The Evolution of Task Management

When we start a new job / project, or adopt a new technology to help us go about our business we often do so with passion and determination. “This time round will be better than the last time” we tell ourselves. We know this because we’re constantly improving – learning lessons from past experiences and applying them as appropriate. It’s what we do. The irony, when it comes to Task Management however, is we’ve actually been going backwards, creating additional ‘busy’ work for ourselves and others as we look to manage a project.

Corporate ‘Do List’ Timeline
Some of you will recall fondly what follows, for others it’s more of a history lesson as we listen in on the thoughts of an executive from the early 1980s to the present day.

1980: “This is my new embossed leather folio. My company gave me at the annual leadership retreat. I’m going to carry it to every meeting I goto so I can keep on top of my to do’s.”

1985: “This is my Filofax. My wife gave it to me for Christmas. Everyone at the office has one. Mine is the latest! I’m going to keep all my notes in it which will be great – especially when I leave it in the magazine holder attached to the seat in front of me on the plane.”

1990: “This is my new laptop – I’m going to write all my to do’s in an excel spreadsheet and because it’s on my laptop it’ll always be with me.”

1992: “This is my new Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) – it has a monochrome screen and I can take notes on it. Because my suit jacket has extra large pockets I’ll be able to take it everywhere along with my wallet, keys, phone, laptop, camera and walkman.”

1993: “This is my new pad of paper – I’ve gone back to paper as my PDA wiped itself and I lost all my data.”

1996: “This is my new Nokia 9000 Communicator. I paid extra for the shoulder holster. I use it to take notes, surf the worldwide web, call people and make waffles (but not at the same time….)”

1997: “This is my new Palm Pilot/Psion Revo. It synchronizes with my desktop and has this awesome monochrome touch screen.”

2000: “This is my Pocket PC. It’s made by Acer/Dell/Compaq/HP/Gateway/Casio and runs Microsoft’s Windows CE operating system. It has a four-bit grayscale display and it’s bigger than my phone. It also crashes a lot, but I keep a backup so all is not lost.”

2004: “This is my HP (formerly Compaq) iPAQ 4700. It runs the Phone Edition of Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003. I can make calls from my PDA! The calls often drop, but that’s ok because I can always call you back… from my PDA!”

2007/8: “This is my new iPhone, someone developed a really cool app for it which lets me take notes. It’s cloud based too meaning I can access my notes from any device at any time, and it’s backed up by someone else so I don’t need to worry about that.”

Notice a common thread with personal organizers, personal digital assistants and what we call phones today? Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The fact is, we’ve been doing this for years. Yes we became more mobile, secure etc. etc. but we didn’t really become more efficient. We changed the medium of our to do lists and how we capture and store each task but never evolved the process. With all of the coordination, always on and expectations around that, we actually have become increasingly inefficient.

The Future is Bright
As luck would have it some rather smart people figured this out and came up with a world changing solution. All those years of notepads, Filofaxes, Post Its, PDAs, lost data, Finnish waffle irons, Excel spreadsheets, SharePoint, Google Docs, email, email, email, email, you get the picture – a lot of useless email can now be a distant memory thanks to the team at Asana.

Start on your journey to efficiency by visiting asana.com, sign in with your Google ID and build a task list. It takes seconds and I bet you have some to do’s! Founded in 2011 by former Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and engineer Justin Rosenstein, Asana aims to take us beyond email, identifying itself as, “The shared task list for your team. The place to plan, organize and stay in sync on your efforts.”

Having used Asana for several months its proven to be extremely versatile and limited only by ones imagination. Asana demos a number of use cases which include Project Management, Lightweight CRM, Bug Tracking, Applicant Tracking and Individual Task Management. It’s as robust in the workplace as it is in the home environment, use it as a means to capture to dos for the week or personal projects such as painting the spare room, or amp it up and add family members. Assign tasks, create or read notes linked to tasks. Add comments and links, due dates and mark as complete when done.

There is one word to describe the desktop version of Asana – beautiful. The app is written using an in-house framework called LunaScript. The user-interface (UI) is non-blocking meaning the user is never waiting on the server. Any action you perform is immediately updated in the UI because the queries are compiled in both JavaScript and SQL. You can work offline with changes being synchronized when you connect resolving any conflicts as appropriate.

In layman’s terms this makes it extremely fast and responsive in addition to enabling you to work offline. The app majestically flows around you in the most unintrusive way. It feels like silk. Did I mention it’s fast too? It works with you enabling you to perform what you want to do sometimes before you realize you want to do it. It’s simply brilliant. Quotes from Twitter tend to agree:

@PeteMatthew I flippin’ love Asana. It’s so, so fast it’s mind blowing. GTD implementation in its purest form?
@AbeMcCallum @asana – Really enjoying your product, has made team collaboration much better. Keep up the great work!
@twentworth12 Words can’t express my love for @asana. I get all teary-eyed thinking about how gorgeous and usable it is. Best web app, ever.

With Asana being built around the task, it is incredibly adaptable. I especially like being able to:

  • add tasks or comments to a task as I go about my day. Perhaps some downtime waiting in line allows me to research an item on my list and append any URL to the task for consultation later. It’s simple and that’s the brilliance of Asana.
  • assign tasks to people.
  • review all information regarding the task that is appended to it, without having to trawl through my inbox or ping someone for the latest slide deck.

I’m sure there is a contingent of folk in Seattle claiming this can all be done with SharePoint which has been around forever so this is nothing new. Here’s the difference – you actually want to use Asana because it is so intuitive as opposed to SharePoint which leaves you feeling so dense light actually starts to bend around you.

Mobile
With such a powerful desktop UI the mobile app has a lot to live up too. Sadly reviews in the Apple App. Store show it’s yet to live up to Asana reputation receiving some criticism with its 2/5 stars. The mobile experience may annoy you or you may find the heart to overlook its short comings with a forgiving eye based on the brilliance of the overall product.

Personally I have found it able to support me for the large part and use the desktop when it runs into issues. For example if you create a Project in the mobile app you’ll need to go online to either rename it or edit the title.

Over the past few months the Asana team have delivered several new features including Inbox and a REST API. Armed with a recent capital injection of $28m from Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and existing investors (Benchmark, Andreessen-Horowitz and Mitch Kapor), there shouldn’t be any issues addressing mobile. In fact a tweet dated 27th Jul 2012 from Asana suggests it’s in the works, “We are hard at work on iOS, and should have an update soonish.”

In Summary
Asana is great, at work and at home. It offers the perfect balance of versatility and simplicity while delivering a structured environment. It’s really whatever you want it to be. Perhaps you replaced lists and post-its at home long ago with Evernote, Astrid, Remember the Milk, Wunderlist, Clear or any one of the others. Irregardless, give Asana a shot to run your household – create a shopping list for the week, your other half or room mates may check it at the store and pick up the milk which you just added.

If you own or run a small business or manage a team in a large company – try Asana. The ability to create, delegate and view updates on tasks will help you tremendously. There are other options out there such as whiteboards and notepaper… Joking aside you should also consider do.com from Salesforce. It’s awesome too and with the upcoming integration into the overall Salesforce workflow it has obvious benefits if your business runs Salesforce.

Asana means less busy work and more real work. It’s available FREE for teams up to 30 members.

Outbound Product Management

Wearing multiple hats is common practice in the modern organization, and no more so than in small companies. In the marketing domain this can mean outbound product management is either merged with inbound or occasionally lost all together. This post looks at a number of reason why outbound product management should be of equal if not more importance than inbound; especially when you consider the success of your product or service often depends on its penetration, adoption, and usage.

Consider these quotes from some of the leading experts in our domain:

  1. Executive Chairman of the Board at Google, Eric Schmidt (Ph.D) stated at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce 2011 (see 0.33.47), “Apple proves if you organize around the consumer the rest will follow. And that’s something I did not understand until Google. Google runs in a similar way. Try to figure out how to solve the consumer problem and the revenue will show up.”
  2. In a July 2011 Ted Talk economics writer Tim Hartford shares the surprising link among successful complex systems – that they were built through trial and error.
  3. David Heath, Vice President of Global Sales at Nike inc. (ret.) stated in 2011, “the days of relationship selling frankly are over, and the days of bringing in the solution to the buyer and doing the buyers work for them are going to separate the winners from the losers.” See Developing Challenger Sellers – a new book from Corporate Executive Board.
  4. Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com starts all his keynotes at customer events such as Dreamforce by thanking the attendees – the customers for making Salesforce.com what it is today.
  5. Caroline Michiels, of custom software business ThoughtWorks stated, “60% of functionality in packaged solutions is never used.”
  6. Mike Heilman, a former colleague and veteran sales leader, responded to the HBR article, “Are top salespeople born or made?” I reposted on LinkedIn stating, “I have seen people of many, many different personality types succeed in sales. I believe that the only absolutely required characteristic is empathy. You simply must be interested in other people or they will reject you. Humor and intelligence are really good as well.”

While each of these quotes are recent, they are also pulled together for this post from different sources. The context is different, yet they all have a consistent theme – listen to your customer.

What can we take away from this when bringing new products to market? Here are a few questions worth considering:

  1. Does your product or service address a customer need and also the need/s of prospective customers – i.e. market needs? Which well known need/problem is it addressing? Have you defined the opportunity upfront? Think how Google took on Microsoft Office with Google docs – significantly less functionality yet with an unmatched collaboration capability addressing a well known market need. What are the 2 key points you use to market your new product? Forget features – can you frame the issue in the mind of the customer?
  2. Have you built a business model including market share? What are the objectives? What does success look like?
  3. Are you able to synthesize what you have heard in the market, communicate this in the user stories, and ultimately simplify your product offering tailoring it to resonate with your customers?
  4. Are you confident you have provided your salesforce with the right material to enable them to target the right buyer and subsequently empathize with the buyer? Think buyer scenarios (like user scenarios but focused on the buyer – profile and pain points) and customer success stories (or testimonials) which enable the sales team to identify the right buyers, teach the customer something new about their business and take control of the sales process. This is such a critical step. If sales are unable to penetrate accounts, you risk the team dropping the new product and falling back onto others which have historically delivered (won business) for them.
  5. Have you set your new product or service up for success? Recognizing adoption is key and iterations will evolve – think Google Docs, Google Mail and more recently Google + which all launched with feedback mechanisms, and a dedicated team behind the product enabled to release iterations based on the feedback. Eric Schmidt also said at Dreamforce 11, “…you are much better off if you organize around a continuous iteration model”.
  6. How will you react to a competitive play?

Does goto market planning start before or after development in your company? Does your company separate many of the outbound product management functions into a Product Marketing function? What questions do you ask when developing your goto market strategy? Use the comment box below to share your experiences.