(This post was originally written in Japanese in 2020.)
I thought about what’s exceptional about Asana, referencing the keywords on Asana web pages and marketing materials. I’d appreciate it if you could think about what Asana’s good parts are for you and share them in a reply.
I still remember the excitement of using Asana for the first time – I felt like it was a blank piece of paper in front of me. I can do whatever I want to do here and with my own structure. The flexibility of expressing any data nodes in simple structures and features like automatic saving and syncing (it was not common at that time) made me think, “It’s not just a to-do tool. It’s a revolutionary tool that changes everything!”
Reading Asana Blog and Wavelength since 2014, this conviction has grown stronger. Asana is the next generation of easy-to-use interface and a system incorporating both cutting-edge concepts and existing best practices. Introducing Asana to our work means introducing a new way of working.
If you are thinking about which tool to adopt, you definitely compare the features, but it’s also helpful to know the philosophy and design decisions it’s built on.
● Work Graph
Before Asana, we could only manage work in a simple two-dimensional list structure. Paper, to-do lists, and emails are just lists of task names. They are separated from the actual work and consume brain power to connect the names with their contents.
Asana models work in a graph (network) structure. While Facebook is the “social graph” representing relationships between people, Asana is the “work graph” to represent the relationships between work pieces. I watched the talk The Future of Work is Not Email and clearly understood why Asana is so flexible.
Asana designed the best data structure to represent work from the ground up. We can divide tasks into subtasks and easily link to other tasks and members by @mentioning. All nodes are actionable. Conversation, reference, and actual work are in one place.
Asana does more than improve the way we manage our work. They bring a revolutionary change to visualizing the structure of information and democratize it for workers. Multi-homing (adding a task to multiple projects) is also an important concept. Work is usually related to many nodes and cannot be simply grouped into one category. The traditional “folder” structure is not enough to represent work.
● Team Brain
Get rid of silos and make work history a collective knowledge. Asana is different from email and chat tools in two main aspects:
- Usually, only relevant information is displayed to us (With email, we are sometimes endlessly cc’d in an irrelevant thread)
- When needed, we can go and see other tasks or conversations (With email, it’s difficult to see messages which aren’t sent to us)
Team Brain is also referred to as creating a single source of truth (again cited from The Future of Work is Not Email). It’s stressful to always wonder “Where did I put that information?” Let’s move to the “one-pocket principle” where we can confidently say, “This is the only place I need to check for information. If it’s not found here, then it proves that the information does not exist.”
● Areas of responsibility (AoRs)
This is the underlying concept of Asana’s “one assignee per task” policy. We can avoid the situation “I assume someone else will do that” and we can get things done fast.
In Asana as a company, each employee is assigned the AoR. Even new employees have the final say on their AoR work. This controllability is empowering and encouraging.
Asana is sometimes introduced into an organization from top-down, but above anything, it’s a bottom-up tool which front-line workers want to use. By deploying Asana to the organization, the relationship can change from top-down (managers assign work to direct reports) to a flat structure (team members assign tasks to each other), and it will be a commonplace thing for a direct report to assign tasks to their managers.
Asana clarifies the purpose and responsibility – who does what by when to achieve the goal. In Asana, task assignee, due date, task description, relationship with projects and other tasks together show all of 5W1H.
● Speed and Structure
In addition to having a structure to directly manipulate work, Asana has a smooth experience that makes people want to use it. This balance hasn’t changed since the start of the company. What’s more, Asana was redesigned in 2015 to be more colorful and joyful. It greatly improved the appearance and usage experience.
● Work about work
There’s a saying in sports, “Don’t do practice for the sake of practice.” Likewise for work, we should get things done to achieve something bigger, not for doing it itself. When we don’t manage work well, it takes a lot of time to find the information needed. It means less time for meaningful work and more stress. Recent studies show that 60% of work time is spent in such “work about work”.
● Asana’s mission
Asana was built by Facebook’s co-founder and engineering manager based on their internal tool “Tasks”. It integrates new concepts (like AoRs) and ease of use. Asana is a tool and concept which empowers each team member to exert their power, and enables great teams around the world to achieve their missions and change the world for the better. Asana doesn’t aim just for efficiency, they update the product every day for their customers to “do great things together”.
I think “effortlessly” is an important keyword in the mission statement. Asana is really easy, and we can manage work stress-free.
● Stock and flow
Asana of course can manage the flow of information (tasks) well, but the tasks are also stored as part of the work history. Tasks can represent various items, such as DNA research data, knowledge base articles, and office supply inventory. Asana is also very useful for personal things, not only for work-related items. After experiencing Asana, both
- “Flow-only” tools (chat, email, common to-do list, etc.)
- “Stock-only” tools (knowledge base, file storage, notepad, etc.)
start to feel insufficient. In an extreme argument, they are all replaceable by Asana.
● Working memory and cognitive load
In “work about work”, the brain RAM (memory) is occupied with linking the name of the work and its associated content. When we try to manage work with spreadsheets and email, it often adds complexity rather than making work simple.
To thrive in this technology era, we want to focus our brain power on the most meaningful work. With Asana, we can focus on getting them done, clearly knowing what to do.
● GTD (Getting things done)
Asana tasks can be quickly written down just like notepads and they can be structured easily. This is the best place to write down your thoughts and clear up your mind.
● Flow and Mindfulness
By reducing “work about work”, we want to focus more on the important work. This goal is embodied in the product, such as filtering the tasks we do “Today” in the My Tasks list and muting the notification for a set amount of time.
The title of this post has the word “innovative” but Asana (= yoga posture) might be an effort to regain the healthy human time lost in the information overload era.
● Experience of success/win
To-do lists tend to be very long and they are notorious for giving us a guilty feeling about the backlog. However, Asana can tackle the problem by organizing My Tasks by priority (Today/Upcoming/Later) or setting a due date and displaying tasks on the calendar. We have control of when we will work on tasks and in what order.
Vivid colors in task completion and celebration creatures also help us feel the joy of completing work.
● Change management
Asana is very flexible. That means it can feel like we don’t know where to start at first. For example, there are so many options to categorize tasks in Asana – projects, sections, tags, custom fields, and color coding. We need to clearly define what’s possible with Asana, the purpose of introducing the tool, how to use it in the organization, and how to use it along with other tools.
Introducing Asana is also a cultural change. For example, all team members (not only managers) are now able to directly touch and modify work items. Humans have a natural tendency to resist change, and that’s where change management techniques come in. I wrote a related post a few years ago: Recommended book for introducing Asana to team: "Switch"
Asana also published a six-step guide of change management.
● Best practices
“How to use Asana” varies among companies, teams, and people. Asana Community forum (here!) and Asana events are great places to get inspiration and learn how other teams are using Asana.
There are also some common practices that can be recommended to anyone, such as achieving Inbox Zero by archiving read and actioned Inbox notifications. We can also get pro advice from service partners who are community members.
I had low working memory as a kid and I was (and am still) terrible at remembering and doing more than one thing at a time. That feeling of poor “ability” was disempowering.
Later, I learned organization/study/work “techniques” by reading some books. I was able to make up for my lack of ability by learning “how”. It gave me much confidence.
Digital tools mean empowerment for me, which extends what I can do. Among many tools I have used, Asana has been the brightest since the first time I used it. It always leads me to a whole new world. Just as many people agree in case studies, I no longer can imagine a life without Asana.
From the beginning, I was sure Asana is an innovative tool, but I was not able to verbalize why until recently. Asana’s strength is the result of combining a lot of elements, so I couldn’t describe it in one simple word. Writing this post was helpful in organizing my thoughts.
I put many links to articles and videos in this post so that even Asana experts can find something new. I hope it was an enjoyable read