Automate Meeting Planning

Use workflows to create prep checklists for meetings

With the current lockdown, I am having quite a few video conferences.  Before these meetings, there are a few steps I take to help make the meeting as productive as possible.  For example:

  • Verify calendar date, time and location
  • Review meeting attendees
  • Create a Meeting Note
  • Sync relevant documents to iPad
  • Sync OneNote notebook to iPad
  • Check teleconference software operability

Typically, I use Microsoft To-Do to help me with checklist.  That means I have to create each of these tasks before the meeting with enough lead time to avoid a last-minute rush.  To make this a little easier, I can use a workflow in Microsoft Power Automate that creates these tasks for upcoming meetings.

Microsoft Power Automate (formerly Flow) lets you create automated workflows, in particular between Microsoft Office apps.  In this case, I want to create a workflow that creates items in To-Do whenever a meeting appears on my calendar in Outlook.

To create the workflow, I go to my Office 365 site and use the ‘waffle’ in the top left corner to choose Power Automate.  In the left menu, I choose Create.

In this case, as of this writing, there is no template that includes To-Do. Therefore, we will have to create the workflow from Start from blank and then choose Automated flow.

In the next screen we give the flow a name and chose the flow’s trigger.  Search for ‘event’ and scroll down to When a new event is created.  The window changes to the flow editor, with the Outlook trigger at the top.  Within this first step (the trigger), choose which calendar we want to monitor.  Now we can tell Power Automate what we want it to do when triggered.

Click +New Step, which allows us to choose the action.  We want to use the Add a to-do action from Microsoft To-Do.  In the Subject field, enter our first item Verify meeting time and location. For Due Date, we are going to use a little math so that this happens the day before the meeting. Place the cursor in the Due Date field and click on Expression.  Now scroll down to Date and time and choose addDays. In the expression editor, place the cursor between the parentheses and click Dynamic content.  Since we want to start the task the day before the meeting, we add -1 to the expression and click OK. The resulting formula:


Since we will have multiple meetings on our calendar, we will want to know which one we need to verify.  To do this, we enter the meeting subject line in the Body Content field.

We now click on Save  and then use the Flow Checker to find any obvious issues. If there are no problems, we can test the flow with a Test Event on the calendar we chose as the trigger.

That is the basics.  If you want to create items for everything on the prep list, you can add a new step to the workflow for each item.

Use “My Day” as a dashboard across O365

Track activities across multiple applications

At this point we have captured tasks in Microsoft To Do, Outlook, OneNote and Planner. Each application has its own situations that make it the most appropriate way to create a tracked action.  However, this has the potential to make daily planning quite complicated.  How do you check each one of these applications as you start your day, to ensure no tasks are overlooked?

This is where a particular feature makes Microsoft To Do actually worthwhile.  Microsoft To Do can collect all of your pending tasks across the Microsoft product suite.

Let’s start with a simple feature that really helps me psychologically – at the beginning of each day, My Day is empty.  There is no overwhelming list of actions left from yesterday, or the day before.  In many tools, the list of incomplete and overdue tasks keeps accumulating over time until they create frustration and may lead to abandoning the tool.  In contrast, the My Day view in Microsoft To Do starts clean each day.

What practical affect does this have? Primarily, the day starts off with a win.  Rather than seeing everything still outstanding from yesterday, you can start with by adding your Daily Routine to My Day.  For the Covey fans out there, this is Quadrant 2 – non-urgent, but important. For me, I can usually knock out this list in about thirty minutes. This results in actively responding to priorities, not reacting to crises.

Once you have your tasks added to My Day, simply click the check mark as each one is completed.  You can choose whether to show or hide completed tasks.  I prefer to hide completed tasks, as there is a certain satisfaction seeing the list slowly dissolve to nothing.

Once all the tasks from your first round are complete, click on the Today button (the lightbulb in the top right). A panel will open up with a list of pending tasks to add to your My Day view. The list includes items due today, items from the past that are still open, and tasks that will be due soon.  Clicking the plus sign (+) next to selected tasks will add the item to your My Day view.

This list of pending tasks comes from various sources.  For instance, if you flag an email in MS Outlook, the email shows up in MS To Do.  If you have been assigned tasks from MS Planner, those tasks will show up in MS To Do with due dates.  If you flagged items for follow-up in a OneNote Meeting Note, those items show up in MS To Do.

Since Microsoft To Do searches across the Microsoft Office 365 suite to find outstanding action items, you are free to use the most appropriate tool based on what you are doing when you become aware of the tasks.  Then, when it is time to complete those tasks, they can all be found in one place – Microsoft To Do.

 This is the final part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Track Project tasks with MS Planner

Coordinate and Collaborate on Projects

So far, we have made use of the Microsoft To Do application to provide us with a simple list of daily tasks. What about more complex scenarios, such as when you depend on others to finish their assigned tasks before you can begin yours? If you are a real heavy hitter, you might turn to Microsoft Project. However, for most of us MS Project is simply too complex. Besides, it does not come with the standard Microsoft Office 365.

Might I recommend that you take a look at Microsoft Planner, which comes with most Office 365 business subscriptions and is part of the standard applications found with Microsoft Teams. Planner allows you to generate a set of tasks, typically related to a single project or effort. You can then assign these tasks to team members and then track progress. Microsoft Planner gives you greater visibility and collaboration than MS To Do, without the significant overhead of using MS Project.

Microsoft Planner includes task boards with buckets, calendar views and a collection of progress charts. Tasks assigned to you can be quickly called up through the built-in My Tasks view.

Adding a Plan to a Team

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the team and channel to be associated with the plan.
  2. In the channel header, click on Add a tab +.
  3. In the Add a tab window, choose Planner.
  4. In the Planner window, select Create a new plan, and provide a name for the plan. (Note: The name provided will be used on the channel tab, too.)
  5. Click Save.

Opening an Existing Plan from Teams

  1. From Microsoft Teams, select the team and channel associated with the plan.
  2. In the Teams header, click on the tab for the plan.


When it has to be done right

We often perform task analysis for clients – identifying those tasks performed frequently, as well as complex or important tasks.  When we identify task that meet these criteria, we typically recommend the use of a checklist to help ensure correct performance.

Besides consistent performance, a checklist has the benefit of capturing improvements to performance.  Any additional steps, or modifications to a step, can be easily incorporated into the process by editing the checklist.  Every time you do the job, you perform it at least as smart, if not smarter, than the last time.

As well, checklists make knowledge sharing easier.  Should someone else need to perform a job, such as when your responsibilities change or you need to be away from the office, providing them a copy of the checklists increases the likelihood that the job will still get done properly.

First thing, I recommend that you make two groups within Microsoft To Do: one group called Checklists, for all of your new checklists that you are going to create. I also recommend that you create a second group called Used Checklists. Microsoft does not allow you to just ‘archive’ a checklist after usage. So, if every time you use a checklist, you just keep duplicating the ‘master,’ your Checklist group will fill up pretty fast.  This will make it difficult to find the masters checklists in the future. Thus, you have two options.  You can delete the checklist once it is completed;  or, if you create a Used Checklist group, you can put the completed lists there.  I prefer the latter, as I like to keep past checklist for future reference. Should I something go wrong, I can go back and confirm I performed all the required steps or consider if I need to edit the list for future use.

With the folders created, now we can create our new lists. Let’s consider a scenario where we need to create a relatively complex report on a monthly basis.  Our first task involves getting data from all the regions, so we make each region a step in the task.  After the new data is loaded, we need to refresh the pivot tables within the workbook.

Oh, yes, last month one of the managers noticed that the graphs did not reflect the data shown in the pivot tables.  So, let’s add a step to also verify that the charts are correct.

Now that we have our ‘master’ list, we add it to the Checklist group.  For April, we duplicate the report checklist and move it outside the group folder.  We then check off the steps as they are performed.  Once the checklist is done, we have confidence the reports are accurate and complete. We now simply drag the checklist down to Used Checklists for future reference.

Another checklist could be reviewing presentations prior to a sales call. Some things we want to check before getting in front of the client: spelling and grammar (always!); fact check (are the quoted prices correct?); graphics and company branding (no ‘your name here’ entries).

The third example is prepping for a meeting.  Does the meeting actually have an agenda?  Do you have ready access to all of the relevant support materials?  Have the attendees confirmed?

As per David Allen’s GTD strategy, we now spend less brain power remembering all the necessary steps and more brain power on the quality of the work.

In brief:

To Do Setup

Create two new groups:

  1. Checklists
  2. Used Checklists

Create Checklists

  1. Click New List.
  2. Name the checklist.
  3. Optional: Add an icon.
  4. Add tasks to the list.
  5. Optional: Add steps to tasks.
  6. Drag the list to the Checklists group.

Use a Checklist

  1. Make a copy of the ‘master’ version of the checklist.
  2. Rename the copied checklist.
  3. Move the copy out of the Checklist folder.
  4. Mark off tasks as you complete them.
  5. After completing all tasks within the list, either:
    1. Drag the list to Used Checklists group for future reference.
    1. Or, delete the checklist completely.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.

Listas de verificación

Cuando se tiene que hacer bien

A menudo realizamos análisis de tareas para los clientes, identificando las tareas que se realizan con frecuencia, así como las tareas complejas o importantes.  Cuando identificamos tareas que cumplen estos criterios, normalmente recomendamos el uso de una lista de verificación para ayudar a asegurar el correcto desempeño.

Además de un desempeño consistente, una lista de verificación tiene el beneficio de incorporar mejoras en el desempeño.  Cualquier paso adicional, o modificación de un paso, puede incorporarse fácilmente al proceso editando la lista de verificación.  Cada vez que se hace el trabajo, se realiza por lo menos con la misma eficacia, si no más, que la última vez.

Además, las listas de verificación facilitan el intercambio de conocimientos.  En caso de que otra persona necesite realizar un trabajo, por ejemplo, cuando cambien sus responsabilidades o cuando necesite estar fuera de la oficina, el hecho de proporcionarle una copia de las listas de verificación aumenta la probabilidad de que el trabajo se siga realizando correctamente.

Lo primero que recomiendo es que crees dos grupos dentro de Microsoft To Do: un grupo llamado Listas de verificación, para todas las nuevas listas de verificación que vayas a crear. También recomiendo que creen un segundo grupo llamado Listas de verificación usadas. Microsoft no te permite simplemente “archivar” una lista de verificación después de su uso. Por lo tanto, si cada vez que usas una lista de verificación, sigues duplicando la “maestra”, el grupo de listas de verificación se llenará muy rápidamente.  Esto hará que sea difícil encontrar las listas de verificación maestras en el futuro. Por lo tanto, tienes dos opciones.  Puedes eliminar la lista de verificación una vez que esté completa; o bien, si creas un grupo de listas usadas, puedes poner allí las listas completas.  Prefiero lo último, ya que me gusta conservar la lista de verificación anterior para futuras referencias. Si algo sale mal, puedo volver atrás y confirmar que he realizado todos los pasos necesarios o considerar si necesito editar la lista para usarla en el futuro.

Con las carpetas creadas, ahora podemos crear nuestras nuevas listas. Consideremos un escenario en el que necesitamos crear un informe relativamente complejo sobre una base mensual.  Nuestra primera tarea implica obtener datos de todas las regiones, así que hacemos de cada región un paso en la tarea.  Después de que se carguen los nuevos datos, necesitamos refrescar las tablas pivotantes dentro del libro de trabajo.

Oh, sí, el mes pasado uno de los gerentes se dio cuenta de que los gráficos no reflejaban los datos mostrados en las tablas pivotantes.  Así que, añadamos un paso para verificar también que los gráficos son correctos.

Ahora que tenemos nuestra lista “maestra”, la añadimos al grupo de la lista de verificación.  Para abril, duplicamos la lista de verificación del informe y la movemos fuera de la carpeta del grupo.  Luego marcamos los pasos a medida que se realizan.  Una vez que la lista de verificación está hecha, tenemos la confianza de que los informes son exactos y completos. Ahora simplemente arrastramos la lista de verificación a Listas de verificación usadas para futuras referencias.

Otra lista de verificación podría ser revisar las presentaciones antes de una llamada de ventas. Algunas cosas que queremos revisar antes de ponernos delante del cliente: ortografía y gramática (¡siempre!); comprobación de hechos (¿son correctos los precios cotizados?); gráficos y marca de la empresa (no hay entradas de “su nombre aquí”).

El tercer ejemplo es la preparación de una reunión.  ¿Tiene la reunión una agenda?  ¿Tiene acceso a todos los materiales de apoyo pertinentes?  ¿Los asistentes han confirmado su asistencia?

De acuerdo con la estrategia GTD de David Allen, ahora usamos menos capacidad cerebral recordando todos los pasos necesarios y más en la calidad del trabajo.

En resumen:

Preparación para hacer el trabajo

Crear dos nuevos grupos:

  1. Listas de verificación
  2. Listas de verificación usadas

Crear listas de verificación

  1. Haga clic en Nueva lista.
  2. Nombra la lista de verificación.
  3. Opcional: Agregar un icono.
  4. Añadir tareas a la lista.
  5. Opcional: Añadir pasos a las tareas.
  6. Arrastre la lista al grupo Listas de verificación.

Usar una lista de verificación

  1. Haga una copia de la versión “maestra” de la lista de verificación.
  2. Cambie el nombre de la lista de verificación copiada.
  3. Mover la copia fuera de la carpeta de la lista de verificación.
  4. Marque las tareas a medida que las vaya completando.
  5. Después de completar todas las tareas de la lista:
    • Arrastre la lista al grupo de Listas de verificación utilizadas para su futura referencia.
    • O bien, elimine la lista de verificación por completo.

Esto es parte de una serie sobre la productividad usando Office 365.

Use Weekly Reminders

Keep up with less frequent tasks

Besides the daily routines, you probably have tasks that you perform on a regular basis – just not every day.  To keep on top of these, add them to a list along with an appropriate frequency.

To create the list, perform the following:

  1. With MS To Do open, in the left-side pane, click on +New List.
  2. Rename the list to as appropriate (Other Recurring, Weekly Tasks, Monthly Tasks, etc.), and optionally add an icon.
  3. Use the new item list at the bottom to add the tasks you want to perform on a regular basis.
  4. Click on each item to open the edit pane on the right.
  5. Set a Repeat frequency.
  6. Set the first date that the task should be performed.

These tasks will now appear in the Today tasks (the lightbulb in the top left corner in the My Day view), based on their due date.

A twist on this concept: Recall that Pavlov’s dog demonstrated that the best way to encourage a desired behavior is with irregular reinforcement.  We can put this to practice using our weekly reminders.  However, in this case we change the day around every week. 

For example, consider that your company may require staff to lock their screens before leaving their desks.  To help maintain this, you may perform a weekly walkthrough to verify compliance.  Thus, you set a reminder with a frequency of Weekly.  In this case, after completing the walkthrough change the day of the week for the next walkthrough.  Most importantly, be sure that you report the results of your walkthroughs to the team in a positive way in order to encourage continued compliance.

This is part of a series on productivity using Office 365.