Leveraging OneNote: An Outlook Task-Based Project Dashboard

Leveraging OneNote

Earlier in this OneNote series, I detailed how to build a project dashboard and how to use Outlook Tasks within OneNote. Now I will go through the process of setting up a task-based project dashboard. You can organize your projects however you like, but at the root of keeping them under control is ensuring everything gets done.

Depending on the scale of your projects, you might want to consider making an Outlook Group for the project. Most medium or small projects can be done in a single notebook or section group. When working with a team it is important that everyone can easily access the notebook. Otherwise, the project lead ends up doing all the updates, which can become tedious. This means storing the notebook in the cloud and ensuring all team members have access.

Build a Dashboard

Project dashboard overview
Project dashboard overview

The first step to managing a project in OneNote is to build a dashboard. This dashboard can be designed how you choose using the built-in styles or formatting the text manually. You can use small tables to keep the same information organized and consistent across action items. Once you have a style you like, copy and use it again.

Your projects might be organized differently, but for my projects, I use the following hierarchy:

  • Project
    • Task Group
      • Task (one per page)
        • Action Items

Start with this layout and tweak it to fit your structure. Once you have a plan for how to organize the project work, begin laying it all out. Separating tasks by page keeps them from blurring together and makes it easier to divide the work between team members. Updates, action items, reference documents, specifications, goals, status, etc. can be kept on the task page.

Organize the Project Dashboard

Project dashboard with Tasks
Project dashboard with Tasks

The key to a useful dashboard is linking to your pages. Right-click the task page and select Copy Link to Page. Now paste that link into your project dashboard for easy access. You can keep an overall dashboard for the project and group the tasks in a logical manner. Every team member can keep their task pages up-to-date and follow the progress of other tasks in the project.

The project lead can maintain the dashboard and keep relevant information updated as needed. Another page can be created under the dashboard page as an archive of closed tasks if need be. Use sections like a Kanban board, ensuring that nothing falls off your radar. Move task pages to the next section as they reach milestones, are completed, killed, or placed on hold.

The way task pages are grouped in sections should reflect your projects and can be different for every project. Common groupings could be:

  • Open > Complete > On Hold > Cancelled
  • Suggested > Accepted > In Progress > Completed > Cancelled
  • Future > Current > Past
  • Unclaimed > Claimed > Closed
  • Concept > Prototype > Pre-Production > Production > Cancelled > Obsolete

Since OneNote is so flexible, you are free to change your organizational method at any time. The only cost is the time it takes to rearrange your pages. The longer a project goes on, the more work it takes to reorganize your work. Luckily, cutting and pasting groups of pages is quick and easy.

Add Outlook Tasks

Making an Outlook Task
Making an Outlook Task

Now that you have your dashboard built and organized, tagging each task with an Outlook Task brings the pages to life. Use the Outlook Tasks to delegate to your team and give them reminders, deadlines, and context to their work. Unlike emails, Outlook Tasks will sort by their due date and be a link back to the project OneNote notebook. Even when completed, Outlook Tasks can be accessed and reviewed by the assignee.

Each one of your team members will have an organized list of Tasks that have been assigned to them. They can use their Task view in Outlook to organize their day and prioritize their work. Each team member can set their own task reminders. If you are the project manager, you can set yourself reminders to follow up with your team on their status.

Review the Dashboard

Dashboard flowchart
Dashboard flowchart

Regularly reviewing your dashboard keeps it relevant and keeps projects on track. It is easy to create a bunch of pages, then never visit them again. Frequently OneNote notebooks can get cluttered and overrun with content on many different pages. Instead of getting to this state, you should use your dashboard to keep everything under control.

When creating a new page, which relates to a project, ask yourself this question: “How will my teammates find this page?” It can be easy to fall back on search as the end-all-be-all of content discovery. However, logical and clear structure to a notebook will do more to communicate to your team than expecting them to search for special terms. Having a How-To section in your project notebook will help team members follow convention and find the information they need to be most effective.

Like all tools, there are good and bad ways to use OneNote. It is one of the most unstructured note-taking programs available today. This can be good when it comes to flexibility, but when it comes to consistency, it can become an issue. Take time before you use your project notebook and think about what a good structure could be. When you have a structure, then communicate it to your team so that they can follow your lead. The next few articles will relate to getting your team to use OneNote consistently.