When work management vendor Asana was formed a decade ago, its founders mapped out an ambitious vision to automate mundane 'work about work' so that people can focus their resources on the work that matters. Today marks a crucial milestone in that journey with the introduction of Asana Goals, which the company sees as the launch pad for the future roadmap it is unveiling in a virtual event today.
The sudden shift to remote working brought on by pandemic lockdowns has taken organizations on a forced uphill march through a Mazlowian hierarchy of digital teamwork. At the first level, in-person meetings migrate to online equivalents. At the next layer up, paper-based workflows go digital, while shoulder-tap conversations are replaced by online knowledge sharing. Go a stage further, and instead of using email, messaging or Zoom calls to let people know you've completed a task or need their approval, you just update your status in Asana or similar work management tool.
In the midst of this turmoil, many are discovering that when they digitize teamwork to this extent, they discover there are hidden benefits. Instead of relying on personal contact to keep track of what's going on, digital tools provide a record that's instantly visible to all and amenable to later analysis, saving time and worry. What's more, instrumenting work in this way lays the foundation for moving up to more advanced levels of digital teamwork.
With Goals, Asana is adding a thread that connects top-level objectives to work as it happens, providing a mechanism for evaluating work in the context of outcomes. This is not a new idea — companies have been setting Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) since around the turn of the century. But this typically happens in a spreadsheet or standalone OKR app, whereas tracking the progress of work digitally opens up new possibilities. These traditional methods have no mechanism to connect the strategic goals defined in the boardroom to day-to-day work carried out on the ground, explains Alex Hood, Asana's Head of Product:
What has been missing is a connection between the OKRs that are set at the top level and then the actual work that's going on. So companies set goals and objectives, but then the actual work, the folks on the ground, they don't see how their work connects up.
With Asana, there is a direct tie between a project to an OKR, so you can see what is contributing, and how you are contributing, to that goal.
This builds on Asana's existing role in tracking tasks and projects as they are performed, both at an individual level and also assembled into broader portfolios. The new product adds goals and subgoals in a way that's designed to make it easy for managers to relate individual projects into the broader goals of the organization, and for individual team members to see how their contribution maps to the larger picture. Hood explains:
That structured data helps you create this map of strategy and execution for your organization — versus having your team spend 60% of their time updating status, bubbling up their work to the next level of abstraction. It just makes it abundantly clear how things are going, at the top intermediate and bottom level, and how all that work contributes up to something greater.
Being able to track how work is progressing against goals is just as important for employee engagement as it is for business leaders, he adds:
Something that we've learned is that we are creating clarity and accountability. The fundamental value proposition of Asana is that you know who is doing what by when .... When that is clear, teams actually know how the work that they rely on is manifesting, so that they can get their work done. And they can also see how their work ladders to something greater.
A framework to apply data science
Now that Goals is in place, the next step is to use all of this instrumentation of work processes to help people and businesses understand how they can work more effectively. This is why today is such an important milestone — now there's a framework to which Asana can apply data science to help its customers move their digital teamwork further up the hierarchy of needs. Hood explains:
Once you have the map of how work actually gets done in an organization — the tasks, people and projects related to how a goal gets established and hit — you can then create intelligence on top of it.
So the second act of our vision is to become the navigation system for your organization. We think that through Asana, you can set a destination and Asana can eventually help you have turn-by-turn guidance of how you should achieve your goal ...
Goals is the linchpin, because goals connected to the work means that now we have a map of where an organization is really headed and how their efforts are laddering to it, or not laddering to it, and what they can do to change.
There are several different examples of how that might translate into specific products or features. For example, using machine learning to transcribe what is said in meetings and then automatically create the action items arising; to automate the production of weekly status reports; or to recommend a workflow template to help streamline a given process. In a more elaborate example, an algorithm might analyze all the various demands on your time and the priorities you're facing and help you organize your calendar and task list. Hood explains:
An algorithm that takes into consideration everything that's on somebody's plate — could be 500 things — and then helps them distill what they should do today, based on the company's goals, which now is in Asana, the team's deadlines, which are in Asana, and an individual's personal, professional goals and personal outcomes that they've signed up for.
An intelligent curation and then suggestion of priorities could really help create efficiency and allow folks to ensure that, number one, they're being recognized, number two, they have clarity of how their work ladders up to something big, and number three, there's a feedback loop between the priorities they're executing on and the individual team and company's accomplishments.
You can't fault Asana for consistency of message. Today's announcement is fully in line with the vision co-founder Justin Rosenstein set out when I spoke to him back in February last year:
There's a huge opportunity to marry human intelligence with computer intelligence — automating work about work, and helping people understand how to do things they hadn't thought of before.
But this is not a unique vision. Asana is not the only work management company tying the digital progress of work to overarching company goals. Last year, Workfront acquired OKR vendor Atiim with a similar message about accountability and recognition, and will bring the product to market as Workfront Align later this year. In April, Atlassian introduced Jira Align to track and measure work and its outcomes, with OKR management capabilities promised soon. And startup Ally offers OKR capabilities that plug into digital teamwork tools, most recently Microsoft Teams, along with Slack, Jira, Salesforce, Smartsheet and even Asana.
What all these companies have realized is that, as enterprises gradually bring all of their teamwork together into a digital collaborative canvas — whether based on a single platform or stitched together from multiple components — data science opens up new possibilities. Once we can measure work, assess its impact on outcomes, and use machine learning to identify which patterns work best, we have a new set of tools and techniques available to create new ways to enhance experiences, productivity and competitiveness. This is still very much in its infancy — both in how the technology works, and in organizations learning how to applying it — but the potential impact is enormous. The Maslowian hierarchy of digital teamwork scales to heights we can barely imagine today.