increasingly similar interface designs, with Planner getting more powerful tools while features from Planner show up in Project. That’s not because Microsoft plans to turn them into a single app or service, but to make it easier to use together if your needs get more complicated as a project develops.

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Planner is designed for people with no project management expertise who still have to manage projects, or at least tasks being done by groups of people—even if you might not call that something as formal as a project.

Project is an online service with web and mobile apps that’s aimed at the occasional and professional project manager. Microsoft talks about it as a “step up” from Planner, and it has a scheduling engine, so if you mark one task as being dependant on something else that has to be finished before you can start it, schedules will get updated automatically as you mark the first task finished or delayed.

There’s also still the desktop version of Project which has the full set of professional project management features. It’s included with Premium and Professional subscriptions to Project Online as the Project Online Desktop Client, using the cloud service instead of Project Server. Project on the web doesn’t have all those features, but it does have new ones, like understanding time zones.  So, if you’re working with someone in another office or working remotely, the two eight-hour days you allocate to a task will correctly show up as three or even four days in the schedule if their timezone means their Tuesday and Wednesday office hours correspond to your Tuesday night to Thursday morning.

Planner is getting more powerful features —soon you’ll be able to create recurring tasks in Planner and use text formatting and insert images in task notes—but it’s not intended to be as powerful or as complex as Project. As Brian Smith, senior escalation engineer in the Project support team explained in an online discussion, Microsoft doesn’t want to “make Planner users pay for Project licenses when they only need some of the basic functions.”

Including Project in the core Microsoft 365 subscription wouldn’t make sense either, he suggested, because “for some users the feature set will be more than they need (and will be getting bigger) so that they then find it too cumbersome.” Instead, Microsoft is looking to deliver parity so that Planner users who move on to Project don’t lose any of the features they’re used to—and so that people who are getting assigned tasks through both Planner and Project “don’t have to think about those tasks any differently—or go to different places to update their progress.”

There’s still strong demand for Project, with plenty of feedback requests for advanced features from the desktop app like a consolidated view of Planner and Project tasks, resource planning, project baselines (to track whether a project stayed on target or got delayed) or being able to choose different options for dependencies between tasks. There’s also some frustration at the speed of development, which has kept some organizations interested in migrating to Project Online still using the desktop app.

With so many years of features for project professionals in the desktop Project app, it’s understandable that it would take time to bring those to Project on the web (and it recently got a much-requested critical path view as well as custom fields). But Planner and Project are aimed at a much wider range of users—including the “accidental” project managers who might otherwise be keeping lists of dates and deliverables in Excel or a Word document (or competitors like Trello)—and the focus is on features that will help the broader audience, and make it easier for Planner users if they need to use Project for the occasional, more complex, project by making it familiar.

That’s why Project now has Planner-style checklists of sub-tasks as well as more formal dependencies, so you can have a quick list of things to tick off as you work, as well as labels for colour-coding tasks. There’s also a new priority field coming soon, where the person actually doing the task can assign a priority to organise the different things they need to do (rather than the project manager marking how important a task is for the project overall).

Later this year, Project will have a chart view much like Planner, so a manager familiar with working in Planner won’t get lost when they use Project, and templates to help them get started on new projects.

Keeping Project and Planner in the Loop

Several of the new features are about helping users keep track of tasks and action items that might get lost in the flood of virtual meetings, emails and chats.

Planner has some of the artificial intelligence-powered features showing up in many Microsoft 365 tools (Microsoft sometimes calls these Context AI). It will nudge you to look at plans where you’ve been assigned a task you haven’t opened yet by putting them in a Recommended section and suggest what it thinks is the right file to attach to a task by looking at who’s supposed to be working on a task, the description of what they’re doing and the files that have been shared with you as well as documents you’ve created.

Teams integration pins Planner boards in Teams channels so people can update tasks there rather than just posting a message that something needs doing (or has been done). You can even click a message in Teams chat and use More actions, Create a Task to put a new task into a Planner board with a priority and date (and a link back to the original discussion), or you can start a Teams conversation when you’re looking at a task in Planner. There’s also a Microsoft Loop Task list component for tasks that means people you @mention can update the task in Teams (and eventually in Outlook and other apps) and the progress flows into Planner.

Project also shows up in Teams, although with more views—a structure list (Project calls it a grid) or a timeline with dependencies—as well as the board view, which you can customize with a lot more information, like who a task needs to be reviewed by. Project is built on top of Dynamics and the Microsoft Power Platform so there are integrations with Power BI and PowerApps, like dashboards that show the state of multiple projects for portfolio management.

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In time—the word Microsoft uses is “eventually”—Project will have ways for you to create or update tasks from Teams and through Loop; although Project tasks are usually more structured and planned, you can easily imagine a discussion in Teams helping someone understand how to break up a task and who to assign sub-tasks to and wanting to send that to Project from Teams, rather than pulling up the task in Project and editing it there without the context of the discussion. You’ll also be able to start a conversation about a specific task and @mention the people involved from the Project app in Teams (in much the same way you can now for Planner).

Using Project with Teams relies on having the right licence. Users with a Project Plan 1, Project Plan 3 or Project Plan 5 subscription can create and edit projects on the Project tab in Teams: if you want to create and edit roadmaps, you have to have a Project Plan 3 or Project Plan 5 subscription.

Anyone with an Office 365 subscription can view but not change projects and roadmaps. But sometime this year (likely May if the feature isn’t delayed), if you’ve been assigned a task in Project you’ll only need a Microsoft 365 licence to go into the Project web app and mark it as partly done or completely finished, and we’d expect that to work if you’re using Project inside Teams as well.

Also planned for this year: The ability to add guest users who don’t have a Project licence—again, something you can already do in Planner. That’s not just for a manager who needs to keep an eye on progress but won’t be actively managing work; you can also assign tasks to guest users if you have an outside contractor or supplier, and they can both view the project and update the status of those tasks.

And although it still hasn’t made it onto the Microsoft 365 Roadmap, the long-awaited consolidated view of tasks from Project and Planner is coming to Teams and To Do at some point this year.

Cathy Harley, senior program manager for Planner and Project, described it like this at the Ignite conference last year: “Soon, Project tasks will flow into the Assigned to You list in the Teams tasks app and the To Do app alongside Planner tasks that already appear there, so there’s a single place to manage all of the tasks assigned to you from across Microsoft 365.” Project and Planner users alike are waiting impatiently for this one and resorting to workarounds like checking Project tasks in the Power Platform Project Accelerator in the mean time.

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