Todoist becomes a work management solution with new features

Doist has released version 800 of the team task management solution, Todoist, effectively moving the tool into the work management category. In particular, Todoist now supports activity ‘logs’ (or ‘streams’), project notes, improved microsyntax for quickly creating tasks, and a reworked notification system user experience.
Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.44.54 AM
Work management is a term that has emerged in recent years as team task management tools were enhanced with various social communication capabilities, principally derived from design motifs that originated in work media (or enterprise social network) tools (like Yammer, IBM Connections, and Jive).
The new activity stream includes recent comments and project notes (although they are named ‘comments’ in the activity stream.
Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.06.40 AM
The new project notes is basically a reuse of the existing model for task comments. This has the benefit of being familiar, but falls short of what I’d like to see since task comments and, now, project notes, are not visible until the icon is clicked, and then they appear in a hover box, covering the task list in the project.
Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.21.40 AM
It would be much better if display of project and task comments was more like the new activity stream. Imagine that I click the comment icon in either case, and instead of the hover window instead the comments would be displayed below the title in a scrollable list. Here’s a mock-up:
Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 10.16.19 AM
And I would like to see explicit replies, too. A flat series of notes or comments creates all sorts of headaches.
Bottom Line
The most important takeaway is that Todoist has now moved from team task management to being a true work management tool. While there’s a lot still to do with the new features, Todoist’s traditional strengths — ease of use, flexibility in ordering and nesting of tasks and projects, and smart integration with Gmail — are still in place. But now Todoist is gaining important features for workgroup cooperation and coordination.
 

Microsoft Planner is rolling out on Office 365

Microsoft Planner — the work management complement to Office 365 — was made available as a preview in December 2015, but has entered ‘general availability’, meaning it will become immediately accessible to users of eligible subscription plans. In Office 365, it will appear as another tile in the Office 365 tools (see the leftmost tile in the second row, below).
Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 3.41.04 PM
Microsoft Planner is a task-centric work management solution, despite the ‘project management’ terminology other reviewers are using. The orientation of the tools is to support teams and team members tracking tasks and coordinating task work through social communications.
Planner is one of several task-oriented solutions that Microsoft is working to integrate, including Wunderlist and Microsoft Project. Conceptually, this means that users will be able to manage personal tasks (in Wunderlist), team work (in Planner), and to manage project planning (in Microsoft Project), and for these to be integrated in sensible ways. So for example, it might be helpful if I could see my work-related tasks, perhaps created and annotated in Planner, in a mobile Wunderlist app. Or to analyze the cost implications for a shift in personnel in a Planner project within the portfolio of company projects managed in Microsoft Project. That’s one part of the company’s long-range vision for Planner and the other tools manipulating task information. But it is going to be a long time before all the kinks and use cases are worked out for that grand vision. And at any rate, ultimately Planner will have to stand on its own, based on how good of a work management tool it is.
And that assessment poses another issue. If Planner requires Office 365 in order to use it — or even experiment with it — many prospective users will simply never jump through the hoops to try it out. I have raised that very issue with Microsoft representatives this year, as I was being briefed on the product. My suggestion is that Microsoft should create a standalone version of planner — at least a web app, if not mobile apps — so that an individual, team, or company could do an apples-to-apples comparison with Asana, Trello, or Wrike, and not the apples-to-oranges comparison with the umpty-ump boxes in that Office image, above. Also, that is the best way for Planner’s functionality to improve — in head-to-head competition — and not as a captive work management ‘capability’ locked into Office 365, relying on its integration with Office email, Outlook, Groups, and other tools.
The following is a condensation of the review of Planner from the in-process 2016 Work Management Narrative (much delayed), that I am authoring.
Planner is based on the well-known kanban-style, ‘board’ architectural model, and three modes of boards are supported at present: user-defined ‘buckets’, task assignment to members, and progress. As shown in the screenshot below, there is a left hand column where I have selected a plan, in this case Work Management Narrative, and I chose to display that plan as Buckets, not by Progress or Assigned to. In the ‘research tools’ bucket there is a single task, ‘research Microsoft Planner’, which shows icons indicating 0 of 2 subtasks have been completed, that there are comments, and the task has been assigned to Stowe Boyd. The half moon icon indicates that the task is in progress, a third state for tasks: unstarted, in progress, and completed.
Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 5.27.27 PM
Clicking on ‘write method section’ expands that task (or, in the usual terminology, turns over the ‘card’), as we see in the screenshot below. At the foot we see a stream of comments — the one with a white background was entered in an associated discussion, about which more later. There are a variety of other attributes, showing a rich task model, however, lacking support for some common social communications like ‘@mentions’.
Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 4.03.56 PM
What’s not clear from this zoom into Planner is that the ‘work management narrative’ plan corresponds to a Office 365 group of the same name. Groups support group-oriented communications, but those are not accessed in the Planner section of Office 365.
I believe that Planner users will find the need to return to Outlook to conduct conversations about their projects annoying, as opposed to the more normal model of an in-context — or best, in-project — activity stream. I bet that Microsoft will hear this as a frequent suggestion for additional Planner functionality. However, I often operate in multiple windows on the same project workspace, and so, having a conversation window and a Planner board view open at the same time is really not very different, and may be workable for many. Note also that if Microsoft builds a standalone version of Planner there will be no Outlook to lean upon, so an in-context activity stream or chat model would be best.
Office 365 users are likely using the spectrum of features — Outlook, OneDrive, Office apps, Groups, OneNote, and Planner — and therefore will rapidly habituate to transiting the many loosely integrated components, and will likely adapt to a model of use involving a lot of moving around. 
By itself, Planner would only be considered a team task management tool, not a true work management tool, since it lacks activity streams, @mentions, and other baseline social communications. However, that’s a red herring, since Planner — at present — is never without Groups and Outlook, and can’t be separated from them.

At present, I think the initial implementation of charts is a better indicator of where Planner is headed. In the screenshot below I’ve pulled an example from the Microsoft website (since my examples aren’t rich enough), and this shows the ease of quickly grasping the status of a Planner ‘document’ through a dashboard view.
charts planner
I also want to give a nod to the designers of Planner for including the three state model for task status: not started, in progress, and completed. The in-progress state is incredibly powerful, and after using it in some tools, I now chafe whenever confronted with a solution that lacks it.
Planner is an obvious choice for those already committed to Office 365 as a baseline for work productivity. However its current level of integration with Office 365 services — like Outlook, OneDrive, and OneNote — falls short of work management nirvana. Still, it’s early days, and when I reviewed it the product was only in a ‘First Use’ release phase.
I can imagine that within a very short time frame the myriad hooks that could make Planner a first-class member of the Office 365 suite will begin to emerge. I wager that creating tasks from email, or in the comments of a Groups or OneDrive comments — as just some of the most obvious examples — will be implemented within the next few releases, or sooner.
 

Busybot: A ‘Parasitic’ Task Management Tool For Slack

Because Busybot and Slack look so much alike and are so tightly connected, I avoid the cognitive costs of switching.


I’ve tried using work management tools like Asana in connection with Slack, and the results have been mixed, principally because — I think — there is a mismatch in the basic orientation of the tools: Slack is messaging centered, while Asana is task centered.

In the case of a tool like Asana, when the Slack connection is used notifications are sent to a Slack channel whenever changes occur in the Asana workspace. For example, whenever a task is created, completed, or commented upon. A slash command (‘/asana’) lists tasks, and arguments to the command can lead to creating tasks, assigning tasks, and commenting on them.

Asana integration in Slack

But I confess that I have found this style of integration difficult. The two models of use — chat-based conversation in Slack and task-based coordination in Asana — don’t align for me, and the mapping from an Asana workspace to a Slack channel doesn’t always line up right. And I don’t necessarily want to have every tweak to a task dumped into the channel in Slack, per se. I don’t want that endless stream of noise, because Slack is noisy enough.

I recently encountered a tool that takes a different tack. Busybot avoids the mismatch problem by operating in a parasitic way. By that I mean it relies totally on Slack’s architecture to the greatest extent possible. For example, there is no independent login: you use Slack’s login. And once logged in, the channels of the team that you sign into are duplicated as contexts for tasks in Busybot.

Here’s the login:

login for Busybot

Here’s the #general channel for workfutures.io in Slack. You can see that I /invited busybot to the channel (I had already created the integration).

Inviting and Creating a Task

I typed a message to busybot, ‘ask Esko for a contribution’. If I had added ‘@stoweboyd’ that would have assigned the task to me, as well.

workfutures.io Slack team

Over in Busybot, everything looks extremely similar:

Task in Busybot

On the left, the design of Slack is emulated, so that for each Slack channel there is an equivalent Busybot channel, where all tasks can be found. I’ve selected the ‘ask Esko’ task, and then the task pane opens. I’ve selected the ‘add checklist’ feature.

Task Checklist

I’ve added a single checklist item, but you can have as many as needed. Also descriptions, comments, deadline, and assignment of the task are available as metadata.

The task list can be sorted, which is moot in this case, since there is only one task:

Also note that the ‘@stoweboyd’ option at the top opens all the tasks assigned to me, and ‘all tasks’ opens all tasks in the team, sorted by channel.

Tasks can be added, edited, and deleted in Busybot, but can only be created and displayed in the Slack side of the integration, at present. I’ve been told by Busybot’s CEO and founder, Damian Bramanis, that various new features are coming, like multi-team functionality, new ways to groups tasks in views, and tags.

Conclusions and Takeaway

Busybot works for me despite the minimal degree of metadata, and I think the reason is the equivalence between the Slack and Busybot information models: I don’t have to switch gears mentally when I move from Slack to Busybot, or vice versa. It feels like I am in the same place, just looking at different attributes of the same system of information. Moving from Slack to Busybot feels like I am just zooming in on task details that are suppressed on the Slack side. Because the two ‘sides’ look so much alike and are so tightly connected, I avoid the cognitive switching costs of moving from Slack to non-parasitic tools, like Asana.

Yes, I’d like to be able to do more with Busybot, though. For example, I’d like to be able to change task attributes on the Slack side, like adding a comment to a task, so that the text of the task comment would appear both in the Slack chat history and in the task comment thread. Damian tells me they are working on ways of accomplishing more sophisticated sorts of integration like that, perhaps with a /busybot command, or clever use of the channel topic (setting the topic to the name of a task, for example, so that commands could refer to that task).

At any rate, I will be watching the developments at Busybot with close attention.


Crossposted 1 May 2016 on workfutures.io.

Update 1 May 2016 4:30pm: Several folks mentioned Swipes for Slack, as another approach to accomplish some or all of what Busybot does. I will review in another post.

Problems with email integration for work management tools

I’ve been evaluating a long list of work management tools as part of the research for the Work Management Narrative report (see recent post, Work Management in Theory: Context). One issue that comes up a great deal is the integration with email, which is a common trigger for a user to create a task, as well as a means to communicate with other team members who may not be using the same — or any — work management tools.

This post doesn’t look into how work management tools use email as a way to communicate with team member not using the work management tool: that’s a separate use case. I’m focusing on email as a parallel sort of communication, and one from which a great deal of tasks arise.

There are a number of approaches to email integration, which I will categorize like this:

  • Low or no integration: despite the ubiquity of email, and the obvious need to communicate to the wide, wide world through it (and email’s insatiable hunger to communicate with us, too) some vendors offer little or no support for the realities of email. Not good.
  • Loose integration: some vendors have opted for a loose integration, often through bookmarklets or third-party connection services like Zapier and IFTTT. For example, Azendoo supports a Zapier ‘zap’ where gmails that I star become tasks in a specific project. Subsequently, the user can open Azendoo, and perhaps move the task to another project, add notes, fool with metadata (due dates, assignment, etc.). A bookmarklet — like Wrike‘s — accomplishes more or less the same thing. In either case, the connection is one-way, and the work management tool does not try to ‘handle’ email in a general way: the precipitating email is just a starting point for a task. At present, I think loose integration is the best approach.
  • In-inbox integration: Some solutions — like Todoist (a team task management tool) and Sortd (ditto) — provide a Google Chrome extension so that when you are ‘in’ Gmail you can easily convert an email to a task (and add metadata, etc.) in a window while never leaving the Gmail context. This is a lot smoother than loose integration, especially for people who communicate through email a great deal. Also, clicking on a link back to an email makes it more of a two way solution.
  • In-app email: Some tools aspire to replace the email client’s functionality altogether, basically pulling in all emails and implementing the services that emulate — at least in part — capabilities of email services. It is this last case that I want to zoom into in this post.

I’ve tried at least two solutions in recent weeks that seek to bring email integration in-app: Fleep and ScribblePost. I had an exchange with the CEO of ScribblePost, Alon Novy, about his company’s model of email integration. One outcome was the following post, shared with him through the company’s support system. In that post I suggested a more sophisticated version of in-app email integration:

Alon –

I tried and rejected your competitor Fleep’s attempt to act as a email client.

The hybrid failed for some of the same issues I have with your approach:

1. I might have a number of other plugins or features that operate in the Gmail client that I can’t walk away from, like Google Tabs.

2. If I have to undertake email hygiene in both Gmail and in the work management tool, that is an impossible cost.

3. The design of an email client is distinct from that of a work management tool, and intended to meet a wide range of use cases, not just those related to work management.

My bet is that the best approach will be to have a close coupling, but not a full integration of email in the work management tool, like your SP [ScribblePost]. On the work management side, some emails — those that are starred, or labeled in a specific way — would have a handle created, so that the email can be indirectly referenced and annotated: for example, comments can be added to the handle, or a task can be created as a follow-up to the email that would be attached to link to the email handle.

I think that the email handle is a distinct type or object in the work management space, different from tasks, internal messages, and posts. An email handle is a specific example of a general notion: a handle to reference some info object principally or partially managed outside the work management solution. That could also hold for Twitter or Facebook messages, for example, or Salesforce contacts.

At any rate, SP could implement a set of actions for email handles that fall into two groups:

1. those that represent actions on the handle — like creating or deleting the handle, linking it to a task (as a special sort of attachment), sharing it, adding comments, moving a handle from one project to another, etc. — as opposed to

2. actions on the email linked to the handle — like reply, forward, archive, and so on.

I think such a two-faced approach covers the greatest number of use cases, including unforeseen ones.

You might also benefit from a chrome plugin for Gmail, so that some (or perhaps even all) actions that users might want to perform vis-à-vis the intersection of email and SP could happen ‘in’ Gmail. For example, I might read an email and decide to

1. start tracking this thread in SP,

2. associate one or more tags with the handle, and

3.assign a follow-up task to myself referencing the email along with some notes.

I could then get back to other email, some of which never crosses over into SP.

Best,

Stowe

Note that the info handle concept lines up fairly directly with a platform play, obviously.

I applaud Alon and his team for the innovative ideas they are developing in ScribblePost, and likewise the brilliant design of Fleep, both products which I will be reviewing in the upcoming Narrative. I’m sharing this to stimulate discussion around these ideas, and also (shameless plug) to demonstrate the sort of thinking that animates the report.

Work chat Fleep’s slash commands, tasks, and email integration

2016-01-19: Updated with some corrections. Strikeouts indicated former erroneous material now amended or deleted, and italics show new explanations.


I’ve been closely watching the development of work chat vendor Fleep, and since I reviewed the product in August (see Work chat tool Fleep has native task management: Is that a key feature, or just nice to have?) the company has addressed so many areas I won’t try to cover them all, I’ll let them do that for you.
I am just going to focus on the slash commands, tasks, and email integration.
Slash commands — Fleep’s chat (or ‘conversations’ as they call them), support a number of commands that are preceded by a slash (‘/’):

/pin <message> — create a new pinned message
/task <message> — create a new task message
/taskto @someone — create and assign a new task
/bug <message> — create a new bug report task with ((bug))
/add <email> — add new members to the conversation
/kick <email> — remove members from the conversation
/leave — leave conversation

When these are used in the context of a chat, when a chat message with a leading command is posted, the action is taken. In the screenshot below, I have just invited Doppelganger Jones to the AdjectiveNoun conversation, assigned him a task ‘please write up a plan’, and I have formed a new chat message at the bottom to create a second task also assigned to him.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.10.54 PM
Here’s the task pane opened after those tasks were created.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.11.26 PM
One of the weaknesses of Fleep’s task model is that the tasks have very little metadata. I can understand why they might not need comments or notes — it’s a chat app, after all — but due dates are fairly essential.
Tasks are completed by checking the task box. I found it odd that pinning a task — which moves a message to the top of the chat window and stops it from scrolling away — leads to the task losing its ‘taskness’: it becomes just another message. Odd.
Documents can be added to the conversation — including Google and Dropbox docs — but these aren’t attached to messages or tasks: they’re just dropped into the chat. And one or more documents/files can be added to messages or tasks.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.13.16 PM
Once added, they also show up in the ‘Files’ pane, the one with the paperclip icon.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.14.23 PM
Personally, I might have designed them to do both. That limitation seems particularly irksome with tasks.
It’s great that Fleep tasks (and messages) can have attachments, since passing along a description of the work to be done, or a document to be approved are commonplace activities.
Also note in this case I was trying to attach a Google doc, but somehow Fleep instead creates and attaches a PDF of the doc. So my colleagues on Fleep can’t use this as a way to open and coedit the Google doc, but just to look at an immediately out-of-date pdf of the doc. This is dumb. If I were actually using Fleep in production I would copy and paste URLs to docs, instead. And Fleep provides a text markup for that, in this form:

link<<text>>adds an inline link with the text in the angled brackets

And that works really well, in fact:
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.01.45 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.02.01 AM
Clicking on the preview or the URL link opens the Google doc, and since I copied a share URL that allows for editing, my colleagues would be able to view, comment, and or edit the Google doc, in place.
Returning to tasks, the task pane can include ‘sections’ that can be used to arrange tasks into subsets.
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.49.17 PM
I like the capability to layout the sections in this way, and when coupled with the ability to ‘clone’ conversations, teams could create and reuse project templates to help regularize the work in project conversations. Too bad that the ‘clone’ function for projects only copies the set of contributors, and doesn’t include — for example — the tasks defined in the conversation. If it did, teams could create and reuse project templates to help regularize the work in project conversations. Alas, not today.
Fleep now supports ‘@mentions’, so that I can alert others to messages, like ‘Can someone take a look at the timeline in this doc to check it’s up to date? https://docs.google.com/document/d/1bwF55zWtnJOtUsDheIoRgwmC7Geq7ZVcT9Ho-UYnd3w/edit?usp=sharing<<Report>> @doppelganger.jones’.
Note that the user identity in Fleep for Fleep users is an email address:
Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.57.33 PM
This is by design. Fleep is tightly integrated with email, so that non-Fleep users can be invited to conversations simply by adding their email. If they aren’t a Fleep user, they can participate through email. This leads to all messages — including tasks — being sent to them, and their responses showing up in the conversation. Emailed tasks just look like messages at present, so email only participants can’t check them off, for example.
More importantly to me is that emails directed to Fleep aren’t treated as tasks but as messages, although they can be converted to tasks. And the model is that a new conversation is created with the other person for these emails. There is no way to direct them to an existing conversation. That’s a different slant than I am used to, from tools like Todoist.


I have not  touched on all features of the tool, but probably enough to get a sense for what using it feels like. Fleep is at core, a classic work chat tool, based on contextual conversation (see Contextual conversation: Work chat will dominate collaboration). Unlike leading competitors, however, Fleep has integrated task management.
At the same time, the limits on Fleep’s task model would chafe anyone who believes that richer capabilities are essential — like multiple assignment, subtasks, due dates, start dates, notes, comments, attachments, and so on. However, the fact that tasks and other messages can be brought back into context when looking at a task by selecting ‘show in conversation’ does counter some of the issues with notes, comments, and attachments, so long as they are in fact truly contextualized.
I hacked a link from a task to a day on my Google Calendar to represent a due date, but that just indicates the direction they might take if they start thinking about due dates and calendar integration. Here’s the edit for the task:
Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.51.54 AM
And here’s how it renders:Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 9.53.13 AM
This manual approach is just too much work, although I certainly could get the first order benefits simply by putting the due date in the text of a task.
Obviously, I’d rather have a calendar integration so that tasks with due dates would automatically show on my Google Calendar, and so would anyone else, I bet.
If the team at Fleep continue their development at the breakneck pace of 2015, they may in fact be countering some of these issues, and their focus on integration with a wide spectrum of developer tools seems to represent the same arc of adoption that we saw first with Hipchat, and later with Slack. We should anticipate the same disperal pattern, where the developers in a company infect non-developers with the ease of use and depth of the developers’ work chat platform, and they in turn begin to infect other non-developers across the company and the company’s ecosystem.

Sortd is another take on the dream of ‘One Inbox’

Email is often characterized as hellish: at best a necessary evil and at worst a monstrous time sink.


Email has evolved into a weird medium of communication where the best thing you can do is destroy it quickly, as if every email were a rabid bat attacking your face. — Paul Ford


In this post I am not going down that rat hole (as worthy a digression as it may be), and I will simply accept the fact that email exists, we use it, and it is an integral part of many working folk’s workflow. I won’t be talking about email zero, or other approaches that take a Fordian slant.
There’s been a great deal of innovation in email clients for mobile devices — a topic I’ve written about a great deal — but this is about the breadth of what is in email clients, rather than in the gestural and mobile innovations we’ve seen in tools like Mailbox (now defunct).
Sortd 
Sortd is a ‘skin’ for Gmail, implemented as a Chrome extension, and attempting to integrate task management directly into the email inbox experience along with conventional email. The company has also developed an iOS app, which I haven’t had a chance to fool with, yet.
Here you see a screenshot (courtesy of OSM), showing four columns. The leftmost is the email inbox, which flattens out all emails into a single stream, even if you’ve set up Gmail folders.
sortd-high-res
The right three columns are like Kanban boards, and are user definable. Here the user has defined ‘To Do’, ‘Follow Up’, and ‘Deals’ boards. The items in the boards are nominally Sortd tasks, which are created by either dragging an email from the inbox, or creating a task in one of the boards by clicking the plus sign (‘+’) at the foot of one of the boards.
[My goal in this post is to discuss the concepts motivating Sortd’s design, and so I will leave my quibbles in square brackets, so they can be filtered. In this case, I think the plus sign should be at the top of the list, so it doesn’t drop out of sight when the task list grows long.]
Tasks that start out as an email inherit their name from the email subject, but can be renamed. Tasks can have email(s) added, so a task — in both cases — can include a variety or emails from various people. This is an interesting alternative to email labels or folders, when you think about it: a collection of emails united by some intention, goal, or activity.
Tasks can have notes, deadlines, and reminders, but there is no real concept of subnotes. Boards can act as projects, but there is no other level of task lists.
The UX allows for dragging and dropping of emails onto tasks, and dragging tasks around to reorder them. And dropping tasks onto other tasks consolidates any attached emails and notes, but does not create subtasks, alas. [This is something that should be remedied.]
In my personal case, I have defined ‘Today’, ‘Soon’, and ‘Later’ boards. I refresh what’s on Today, every day, using my 1, 2, 3 technique (one big thing, 2 medium things, 3 little things). Tasks are added, moved, checked off, and consolidated across the three boards all the time, and in particular, new tasks are created as new emails arrive.
When a specific task is opened, there are three flavors of UI:
No email –– notes, due date, and reminder fields are shown.
Single email — as above, but minimized, with most space given over to framing the email:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 11.00.22 AM
Note along the top right various icons to deal with the task/email, like label, and trask, and including a check mark for completing the task. The email can be responded to in this presentation: replied to, forwarded, archived, and so on.
Multiple emails — a selector that allows the user to pick which of the emails should be viewed appears under the task title, and once a specific email is chosen, the presentation is like the single email case.
Sortd provides a toggle on the right hand side of the Gmail window so that the user can toggle between the Sortd and Gmail skin. There is also a setting to select which skin to open in.
Lastly, when looking at an received email that has not yet been associated with a Sortd task the tool allows the user to ‘sort it’ using a button at the top:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 11.09.22 AM
Note this also allows selecting which board the new task will be placed on.
A second approach for turning a reply into a task is provided by hover icons:
Screen Shot 2016-01-06 at 10.22.35 AM
And this allows either pinning the email to a new task in a specific board, or to set a reminder for the email. [There should be away to select an existing task, too.]
Discussion
I like the Sortd approach to melding task management and email right into Gmail. Partly that’s so that other services offered by Google and others that are integrated into Gmail continue to work, and so that I don’t have to move to some other client. That also makes trying it out much easier, and likewise for gradually transitioning.
The problems I have are only a few:

Sortd’s task management is relatively immature — lacking features like subtasks, recurring tasks, multiple notes, bookmarklet, etc. — is a powerful disencentive. Sortd has not to deepen the offering’s task model dramatically if it wants to attract people using tools like Asana, Todoist, Wrike, Clarizen, and so on. Creating a bookmarklet, so users can create a task linking to the URL of any web page, is a really easy feature to create, especially since the tool runs as a Chrome plugin already, and this counters to some extent the lack of integration with other tools, presently.
Sortd’s communication model is minimal — At present, there is nothing like chats, messaging, or comment threads. I’ve been told that @mention style communication is in the works, presuambly from the existing task notes.
There is no capability for assigning tasks to people, so that effectively limits tasks to personal use. Note that other offerings — Like Streak — have extended the notion of Gmail labels for that enables personal emails to be shared among invited users. I bet that Sortd will have to implement something like this for task assignment — or at least sharing the attached emails as something other than text — to work.
Skinning has limits, or maybe doesn’t go far enough — I like the idea of skins on top of Gmail, but it only goes so far. Why doesn’t Sortd implement opening one of multiple emails collected in a task as an additional hover panel above the topmost one? Each email could be its own task, with nested tasks and emails. Likewise, as in the task management tool Trello, why don’t we have ‘subboards’ within boards? For example, in my ‘Soon’ board, I create tasks that serve just as labels to break up the list of tasks into weeks, like ‘— wo 4 Jan —‘, meaning ‘week of 4 Jan’. But if boards could be dragged onto boards, this would work better.

I will be tracking the progress at Sortd, which has been around for over a year, but we’ll have to see if they are pointing their efforts in the same direction as I would like to see.
 
 

A gap in task management: discontinuous work

I’ve written a great deal on what we call the 3D workforce — decentralized, distributed, and discontinuous. As I characterized it for a webinar last year:

Teams are mobile and geographically distributed, and they extend beyond the boundaries of a “corporation” to freelancers, customers, and supply chain partners. Timeshifting and multitasking force work to be discontinuous, and demand loosely coordinated, short-term projects. Decentralized teams get less oversight and are relying on results-only work styles.

I’ve been talking with a lot of task management product managers recently, as I gear up for the 2016 Task Management Narrative, an in-depth look at a long list of task management tools, including Asana, Azendoo, Basecamp, Clarizen, Flow, Producteev, Wrike, Smartsheet, Todoist, Trello, and others. And I have lit upon a problem regarding task management that none of the tools seem to address.
My work is discontinuous. So the actual work associated with any given task is likely to be performed in a fragmented way: two hours yesterday, 45 minutes today, and 4 hours over the weekend. Task management tools are designed to allow me to deal with some aspects of my work — such as assigning a due date (quite a common feature) and perhaps a start date (a much less common feature) — but the discontinuous reality of actually getting things done is not well supported.
In my case, I use a daily technique for planning my work — as do many others — but it is not actually supported by a computerized tool: I use an Action Notebook, designed by Behance, and each morning pick the tasks that I am going to work on, and write them on the righthand page. [Note: this is not exactly the version of notebook I use, but the differences don’t matter.]
Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 11.35.34 AM
You’ll see that there are only seven of the task areas (in blue) on the right hand page. Based on my immense laziness but equally great self-awareness, I know I can only accomplish a few things each day, because life and me. My technique is to plan on working on one task that will involve an hour or more of my time, which I designate as the top-most, and I write ‘1/1’ and then the work I plan to do, like ‘1/1 write up A gap in task management: discontinuous work’. I allot two slots for working on two activities in the 1/2 hour to 1 hour range, such as phone calls, and I denote them as ‘1/2′ and 2/2’. I am still an optimist because I believe I can accomplish three tasks taking (in principle) less than a 1/2 hour, which I denote ‘1/3’, ‘2/3’, and ‘3/3’. There is one additional slot available at the bottom, which is a wildcard for the unexpected.
That’s it. 1 2 hour block of work + 2 45 minute blocks of work + 3 30 minute blocks of work = 2 +1.5 +1.5 = 5 hours. The rest of a prototypical day is consumed by lunch, emails, unexpected requests, dithering, and miscellaneous activities.
And I seldom have a day go as planned. Circumstances intrude. A call is rescheduled. An unexpected opportunity leads to a proposal. Again, because life and me. So, very often I start out on Tuesday making a list and including things that I never could get to on Monday.
Your mileage may vary.
The point I am making is not the specifics of how I manage my time each day — and each week, in a less refined fashion — but that I am trying to schedule my work each day, and it is not well-integrated with my calendar or my task management solution. There are some exceptions, such as telephone calls or other meetings, which are always scheduled on my calendar (Google Calendar), but in general my day-to-day participation in the tasks I am working against is captured only in my work journal, and not in my task management tool of choice (Todoist, at present).
What I envision as a solution requires a few new features, or refinements of features.
Treat tasks as discontinuous — Instead of modeling tasks as though they are monolithic, they would be better modeled as a discontinuous sequence of fragments. This is something like the way that time trackers work, although I am less interested in the keeping track of time aspect, and more on the planning side.
Likewise, we have the general concept of subtask, but that is used in a different way, means to break a more abstract task into a collection of tasks that can be distributed to multiple individuals, and undertaken possibly in parallel. Subtasks also are used to capture dependencies across phases or stages in projects, which isn’t what I am getting at. Even if I were to use a solution with subtasks and task dependencies, I would still want to plan around discontinuous chunks of work making up those tasks and subtasks.
Surface daily and weekly planning in calendars with other scheduled activities — As Mike Monteiro at Mule Design put it,

Most people don’t schedule their work. They schedule the interruptions that prevent their work from happening. In the case of a business like ours, what clients pay us to make and do happens in the cracks between meetings, or worse, after business hours.

So I would like to *not* use a work journal to enter my 1/2/3 task plans everyday. I would rather do it within my task management tool. Imagine a daily planning regime, where I would pick today’s tasks from my task management tool’s task list, and for each I could allocate a hypothetical time range — in my discipline , 2 hours, 45mins, and 30 mins — and have those task fragments associated with the appropriate tasks as a new sort of metadata, something like comments. At the end of each day — or the next morning — I could indicate — with check boxes, notes, etc. — whether in fact I actually did work on the task as planned, and when (if I care about the when). So at any point I could look at the history of the work done on any task, and the days when I did that work.
And it would be best if my task management tool had a real ’round-trip’ sync with my work calendar, so I could drag my work fragments around other calendar events, and my plans regarding the fragments would show up on my calendar, allowing me to sidestep the calendar/work paradox that Mike Monteiro wrote about. (Even better would be an AI ‘bot that would move fragments around on my calendar based on my preferences, like scheduling the 1/1 task for early morning, when my concentration is best, and moving tasks involving calls and meetings to the afternoon.) Since the actual work I plan to do would actually show up on my work calendar, others wouldn’t schedule an unexpected meeting right in the middle of me writing this blog post.
The Takeaway
It’s possible to imagine that I could phony up a way to do discontinuous tasks with a lot of manual work, today. I’ve tried at various times with various task management tools, but those have always been unsatisfactory and very time consuming.
The key takeaway is that supporting how we actually work — not a simplified and incomplete analog of it — requires complex tools that are designed for that purpose. The reality is that today’s task management solutions don’t reflect the 3D world of work, or do so only in a drastically minimized way. The vendors that push in that direction will likely be the victors in this marketplace.
 
 
 
 

Office 2016 is Microsoft’s Post-Windows Breakthrough

Office 2016 has been reviewed in great detail by many market watchers, including Microsoft itself. But the release represents something much more important than the specifics of how Delve and Cortana work, the differences between Tell Me on Clippy, or even the focus on collaboration — ‘taking the work out of working together’. Office 2016 is a declaration of Microsoft moving past the Windows era of computing, and staking its claim as a leader in the cross-platform productivity world we now inhabit.
Office 2016 is now available not just on various Windows versions, but on Mac, iOS, and Android. This is the new Microsoft, a company that is committed to providing a revamped notion of productivity to where people are getting things done, which is increasingly on today’s most popular mobile platforms, not on the desktop machines of five or ten years ago.
Instead of digging into the features app-by-app, it’s more useful to consider the forces that Microsoft is channeling in the social architecture of Office 2016. As I said, it’s geared to a mobile world. But in a mobile world, the shape and tempo of teamwork has shifted in profound ways. Work is increasingly connected and improvisational, relying more on people working in parallel — coworking in real-time — so Microsoft has invested heavily in coediting, coauthoring, and coordinating. This is the aspect of Office 2016 that most directly catches up to Google Drive, and which threatens to outdo it. Microsoft has had coauthoring in Office native apps since 2013, but this is the first roll-out in web apps, where more work is getting done these days.
But Office 2016 is not just playing catch-up with the sharing model of Google Drive. I think one of the most important additions — and one that is getting lesser attention from reviewers — is the new task management capability, Planner.
planner-hub
I have suggested for quite a long time that task management is a foundational aspect of work, and so any ‘productivity suite’ should have that as a core aspect. The company has offered Microsoft Project for decades, and while is a great project management tool, it’s not organized to serve as a coordinative task management solution, but rather as a planning tool.
I have not had a chance to use Planner for any length of time — I’ve only had a few demos — so a detailed analysis of how it works in the context of other Office capabilities will have to wait. But with its introduction, Microsoft is taking a step forward toward different set of premises regarding the way that teams get work done, and the tools they need to do so.
I don’t want to reduce such a major release of functionality to one element, but to me much of what we are seeing in Office 2016 is the extension of things that we’ve seen before, at least in part. Planner is an independent advance, and one that shift the discussion about productivity away from the world of documents — in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint — and squarely into the coordination of work.

Microsoft acquires Wunderlist

I always believed that a productivity toolset requires a task management capability, and Microsoft has just stepped up to the bar on that, acquiring 6Winderkinder, the company behind Wunderlist.
I haven’t looked at Wunderlist since last August (see New releases from Asana, Wunderlist, and Timeful) so I better take a look, and ping them to see what the plans are for integration with other Microsoft tools and platforms, like an integration with Office 365, for example.
(reposted from Microsoft acquires Wunderlist on stoweboyd.com)