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How Asana is helping big companies achieve goals, not just manage projects

After establishing itself through organic growth in small teams, the company is adding features designed with large, complex enterprises in mind.

How Asana is helping big companies achieve goals, not just manage projects
[Photo: courtesy of Asana]

When people first started to take note of a fledgling company called Asana a dozen years ago, the big news was that it had been started by Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz along with one of his Facebook colleagues, Justin Rosenstein—and was a trifle mysterious. “Office work, filled with overflowing email inboxes and pointless meetings, could be a lot more efficient and productive,” wrote The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller. “One startup, Asana, is trying to fix the problem. How? Well, that is still a secret.”

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What Moskovitz and Rosenstein were working on turned out to be an online project management app inspired by their experience wrangling work during Facebook’s early years. “I was faced with these problems with coordination to try to understand what was going on with my team,” Moskovitz explains. “And I was trying to solve them with status update meetings, whiteboards, and spreadsheets.” After trying existing task-management software such as Microsoft Project and finding it wanting, Moskovitz spearheaded the creation of an internal tool tailored to Facebook’s particular needs. That proved so useful that he and Rosenstein decided to build a company around their learnings.

At the time, Asana was part of a flock of new collaborative apps—some of which, in retrospect, were a little ahead of their time. In her 2009 article, for instance, Miller also name-checked Google’s much-hyped would-be email killer, Google Wave. Instead of killing email, Wave itself died less than nine months after Miller mentioned it.

Asana, however, caught on. The company has been building out Moskovitz and Rosenstein’s initial concept—which breaks high-level goals down into digestible, measurable chunks—ever since. It went public in September 2020 and now has 107,000 paying customers, along with millions more in 190 countries who use its free version.

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Dustin Moskovitz [Photo: courtesy of Asana]
But as popular as Asana has been, the workplace challenges that inspired Moskovitz and Rosenstein to found the company in the first place feel just as daunting as ever. And the bigger a company is, the more paralyzing they may be.

According to an Asana survey, “enterprise knowledge workers spend 63% of their time on ‘work about work,’ like trolling through email, going to status meetings because things are unclear, trying to find the latest plan of record—instead of the actual work that they might’ve gone to college for or been trained on or have listed on their resume,” says Asana chief product officer Alex Hood. “That is like a 63% tax on progress.”

Now Asana is announcing some new features intended t0 reduce that tax, particularly for its largest customers. They’re about “mapping work all the way down from the atomic unit of tasks through projects and collections of projects that form portfolios all the way up to the highest level objectives of the organization,” says Moskovitz.

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Beyond the spreadsheet

In Asana’s early days, the startup didn’t focus on competing with existing products such as Microsoft Project (which even then had been around for a quarter-century and—I just learned—still exists in 2021). Instead, the company saw its competition as a different software category dominated by Microsoft: spreadsheets. People tended to stuff their project-planning efforts into Excel even though it was never designed with that purpose in mind.

Surprisingly little has changed. When I ask Moskovitz about Asana’s current rivals, he doesn’t mention products such as Jira or Monday.com. “When you talk to people about, ‘how do you know what the state of the project is? How do you know what you’re responsible for?’ most teams will point you at their local teams’ project spreadsheet,” he says. “Generally, when we’re coming into an organization, that is what we’re displacing. And even when we’re in a more IT-driven sales process, the majority of the time we’re competing with nobody.”

Still, like everyone who sells productivity software, Moskovitz says that the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have caused many organizations to get more serious about the digital tools they use. First, they were forced to abruptly embrace remote work, which “just revealed how high the friction is in cross-team collaboration,” he says. “In an office environment, you can get clarity on who’s doing what by when, by simply calling people together into status update meetings, by walking around and talking to them at their desk, by having a whiteboard full of sticky notes.” Deprived of such familiar techniques, companies went looking for technology that could fill the void—and often discovered Asana.

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Anne Raimondi [Photo: courtesy of Asana]
More recently, as organizations have looked ahead to the era of hybrid work, they’ve said “we’ve managed to figure out—maybe not perfectly—how to deal with these 18 months, but we’re expecting more uncertainty and higher rates of change,” says Asana COO Anne Raimondi. This realization, she says, is leading to an even greater desire to get distributed teams in alignment. (Raimondi, a veteran of Zendesk, TaskRabbit, and SurveyMonkey, joined Asana full-time in September after serving on its board since 2019.)

At the same time, Asana has been looking beyond the informal adoption by small companies and individual groups within larger organizations that accounted for much of its early success. Strategic adoption by sizable customers is helping to drive current growth: In the last quarter, revenue from those spending $50,000 and above grew 111% year over year.

“We’re seeing both that bottoms-up, organic adoption that’s always been our strength, where these champions and evangelists are like, ‘this is the only way I want to do work,'” says Raimondi. “And now, at the C-level, whether it’s CIOs, VPs of IT, those who want to have a unified place that’s safe and secure and scalable that all teams have access to.”

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As big customers have rolled out Asana widely, the company has had to get good at helping them with planning efforts so complex and far-flung that they could never have fit into a spreadsheet or collection of sticky notes in the first place: “34% of employees report to us that their biggest challenge at work is collaborating effectively across teams, across departments, across the organization,” says Hood.

A graph for work

All of the above dynamics came into play as Asana formulated plans for the new features it’s announcing today. They include the Enterprise Work Graph, a dashboard whose goal “is that across an entire organization, there is one gold standard, one database, one spreadsheet, if you will,” says Hood. The idea, he adds, is conceptually related to the social graph that Asana cofounder Moskovitz helped invent at Facebook, though he’s quick to emphasize that it’s about workplace productivity rather than “295 of your closest friends seeing that picture of your breakfast.”

The Enterprise Work Graph divides big missions into specific goals, then divides the goals into subgoals. [Image: courtesy of Asana]
Asana has been talking about its Work Graph for a long time; the Enterprise Work Graph scales it up and adds more industrial-strength features targeting the needs of large organizations. It allows a company to specify an overarching mission, break it into discrete goals and subgoals, and then establish who’s responsible for everything. “There’s real-time reporting about the work in a time series, so that anybody can see how the things that they care about are progressing against either their team goal or the company goal,” says Hood.

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If a company has embraced Asana, the chances are pretty good that it’s only part of its toolkit for collaborative efficiency. “You’re tracking the work in Asana, and then you maybe need to jump into a synchronous conversation around it in Slack, and then you end up with a link to some other part of Asana,” says Moskovitz by way of example. (He also notes that the two companies are mutual users of each other’s products.)

The more places collaboration happens, the more risk there is of it getting fragmented. In April, Asana set out to knock down the walls between itself and other essential tools by announcing Asana Partners, a platform that allows customers to mash up its service with over 200 other products, from Adobe XD to Zendesk. These integrations open up possibilities such as creating Asana tasks within Slack, recording Vimeo videos inside Asana, and exporting Asana projects to Excel. (Yes, even some Asana aficionados continue to use spreadsheets as a project management aid.)

Asana’s new integration with Splunk enables cross-app functionality such as the ability to analyze Asana logins over time in search of potential security issues. [Image: courtesy of Asana]
Asana is expanding this program with new partners such as big-data analysis platform Splunk and cloud security platform Netskope. It’s also getting ready to add a feature called Workflow Builder, which will let users construct their own cross-app automations without knowing how to code. “For lots of different use cases, you’ll be able to pick a workflow off the shelf and make it yours,” says Hood. “Customized so that it works specifically for your team, integrated with Slack if that’s what you use, integrated with Microsoft Teams, integrated with Salesforce.”

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Asana’s workflow gallery will help customers find cross-app automations that they can further customize for their needs. [Image: courtesy of Asana]
In addition, new APIs (application programming interfaces) allow enterprise customers to hook up Asana with other tools such as CRM (customer relationship management) systems so that sales get counted against Asana goals as they’re logged. “On Friday, you don’t need to assemble a whole bunch of information across the 10 different applications you use to give somebody a sense of how things are coming along—it’s all right there in Asana,” says Hood.

[Image: courtesy of Asana]
With all of Asana’s emphasis on helping organizations define and meet their goals, it’s tempting to assume that its own big overarching goal is simply making businesses more successful. But the people responsible for the service would never describe it that way. Instead, they say that crystalizing what a company needs to accomplish and helping it do so in a streamlined fashion makes work more rewarding for everyone involved.

That need might be greater than ever: With the pandemic, “we’ve been seeing an increase in people being disconnected from the purpose of the company, when they feel like, ‘gosh, I’m spending all my time on trying to figure out what I’m supposed to work on or what the goals are,'” says COO Raimondi.

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Moskovitz rattles off some alarming conclusions from Asana’s survey of 13,000 knowledge workers: “A lot of employees are experiencing imposter syndrome—maybe two-thirds in 2020. Seven in 10 report feeling burnout at least once in 2020. I think that should be no surprise in the context of the pandemic, but it’s even a trend that precedes that. It’s exacerbated for parents with children at home. A lot of people feel overwhelmed.”

Those are big problems. And it shouldn’t come as a shocker that Moskovitz thinks that one culprit is the kind of work about work that Asana is designed to reduce, whether it’s in the form of email, in-person meetings, or, increasingly, video calls. “All of this is validation of what we’re working on,” he says. “It really just describes the things that we’re trying to solve.”

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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