Microsoft Planner vs. Trello

I love Trello. I’ve been using it for years and have written about how we use it to manage projects. I like how easy it easy to create cards with an email and how well IFTTT works with Trello. I like Butler Bot and all the automation I can use to accomplish system housekeeping. Trello isn’t perfect, and falls down a bit in reporting, but this has never been a big problem, so in many ways it’s as close to perfect as a system could get for my way of working.

I work for an organisation that considers itself a ‘Microsoft house’, which means all of our core infrastructure and software is Microsoft, and that we are encouraged to use the approved software provided by our It department. My digital mindset says use the best tool for the job, but I also understand that using a single enterprise-level ecosystem provides better security (which is essential) and that using whatever third party software you feel like can have legal implications if that company’s terms and conditions don’t allow the software to be used for business purposes for free.

So you see my problem. Using a system that works for me versus using a system that works for the organisation. So, I started playing with Planner, Microsoft’s Trello-like product to see if it could give us the same level of flexibility in managing projects that Trello has but is compliant with organisational policy. Can I turn that ‘versus’ into an ‘and’?

After an hour of playing with Planner, this is what I think:

  • Both are accessible in a browser and both have an android app. This is important to me as I use four different devices and need to be able to use whichever system whenever and however I want.
  • Cards can’t be created in Planner by sending an email like with Trello, but there is a workaround by using Microsoft Flow (Microsoft’s IFTTT) so I have a flow set up that creates a card in Planner for every card created in Trello, which means I can use the good bits from Trello such as creating a card by email and butler bot automation in Planner.
  • Planner has a status for each card of Not started, In progress and Completed. At first I didn’t get why it would have this as there is also a start and due date for each card, but the status drives some of reporting and the Progress view.
  • Both can show cards on a calendar view but do it differently. Trello treats each card as only being able to be on a single day. The card can be moved to tomorrow if you didn’t finish it today but then it won’t still be on what is now yesterday. This means you can’t see how long a card has been worked on for. Planner has a start date and due date for each card which means that when you look at the calendar view the card is shown over the length of time between the start and due date. Both have a week and more view but neither have a year or selectable dates view.
  • Planner has a number of ways of displaying lists of cards whereas Trello only has one way. Trello lists can be titled by the name of the project, with cards being tasks within the project and having due dates, or the lists can be titled To do, Doing, Done with cards being tasks on the lists but with Labels used to group cards on the same project. Planner can switch between views which means lists can be set up for each project (called buckets in Planner) and providing those cards have been given a status of either Not started, In progress or Completed, switching views shows the cards in those three status lists.
  • Both allow a user and multiple users to be assigned to the card, both can have attachments and comments on a card, and both allow cards to be dragged and dropped between lists.
  • Trello doesn’t do any kind of reporting. Planners reporting is limited but it shows how many cards each person has in each state, how many cards are in each state for each bucket, and how many cards over the whole board are in each state.

It’s a close run thing. I’m not aware of anyone else in the organisation using Planner although I’m sure it would be really useful for them, especially as most of them don’t require the same level of flexibility as I do. If Planner had automation and adding cards by email it would win outright. Planners approach to switching between views of lists is really good (even if there is an overhead if selecting the right status, start and end date for each card). I think that Planner is good enough for us to consider moving to using it rather than Trello. And I never thought I’d say that.

Don’t mystify projects with metaphors 

I think communication about projects should be as clear, simple, and as easy to understand as possible.

But I hear Project Management is referred to as ‘Air Traffic Control’, with Project Leads called the ‘Pilots’ of their projects and them trying to ‘land’ their ‘in-flight’ projects.

Metaphors can be used effectively in communication to draw parallels with everyday experience and create familiarity but this relies on the metaphor that is used being something everyone is already familiar with. Referring to projects as planes, the person leading the project as a pilot, and the project control process as air traffic control doesn’t achieve this, it just adds a layer of confusing language. Using metaphors to mystify the process of project delivery adds no value to the projects.

If you tell me that the project is ‘in progress’ I have a clear idea of what that means. If you tell me that the project is ‘in-flight’ I have to filter the metaphor through my understanding of what it could mean to reach the conclusion that actually the project is ‘in progress’ but I’m still not sure that I have the correct conclusion.

Keep it simple and so obvious that no one has to think about what is meant by the language being used in order to understand what is being said.

Using Trello for task and project management

We use Trello for all of our task and project management. It gives us a view of everything that we’re doing, have done, or need to do from big projects to the smallest task.

Flexibility beats consistency

The most important thing to understand and accept about Trello is the flexibility of what a card, a list and a board mean to you. There is a tendency to formalise Trello by, for example, making a board represent a team or business area, making lists represent projects that team is working on, and cards represent features or tasks that are part of the project. Or think to yourself that lists need to be steps in a process such as To Do, Doing, Done, and as each of those lists as representing a state that the cards step through as part of the workflow. This is wrong. Don’t do it.

The strength of Trello is that lists and cards can represent all kinds of things, even on the same board. One list could be for all outstanding tasks with the cards as each task, another list could be for all projects with the cards representing each project, and if you need to, you can create another list for a specific project, add cards to it whilst the project is live and delete the list once all the cards have been moved to the Completed list. This flexibility of what the various elements in Trello represent to you is it’s strength as a system. It allows something like a project to easily move between a micro and macro level depending on it’s complexity, how much of a priority it is for the team, or how diverse the work required will be. It’s important to accept this fluidity of what represents what in order to use Trello to its best.

Tools and Workflows

There are four parts to our workflow for using Trello. We have a single Trello board, use email to create cards, ifttt to create recurring cards, and butler bot to automate jobs.

Trello Boards, Lists and Cards

Trello Boards, Lists and Cards


We use a single Board so that everything is available to see in one place. We could have one board for tasks, another for projects, etc., etc., but that makes it difficult to see all of the work of the whole team, especially in Calendar view which only shows an individual board.

We only have a few Lists. One is a backlog of ideas we might do one day, another is all our tasks, and three others are Queued Projects, Current Projects, and then Completed, which is where all cards eventually end up.

We have lots and lots of Cards. As cards are easily moved between lists they have an easy flexibility about them, and we like flexibility. A card can represent an idea, a task, or an entire project. So, we might collect idea on separate cards and then find that a few of those cards are related and can be grouped together to make a piece of work, so then the details on all those cards might become a checklist on another card and those original idea cards get moved to the Completed list.

Each card has a Description, an area of text near the title of the card. We use the description to record anything that you might want to find again and again such as a link to the Google Doc of the project requirements.

Comments are a good way to keep track of the state of a project without having to write a formal status update. When something changes in whatever that card represents its easy to just add a quick note about it or copy and paste an email.

Checklists are another way of keeping track of and showing the current state of a card. If the list has ten items and six of them are ticked then it’s easy to see that the card is sixty percent complete. Again, the tendency to try to formalise Trello and say Checklists are for this and Comments are for that takes away the flexibility.

Using IFTTT to create recurring cards

Using IFTTT to create recurring cards


We have a number of tasks that have to be completed every day, week of month. We don’t want to have to manually create all of cards ahead of time or have to remember to create them when they are due. So, we use IFTTT and have a number of applets that creates cards on schedule, assign members and set a due date and time.

ButlerBot to automate jobs

ButlerBot to automate jobs


Butler bot does a few different things for us. If someone is mentioned in a card it adds them as a member. Every day it counts the number of cards in our task list to tell us how much work is outstanding. And when a card is moved to the completed list it changes the date to today. Using ButlerBot for these kinds of regularly occurring jobs that are part of administering any system says time and ensures consistency. ButlerBot doesn’t forget to do things.

Email to create cards

Email to create cards


Sometimes being able to send a quick email to your Trello board to create a card is easier than actually going to Trello to do it. Trello understands using @membersname in the subject and assigns the card to that member, but it requires everyone to remember everyone else’s user name. We get around this by using ButlerBot to look for cards with each team members name and then assign that member to that card. Adding labels works in a similar way, just include #reporting in the subject line of the email and Trello will assign that label to the card. Adding cards by email falls short of being about to assign a due date to the card but again this can be handled by asking ButlerBot to look for words like ‘today’ and changing to due date to today’s date.

This combination of using a really flexible tool like Trello, the usability of being able to and cards by sending an email, and simplicity of using services like IFTTT and ButlerBot to automate jobs makes Trello a great way to manage all kinds of tasks and projects, and provide an overview of everything in one place.