We built a task bot for Microsoft Teams and we’re not going to use it

Here at Regroove we live almost entirely in the Microsoft 365 space. Our Delve is setup to perfection, we live and breathe SharePoint and Teams, and we’re experts at figuring out how to share a video from Stream. In fact, we even run a Microsoft 365 User Group and develop a SharePoint navigation product.

Two products we find ourselves using almost every day are Microsoft To Do and Microsoft Teams. And we, thought, “Why don’t they integrate better?”. Specifically, we wanted a way to create tasks from Teams messages and we wanted to build it. We saw it as an opportunity to learn more about Teams development and solve a problem at the same time.

After a few months of working on it on the side, we had finished the bot and were all set to release. Then Microsoft Ignite 2020 happened, and Microsoft announced the exact functionality we we’re building.

Not a great feeling for us. But, as it turns out, it’s probably the best outcome we could ask for. We got an official solution to our problem (creating tasks from messages), we learned a lot about Teams development, and now we have a good story to tell about what it’s like to be a Microsoft 365 consultant in 2020.

So, here’s the story about the Teams bot we built, how we got there, and why we’re okay with never using it.

Turning asks into tasks

Like many others in the Microsoft 365 universe, we were big users of Wunderlist. It made our life as consultants a lot easier and smoothed out our process across dozens of projects. So when Microsoft announced their intention to buy Wunderlist we were excited. And, like everyone else, we followed the transition to Microsoft To Do. Well, eventually. Honestly it took much too long and we meandered a bit using Trello and other tools while Microsoft got its sh*t together. But we’re there now!

To Do is amazing. Having a spot to see all your tasks pulled in from the various Microsoft services (Planner for our Project Managers, Azure DevOps for our developers, etc.) and a central place to manage those tasks is huge. To Do quickly became one of those ‘always-on’ apps, something we have open throughout the workday and go back to constantly.

But we needed a way to track those ­ad-hoc tasks, those asks that come in constantly. You know, those informal requests that come from forwarded emails and comments in Word. Most of those we could handle on a case by case basis, but there was one kind we found we were consistently being overwhelmed by: Teams messages.

It starts innocent enough: Someone tags you in a thread asking your opinion. And then someone asks for another opinion. And then someone wants you to look something up. Or send an email to someone else. Or fix a Flow, update a SharePoint list, close a To Do task, and on and on. Yes, you can flag a thread or mark is as unread but Teams search is horrible and that’s no way to track something. And don’t get me started on Teams Bookmarks (flags) – Blurgh.

Pictured: Teams overload

We ended up talking as a company about this, and it turns out a lot of us were running into a glut of Teams requests with no way to track them.  So, we decided to fix it. We planned it out, put in the resources, and built a Teams bot to turn Asks into Tasks.

We had been looking to get our hands dirty with Teams ever since we switched to it more than two years ago. As Microsoft consultants we try to drink from the firehose and build up the kind of knowledge that only comes from breaking something over and over. We’ve built SharePoint customizations, Teams apps, Power BI dashboards, and entire programs on top of Power Apps. We’ve even built a new way to create Teams in Teams! A Teams bot seemed like the logical next step.

One of our employees, Zak White, ended up taking the lead on the project and he did an amazing job. The basic flow of the finished product is you click on a message, select the “Turn into task” option, and then fill in a little bit of information about the task. It handles the rest, ensuring you get the reminder on the appropriate due date with a reference link back to the most important aspect – the original context.

It worked, and it worked well. We were excited. We wanted to share it (for free) with the rest of the world. Lots of people wanted it.

Our own task bot

It’s not a race, except when it is

And, as it turns out, Microsoft had the same idea.

At Microsoft Ignite 2020, in the middle of a presentation specifically about tasks in Teams they announced the ability to turn messages into tasks. Their interface even looks exactly like ours.

Initially, we were bummed out by this. All that wasted time and resources going into a project that would never see the light of day.

But then it hit us: This is what the new, modern Microsoft is. A company that’s moving so fast and adding so many features that you never know what you’re going to get.

And the fact that they solved a problem in the time it took us to recognize it, get fed up with it, and do something about it is amazing.

Video from here

What was our complaint here? That Microsoft listened to their users? That they update their products now? That we had a solution to our problem? That our pride was hurt? Well, yeah, a little bit.

The New Microsoft

10 years ago, and let’s call it “pre-Yammer” (as that was before Microsoft acquired Yammer and started on their agile path), Microsoft released a new product every few years. It was packaged up, documentation was written and shared, and the product became something that was just ‘out there’.

Every few years Microsoft might would then update the product, which resulted (for us) in another batch of training and migration as users were introduced to new buttons, new ideas, etc. It was a big undertaking each time, and these changes weren’t usually mind blowing. Actual innovation was slow.

That’s all different now. With Microsoft’s embracing of the cloud, Software as a Service (SaaS), and doubling down on the approach of continual improvement, things are just so much different now – welcomed by some, feared by others.

Look no further than SharePoint. Microsoft took a big gamble on it when they moved their focus to SharePoint Online. SharePoint was another product historically released every 4 years and innovated very slowly and Microsoft needed to do something to keep SharePoint relevant. Particularly because it is web based and that came with high expectations to stay relevant – both on the web and on mobile devices.

In fact, one of the best analogies I had heard way back when was SharePoint (before the shift online) as akin to a 747: it takes a while to load it up and get it into the air. Then you fly around for a while until you land, unload the passengers, and start all over again. SharePoint at that point couldn’t quickly pivot or change direction without putting everyone on board at risk. And SharePoint was losing fans quickly because of this.

A few years back, Microsoft took SharePoint back to the studs. They shifted the focus to what it was best at – document management, collaboration, and web pages. Everything else took a back seat for a while (such as lists, calendars, etc.) and some things were simply discontinued. But the rebuild was worth it. SharePoint is hot and powerful again, only now Microsoft can continually improve and add on new functionality whenever they want. Microsoft Teams and Lists might be the marketing focus at this moment, but SharePoint is the engine powering it all underneath.

We also went through a pretty big change ourselves over here at Regroove (so big in fact, we renamed the business to align our values and mission with a name that made sense – we were formally itgroove). Recognizing that accepting change was going to happen in our industry with or without us, led us to carefully plot a new path, a new plan, and anchoring it in purpose while we figured it all out. We followed Microsoft’s lead and never looked back.

If you really want to use it, let us know…

So we found an issue, built a Teams bot, and just barely beat Microsoft to the punch. There’s no point is us trying to compete with an 800-pound gorilla, though, so our bot is going to stay on the sidelines.

Don’t get me wrong, we still got something out of this. We learned a lot more about Teams, got a chance to reflect on where Microsoft is at today, and, hey, our UI looks exactly the same as Microsoft’s so we must be doing something right! Also, until Microsoft releases their own functionality (currently adding tasks is in that fun “announced but not released” window as we wait for a screenshot to turn into a reality), a few of us are using our own bot since this is a problem we have today. But it probably won’t ever get released to the public.

If you’re interested in trying out our task bot, let us know. We’d be happy to connect and help you set it up, or to talk about any other issues you might be having. Or, if you just want to chat about Office 365 and some problems we could help you solve, drop us a line here.

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