On this episode of Fast Forward, I spoke with Justin Rosenstein, co-founder and head of product for Asana, a PCMag Editors' Choice for productivity software. Put simply, Asana is an app that makes people work together better. It is also what PCMag uses to manage our editorial workflows. We spoke about personal productivity, team communication, and the changing nature of work. Read and watch our interview below.
Before we start, I want to tell you how PCMag is using Asana. When started to use it we said, "We're going to roll it out slowly. We're going to build small teams. We're going to see who wants to use it, essentially let people onboard themselves." After that, it spread through the staff. People wanted to be on the service. You don't get that with a lot of business software products. How do you make that happen as the head of product?
Some of it's about product design. Historically, there's been consumer software that has higher and higher bar for software design. And then there's enterprise software, which we think of as ugly, old, gray. I think we came from consumer software backward. I used to work at Facebook and Google, but we had the business needs of real enterprise customers. It just felt very natural to build something that was as high-quality, design-wise, as consumer software but had all the power and richness of something you need to run a complex business. I think the other thing is that the traditional way that people have done leadership, delegation, deciding what to do, is very much a holdover from the Industrial Revolution. This very top-down, hierarchical, boss-tells-you-what-to-do and you just do what you're told. You don't even understand how your work fits into the bigger picture.
Whereas the new kind of work that people do is much more collaborative, much more everyone coming together and figuring out collectively what is the work that needs to be done. I think it's a tool that enables everyone on the team to be collaborating and co-creating the plan and the leadership together, which, I think, is a lot preferable in modern environments.
Give me the Asana origin story. The short version of it is you used to work at Facebook, Facebook used this tool, and now there's Asana. Flesh that out a little bit for me.
My first job out of college was working at Google; after that I worked at Facebook. In both cases, especially at Google, I came in with bright eyes and the fantasy, "I'm going to be spending all my time working with brilliant people to solve important problems." It turns out, we spent most of our time not building great tools and great products but just coordinating. Just making sure the left hand knew what the right hand was doing, keeping everyone on the same page, status meetings, and status updates.
Google is a relatively super well-run company. There's this study from McKinsey that says that the average knowledge worker literally spends more than 70 percent of their time not doing work, not doing whatever it is they're supposed to be doing, but doing work about work. Just all of that hell of coordination. At first, I assumed I must be doing something wrong. Then eventually realized, no, this is the water that people were swimming in and had gotten accustomed to it. So I built a very simple tool at Google.
Then at Facebook, I started spending time with [Asana co-founder] Dustin Moskovitz, who is the co-founder of Facebook. He had a problem. Hundreds of people worked with him on his team. He had the problem even worse than I did of how do you figure out what's going on in the company? How do you keep everyone on the same page? By day we were doing our day jobs and then by night and on weekends we got so obsessed with this that we started building an internal productivity system, and internal work tracking system. We didn't even mandate it, but it just took off within the company. By night we were doing that and then by day we could feel the number of meetings down, the amount of productivity going up, just what we were able to accomplish.
At first we were like, "Maybe we'll keep this as a secret sauce for Facebook." It is still deeply integrated to how Facebook does get so much done. The more we thought about it we realized that the problem was universal. The chaos within teams, the inability for everyone to stay on the same page. The solution that we had developed wasn't unique to Facebook. It wasn't unique to software companies. Anyone could benefit from that kind of clarity.
The more we thought about what we cared about as people in the world, there are so many important things that need to change. We need much better energy technology. We need to improve our education system. We need to upgrade our healthcare system. Upgrade our government. Basically, all the things that we realized we were passionate about as humans all come down to teams of people working together. If all the people working on all those different, important projects were all spending upwards of 70 percent of their time on this work about work, if we could build this single horizontal tool that would enable all those organizations to be able to move faster, that just felt like such a leveraged way for us to use our time.
A big part of the appeal is that people intuitively understand that this could mean fewer meetings and less email, which are really the tools that most people use to coordinate these days. How is Asana implicitly a better way of doing things than meetings and email?
If you have a ton of meetings and a ton of email, but then you go in and then you ask someone on the team really basic questions, like, "What are all the steps left between now and accomplishing our goal? Who's responsible for each of those steps? When can I expect each of those steps to be done by?" If you had a meeting in the last 10 minutes, maybe people have an answer for that. Even then, people don't have an answer for that question. A day later, the information is wrong. It's outdated. If you start then sending emails back and forth, you don't know if you have the complete picture. You don't know that everyone is on the same page.
No matter how many meetings or emails you throw at it, there's no single place that everyone can go to just get the super basic information about who is doing what, by when, how do all the pieces of the puzzle interconnect. Having this single source of truth, the single work tracking system that's been designed from the bottom up to give you that kind of clarity and where everyone can be literally on the same page and looking and editing and updating and communicating around the work itself rather than having 50 different email threads or Dropbox folders. Taking all that information and consolidating it around tracking the individual units of work themselves, just leads to these huge productivity improvements where you're not spending all this time being like, "Okay, it's the next day's meeting. What did we do yesterday? What are we going to do in the future?" People who use Asana just don't have to have those stand-up meetings because you can just go to the tool and you can see here's what we did yesterday, here's what we have to do tomorrow.
I want to take the product and productivity from an individual level to the team level and then scale beyond that. What is the number one mistake individuals make when it comes to managing their time and being productive?
I think the number one mistake people make is working on the wrong thing in the first place. Or not spending enough time. It's amazing how people were spending 40, sometimes 80 hours of their week barreling towards some particular outcome and spend comparatively little time stopping and reflecting. Is this the outcome that I want to be going after in the first place?
You read stories of people who, on their deathbeds, will reflect and they're like, "Wow. I was killing myself for a job that in hindsight, I didn't really care about. There were other ways that I could have in some cases, may have been just as financially comfortable, but been devoting those efforts toward things that had impacts which were more dear to my heart, that were more positively important for the world."
In some ways working harder and maximizing your efficiency in whatever direction you're going, even though it's more draining and more energy, it's just intellectually and almost spiritually easier than really hard work of sitting down and being like, "What do I actually care about and given my particular skills and passions, what are the things that I can devote myself to that will most move the world in the direction I want to see?"
That brings up an interesting question. I know a lot of people who use Asana in our office also use it to manage their personal lives. They've got work tasks that are visible to work colleagues, and then they've got another set of tasks that are unique to them or that they share with their partner. They're picking up groceries and they're scheduling doctor's appointments. Do you get a sense of how many people are using Asana for their personal life management?
We definitely hear amazing stories all the time of people have their weddings on Asana, people manage their family. One of the things that was important to us as we were designing Asana was not building something that was niche to some particular vertical, some particular industry. A lot of times you end up with these very custom tools to one vertical. We want it to be horizontal software that anyone could use for any kind of team. Because a lot of the most interesting teams are doing things that are quite bespoke. There's not going to exist some custom piece of software for them. If you can make something that works for everyone and then allow them to customize it to their particular needs, you get the best of both worlds and Asana can be powerful in that way.
We're all on so many different teams of different kinds and whether that's a family unit or a partnership. People use it for their churches or their soccer clubs or Burning Man camps. There are so many ways in which people participate in collective. I think of a team as a group of people who have come together for a common purpose.
I wanted to get to your mission statement. It's fascinating to me that is has almost nothing to do with work. Your mission declares that you want to help humanity thrive by enabling teams to work together effortlessly. That is not the mission statement of a workplace productivity tool. It seems like you've got much grander plans for the product and the platform.
Enabling all teams to work together effortlessly. If you take that seriously, that's a mission that would take a lot to achieve. You don't normally think of your body as a team, but you can think of you have all these different limbs and organs and subsystems and the reason that you experience yourself as a person is because all of those different subsystems are coordinated so well, so frictionlessly. If you have a thought that you want to move your hand, you can just move your hand. Your two hands can work so perfectly in synchronization that you can play a guitar, even though each hand is doing something totally different but the outcome is so much more in the sum of its parts. If you could get a group of people to be able to coordinate as effortlessly as the limbs of your body could coordinate, that would probably require brain-computer interfaces and telepathy, which in the long run, we will pursue as those technologies become available.
Then thinking of larger and larger groups of people, yeah, ideally I would love to see the entire world to be able to coordinate as one. There are obviously a lot of steps between that and an enterprise productivity tool.
It's about the journey.
It's about the journey. One day at a time. I hypothesized that if humanity could work together collaboratively in total, we would solve poverty, we would solve climate change, we would solve all of the basic problems that we're facing and be able to do so much more than we're capable of doing today and create such a more beautiful world. But one day at a time. I think when we left Facebook one of the things that pushed us over the edge was thinking, "Okay, if we could build a piece of software that would enable every team in the world to be able to move five percent faster, what would that mean? Would that accelerate human progress by five percent?" We're thinking audaciously.
That's the goal.
One day at a time. We're definitely not at the 'every team in the world' part. We're a very fast-growing SAS company, but takes time to get more users. We did survey customers and we asked them, "How much more effective do you think you are with Asana versus without Asana?" We were like, "Maybe we've already hit the 5 percent." We were really excited to see that the average customer reported a 45 percent improvement in whatever they were doing. For some customers, that's creating more revenue, creating more widgets, whatever they're doing. The customers that inspire us, that's a nonprofit that's bringing healthcare to people in rural Nepal, who say that the number of patients that they're able to bring healthcare to increased dramatically once they adopted Asana because it improved their ability to track all those patients.
When that's a biotech company that's telling us that their ability develop systems to do diagnosis that enable them to avoid having to give people generic antibiotics, which can reduce our dependence on antibiotics. They're moving 45 percent faster because they're able to manage all of their science and all of their marketing, all those things on Asana. By enabling teams to work together with less effort, we are making small contributions toward helping humanity thrive.
Over time, as the software gets more and more powerful, yeah, we would love to be able to [include] larger and larger groups of people and be able to do more and more complex things and accelerate progress in more meaningful ways. We think about helping all teams work together effortlessly. We don't operate this way right now. Today we have war and ways in which we're not operating as one team, but in the long run, I think it would be optimal if all of us worked together as one team. Enabling all teams to work together effortlessly. If you could really see a kind of dashboard for humanity where you can see "Here are all the different problems we're working on. We're trying to solve the climate crisis. We're trying to solve poverty. Trying to improve our infrastructure in all these different ways."
Just like Asana today, for an individual company we'll provide a dashboard that shows you "Here are all the projects you're working on and here's how far along on those projects you are. Here's the status of each of those things." You could zoom out and see the status of all the different things that people are working across the globe and how our collective efforts as species are coming together to solve those big problems. That would be enabling all teams to work together effortlessly. I'm going to talk about the stuff that sounds and is grandiose.
That is what this show is about.
We try hard to both keep an eye on a really long-term vision that we think could be powerful and impactful for the world, but also stay very humble and close to the ground on what are the individual steps we can take today that will move us in that direction? And keep trying to plot a course for that bigger vision.
It seems to me that there's a role for artificial intelligence and learning systems in this particular space that's completely wide open and unexploited. Up to this point, you've had to set your own course. You've had to create the tasks, and you've had to set the routines. And then this is a great way of tracking them. It seems to me that there are software that should be able to learn that you have to have a monthly meeting-
You have to be scheduled. Do you know who's going to be in this meeting? It should remind you that you're overdue and you've got to get this done. It seems like there should be some learning that businesses and teams can automate as opposed to having to self-create. How far away are we from having some of those systems help us?
I think of Asana as a team brain, continuing with some of the analogies I've given, where it's a single mental space that all the people on the team can come together and use. What we focused on so far is the memory capacity of that team brain. Because most teams just don't have a collective memory. They use meetings to keep reconstituting "What is it we're supposed to work on today? What's the highest priority?" Our first step has been just the memory. Everyone being able to see what is going on and what we need to do. If you want to have a team brain, you also want intelligence on top of that. One form of that intelligence would be artificial intelligence. As recently as when I was in college, one example of artificial intelligence was map routing. Something we totally take for granted today. But Google Maps or Mapquest. Being able to plot the shortest distance from one city to another is arguably an artificial intelligence problem. Artificial intelligence is generally the term that is used for whatever we don't know how to get computers to do yet.
At the time, mapping from point A to point B was artificial intelligence. Now we can think about artificial intelligence being a team that says, "Okay. Here's where we are today. Here's where we want to do. Here's the goal we're trying to accomplish." A computer being able to tell you, just like Google Maps can, how long is it going to take you to get there and what is the optimal path for getting there? Right now you have humans, project managers, people spending all this time figuring this stuff out. Either figuring out what are all the steps when those steps have been figured out by other people in the past, sometimes in their own company, or trying to figure out "Okay, this person's on vacation. This person has this many meetings. Therefore, to minimize the total cost of the project we should have this person do this thing first."
Computers should be so much better at that sort of work. Getting to a point where the team can just describe at a very high level that they understand what needs to happen. Then the software can do all of that project management for them behind the scenes and optimally get everyone to work on exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. Even down to understanding this person is better at this kind of task. This person enjoys working in the morning. This person does better in the afternoon. This person works well with this person. Software that can understand all of those variables and then figure out exactly the optimal way to get everyone configured would be so powerful.
There's artificial intelligence, and then there's also collective intelligence. When most people decide they want to run a conference, they reinvent a lot of the wheel and then end up making a lot of the same mistakes that have been made in the past. Asana has all of these customers. So many of them have run conferences before. If we could pull together than information in an intelligent way and it's like, "Oh, you want to do a conference? Do you want to go IPO? Do you want to do any of these things that have been done before?"
There's a series of tasks, there's a series of steps that are templates that you could import. The same way you import letterhead. Obviously more complicated than that, but that process, you can learn from it.
Exactly. Just a few months ago, we launched templates in Asana. I think they're powerful relative to what was there before and they're very simple relative to the kind of grand visions you could imagine. Yeah, what if you had a Github for templates or some … Or using AI to pull together all of the different best practices so that when you're doing something … In the future, Asana becomes this system where you explain what you're trying to do and it guides you as this omniscient project manager, omniscient-executive, coach or whatever it is that guides you smoothly to accomplishing your goal.
We're deluged with new technologies all the time. All these new technologies tend to provide more information, more data, but I still see them in two different camps. One of them are weapons of mass distraction that are designed to occupy our time, to amuse us, to distract us. To increase time on site or time in the app. Then there's another set of tools that are battling against that that give individuals and businesses control over their time and insights. It seems like there's a battle going on between these two types of technology products. Who do you think is winning?
I don't know if the battle is between the two technology products, but there's a war for our attention. Asana starts from the premise that you, as a team, have a mission. You have a thing you want to accomplish. Asana is a tool that puts that first. You are the subject, and you are the customer who's paying for that tool. We help you accomplish the goal that you're setting out to accomplish.
I think a lot of software where the customer's the advertiser, it's a tool to enable advertisers to enact their well of implanting ideas into the minds of users and then users are not the customer, users are the product. When you have a dynamic like that, even with good intentions, it just becomes extremely difficult to avoid a situation where you end up optimizing for eyeballs or for time spent on site. Even if you had really good intentions, the fact that there's an arms race where if you do something that makes your software a little less addictive, there's always someone more unscrupulous out there. They are willing to do some cheaper trick and hack you, pull your attention at an even lower level of the brain stem.
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My friend Tristan Harris did a TED Talk on this recently—I think it's worth watching—that goes deep on this and the difference between time spent and time well spent. I have a hard time imagining how an advertising-based business model doesn't inevitably lead to those problems. When you don't have an advertising-based business model, you don't get those problems because it's not in the interests of the software developer to try to make you spend more time on it, because they're not getting anything out of that. Maybe some extra stickiness or engagement, but it's usually balanced.
I think the problem is the advertising business model. I would love to see the companies that are doing that today be able to find alternate business models that don't put their incentives at odds with the incentives of the user.
Easier said than done. Especially running a media site the way I do.
Much easier said than done. I think we need a revolution in the way we do media. Might be speculating to give my thoughts on how we might go about doing that, but I agree it's a really hard problem.
PCMag has a variety of different revenue streams. Advertising is still a big piece of it, but affiliate links and commerce marketing is one channel. Licensing is another. It's not all based in advertising, but it's harder and harder to make a media business based solely on advertising, just because users themselves are revolting. They're installing ad blockers and they're putting up walls. They're not visiting sites that distract them with a lot of advertisements.
I'm not an expert enough on the subject, but there are all kinds of directions I would love to see people experiment with. People have become accustomed to information being free, but I think people would be willing to pay small amounts for it if it were extremely convenient. Today if you you go to the Wall Street Journal or something, you hit this big paywall and it's not, in the grand scheme of things, a massive inconvenience to take out your credit card and type in those numbers.
Just fill out a form and then hit submit.
Then what you're really doing is you're creating a relationship with that particular news provider, which is not as a user what you're trying to do. You're trying to read that one piece of content. If it were effortless to be able to say, "Oh. I read the first three paragraphs of this, and this is rich information that's useful to me. I want to read more, and it was one-click easy to do that. I haven't thought about this deeply enough to say, "That's the solution that will end advertising." I wish.
Maybe there are brilliant people out there thinking about this, but I'm surprised that there isn't more thought being given to "Okay, what comes after advertising?"
There have been some micro payment initiatives and experiments, but nothing's caught on. I always thought PayPal, back in the day, would be the company to do this. Everybody has an account. It's just one-click easy. But they've never been able to pull it off. Really disappointing. Before we wrap, I want to get to some personal questions. We talked right before we started filming, you were still doing the five glasses of water a day thing. Can you explain to the audience how that works?
Another thing about personal productivity, I would say, is that people often optimize for time rather than energy. Office cultures where people are working 80 hour weeks. I'm sure there exist humans who can focus for 80 hours and get good work done, but they've got to be very rare.
It's atypical at the very least.
It's very atypical. I think a lot of the cultures where it's like, "You got to be at your desk and working all the time," if I sit down with those people and have honest conversations with them, I'm like, "So what are you really doing all that time?" They'll admit. "I'm kind of zoned out. I haven't slept enough. My attention is distracted. But it would be socially unacceptable for me to leave because everyone's heads down and they look like they're busy, but they're probably also kind of zoned out and half distracted."
It comes to this machismo ego culture of everyone feeling like they've got to be doing that together, when both research and my own experience, I don't know about yours, is that if you optimize instead for energy, where when you are working, you're really tightly focused and doing the things that actually matter and then you take breaks and then you take care of yourself, that that is actually what optimizes your output.
I spend a fair amount of time thinking about optimizing my routines to make sure that I'm healthy. In the case of the water glasses, that I am well hydrated. Really basic things that can be easy to forget about when you're really focused on achieving your goals. Some people are like, "I don't have time to meditate. I don't have time to exercise." But I would say, "You don't have time not to."
If you're genuinely trying to maximize productivity and not just your sense of productivity, I think the research is pretty clear that those are things worth taking the time to do.
Again, it is not about how much time you spend in the app or on the service, it's about time well spent.
Speaking of time well spent, how much sleep do you get every night? When do you go to sleep, when do you wake up generally?
10:30pm to 7am. Maybe 11 to seven. Enough.
A good, healthy night's sleep.
I once asked Elon Musk about this. He was like, "Yeah, I just drink a lot of caffeine and just get through it." I was like, "Okay." I think some people like that are just special and it can be dangerous to assume that you're biologically wired the same way that he is or the same way that certain people are.
I've tried to live that way. I can tell I'm not as productive. Whereas if I get the full night's sleep and go into work and then work a 10-hour day with a bunch of little breaks in the middle, that's what optimizes my output.
I want to ask you the questions I ask everybody who comes on the show. Is there a technological trend that concerns, that keeps you up at night? That you think is going in the wrong direction?
The advertising thing we talked about. There's a meta-trend I'll speak to, which is people so often assume that if there is a new technology, it must be progress. Surely adding this new thing to our lives will make our lives better, when that's just not true. You can build new technologies that can do good for the world or do harm for the world. We're so quick to just accept new things as this is what we're doing now. This is a cliché. This is why I feel like you walk outside and you see everyone staring at their phones. You can imagine that having gone down differently, where we as a culture were like, "There are new … This new mobile phone technology has come into existence. Let's have a healthy, civil conversation about what role we want that to play in our lives. We believe that it should be considered rude to be walking around the street starting at your phone."
Create some etiquette around it.
Yeah, create etiquette around it.
Google Glass came out and instantly people said, "No, that's too far. We're not going to do that."
There are limits. I think that was more about fashion than etiquette.
But then a year later, six months later, Snapchat Spectacles came out and everybody was like, "Oh, I got to have those."
Yeah, I got to have one of those. I think a lot of that stuff has been hugely valuable to the world, but then other parts have a dark side. I wish there were more consciousness and that lively conversation. I think that is starting to happen now, but as new technologies come out, us thinking, what is the right way to use this?
Even things like cryptocurrency. I haven't thought about this enough to have a firm opinion. But when I'm in conversation with the enthusiasts who are super excited, and they're telling me all the benefits of this, I ask questions like, "How do you know that that's actually not going to lead to bad things where suddenly we can't regulate currency?" We'll be unable to tax the people who are the most technologically literate and that will lead to increased wealth inequality." And often they're like, "Oh. We'll figure that out." I'm like, "Are you sure?"
Because it could just be bad. Again, maybe people have thought this through, but just taking more time to actually consider what are the social implications of these technologies before just jumping breathlessly at like, "This is the greatest new thing."
On the flip side, is there a product, a tool, or a service that you use every day that has totally changed your life, and obviously you can't say Asana.
There's a product Thistle. I am an investor, but I invested because it was so life-changing. They do food delivery by mail, which I know a bunch of startups have done. We have food at Asana, but on weekends it is great to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner delivered. Like a lot of things in their early phase right now, I think it's on the expensive side, but they're working on that.
They need to scale.
They need to scale, and the cost will come down over time. The need for more transportation was this huge pent-up demand and as soon as Uber and Lyft came along and said, "Here, we're going to make it one-click easy for you to get transportation," it totally changed how we'd move around. I think food is the same way. Obviously, there's a lot of people who enjoy cooking food every day, but for a lot of us, the idea that you could have really healthy and delicious food delivered to you on exactly the schedule you want is pretty great.
I'm a vegan now after considering that for a long time. I just think that's the only way I can live in a way that's consistent in integrity with my values. It's hard to live as a vegan in the world we live in. They have a vegan option started that was the only option. Being able to have healthy, delicious vegan food delivered to meet all of your nutritional needs, I think is going to be a game changer.
All right. If people want to follow you online and follow Asana, how can they find you, where should they go?
I have a Twitter account. It's @rosenstein. There's also Wavelength. Wavelength.com is a new publication we started that has team productivity information. it gives you information on how to apply a purposeful, mindful approach to teamwork. Also a website oneproject.org if you're interested in my current thinking on some of the bigger, humanity-level dashboard systems change, stuff that I was alluding to.
Excellent. I will definitely check it out.
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