This article was originally posted to Cremalab.com on July 26, 2012
Today’s most recent news of Asana’s Series B round of $28 Million in funding made me realize that Asana very much deserves the attention they’re getting. One thing I’ve realized is that tech-startup media spends a great deal of time talking about what it would be like if we all were working on a single product with tons of features with highly funded teams spending 24 hours a day on one laser-focused idea. While it is a very common goal to create the next Facebook, or better yet Path, many of us are still focused on providing top level service to help other entrepreneurs create those products. We call ourselves “Agencies”. Many of us are small teams that are working on many things at once, while striving to ensure that no small detail goes forgotten, left behind, or overlooked.
I’ve spent the last few years doing what most web development agencies do; constantly sketching and planning out how to design and create our own project management application that would allow me to see, as a business owner, every current project my team is working on. As Creative Director, I also need to see across the board who’s working on what, what is needed of me, while keeping a close eye on client schedules.
We’ve used Basecamp from 37 Signals and our lives were forever improved by finally eliminating email (or so we thought), streamlining our communication with clients, and capturing our seemingly endless To-Do lists. Even with Basecamp’s newest redesign, something was lacking: a sense of awareness in what really needed to get done, by whom, and by when. Oh, and by the way, the magic happening in the background may not need to be seen by the client.
So, like most other agencies, we tried every other app on the market, and my crew nearly locked me out in the 105 degree KC summer heat every time I introduced a new product for them to try out. The most recent being Trello. I’m a huge fan of what the guys at Trello are working on, but I still ran into the issue of the application not being quite flexible enough to handle the management of more than one project at a time.
While the Asana team spent most of their time trying to educate users with videos of a perfect world focusing on one product again, it didn’t take long to see how the system’s flexibility would do A LOT more of what we needed. So here’s a few ways that we are getting the most out of this up-and-coming project management tool.
One Workspace; many projects
At Cremalab, most of our projects are quick turnaround and tasks are divvied up between the members of our team (staff and contractors). In order to keep things straight, we put all of our projects into one. This process took a little bit of time to get my head around. But once I understood that workspaces are treated as completely separate Asana accounts under 1 email ownership, I knew that we’d have to learn to live in one workspace for our creative team workspace.
We have found separate workspaces to be useful on larger projects (especially internal projects). This keeps our team from being too distracted by the brainstorming of these before they get moved back into the fold of projects on the “Cremalab” space. It is a personal judgment call deciding whether or not a project is big enough to warrant a dedicated space. Remember, workspaces don’t talk to each other.
Projects are Projects and also can be a CRM.
We use projects to manage each “Project” we have. I know, its groundbreaking! Most of our clients will have multiple projects and each of them gets a new project with the necessary team members assigned to that project (we’ll get to assignments later).
We also follow Asana’s recommendation and have a project called CRM. This is GREAT because you can assign any one task to as many projects, or tags, as you want. So we treat the CRM tasks as Clients. Each client gets dropped into the CRM and then referenced in the correct “Project(s)”. Now everyone knows who the primary client contact is for each project. Trust me, we know A LOT of Jeff’s. This is very helpful! One fair point of constructive criticism, Asana is not the greatest CRM tool. We’re currently looking to see if we can streamline it for our needs, or get another management tool that is designed to be a CRM, such as Highrise or Base.
Tags are everything else
Asana’s projects and tags are LITERALLY the SAME THING! But it’s nice that they are called different things.
We use tags for a few different things other than projects. When we set up a project, we’ll often tag a task as “design”, “development”, “marketing” or “management”. The benefit here is if our designers are free’d up from the tasks assigned to them (we’re getting to that soon), they can open the tasks tagged “design” across all projects and see if there are any tasks in which they can help out on, or that can be updated.
We’ll also use tags to designate a “type” of feature. When a project gets created, we input all the tasks into the project’s space so team members can go through them and sort the tasks into weekly sprints. This should be fluid as it often shifts through the life of the project, but then they, or the PM, can tag the task with the high level features in which it is associated. This allows us to be inside a project and then filter by tasks that are tagged “feature X”. You are now ONLY looking at the tasks that have to do with that feature, making it easier to verify that everything is completed as agreed upon by the project owner and the client.
We are also starting to use tags to mark bugs and priorities. While we like using GitHub’s issue tracker, having it all in Asana gives everyone a true sense of the status of the project from beginning to the fully debugged launch.
Assigning vs. Following
This was the biggest hurdle our team had to overcome after migrating from Trello. In Trello, you have the option to tag multiple people on one card giving all of them a sense of “ownership.” The problem with this is that no one really knows WHO is responsible for the tasks, creating an environment where team members expect everyone else to get the tasks done. I was ultimately guilty of this!
With Asana, the person “Assigned” to the task is responsible for doing something with that task. That something could be adding followers and starting a comment thread about the needs of the task, which then spawns the need for even more tasks assigned to different people (i.e., a project manager has the task of creating the features list, and assigning to the right people). It could be updating the task and re-assigning it to another person, or even “passing the buck” and assigning it to someone else because you don’t have the time to work on it or need help for some reason.
Ideally, a task is assigned to someone, they complete the task, and mark it as completed. At a minimum the individual should make sure to mark if/when they plan to complete the task by assigning a due date to the task if there hasn’t been one already assigned.
We also will assign certain tasks to people to cover a task that doesn’t need to be marked “Completed” (such as our people in our CRM). Christi, our marketing manager, is responsible for ensuring that all of our contact info and lists are updated. Once updated, she removes herself from being assigned to the task instead of marking it as “Completed”. As long as a person touches the tasks that are assigned to them, then the task will continue to be monitored.
Following is more passive
If I’m following a project, I see every new task that is added or completed in a project, but I don’t have to see every comment or change on a specific task unless I’m following that specific task. This is easier to understand if you’re thinking about things in the view of the new “Inbox” feature in Asana. Think of it as your twitter feed; just as the people you’re following show up in your feed, the tasks or projects you’re following show up in your feed.
Use tasks for everything
If I need someone to review a google doc for me, I add a task and assign it to them, drop a comment about what I need, and possibly the link to the doc. If Rob (our talented lead designer) needs me to review a design before sending it to the client, he reassigns the task to me, and makes a comment that it’s ready to review. You get the idea. Force yourself to use it for everything.
Which leads us to the last thing….
Check “My Tasks” and “Inbox” often.
Take a few minutes every day to skim through your inbox (yes, initially it’s a bit of a challenge to get used to another inbox). Once all your projects are set up and you’re running smoothly in Asana, turn email notifications back on and do your due diligence to unfollow things you don’t need to be on, and keep up with the things that you do need to be on. Bottom line, be intentional about using the tool. The more you make it a discipline to work from Asana, the better the tool will work for you!
Asana has done a great job of thinking about things in a flexible form based around tasks being whatever you need a task to be. Projects can be whatever you need a task to be, and same with tags. Most importantly, Asana is a tool. It has issues and is not perfect. I’d assume that’s why they need $28 Million dollars (and early adopters) to make it even better. If you’re working on one single product and want to split out the one product into many projects with many teams, then Asana is just as good as any other task-list solution. Where I think that Asana shines is in its ability and flexibility to manage a team of people working on numerous projects with multiple tasks.
Don’t force too much micromanagement with this tool. It’d be easy to do. Instead, set some basic guidelines such as, “if you want me to get this done, make a task and assign it to me”; or “if it’s a priority, tag it”; and “if we committed to hit a specific date, put it on there!”; and finally, “if you create a task, make sure someone (yourself or another team member) is going to handle it”.
Let us know what tools you use in your agency.