Asana launches: A task management tool “you can actually use”?

Right now, just about everything social is hot, with businesses betting everything from shopping to finding an article to read online is a task that’s best handled by consulting with friends (in the loose, tech-driven sense of the word).

It’s an approach you’d imagine would appeal to a couple of ex-Facebookers now tackling the enterprise task management and productivity tool space. But as Justin Rosenstein and Dustin Moskovitz launch their new web-based product Asana out of beta this week, they’re actually out to prove the opposite: When it comes to getting things done at work, social is the wrong thing to focus on.

So what’s the foundation of professional productivity if it’s not breaking down org chart divisions, building relationships and easily sharing information? For Rosenstein and Moskovitz, that answer is deceptively simple: the work itself.

Tasks not people

In your personal life, your focus is naturally on building relationships, so “it makes sense to have a product that is fundamentally social,” says Rosestein, but to apply that same principle to your professional life just doesn’t work. The chatter on your Facebook account is the point; random comments and exchanges help you get to know people and stay in touch. At work, where your goal is, say, meeting a project deadline, chatter is just distracting noise that breaks your flow, wastes your time and limits your creativity.

In a professional context, the ultimate aim is not to get to know people (though surely that’s a facilitator and by-product of good work) but, as Rosenstein puts it, “to create interesting things.” So when it comes to professional productivity tools, “it makes sense to put the work as the fundamental unit, and for us, tasks are those atomic elements of productivity.”

Rosenstein elaborates: “Much in the way that email makes a message, the core notion, the fundamental unit that is being moved around and operated on, or say a social network makes people the fundamental unit, Asana is about making the task the fundamental unit.”

In essence, “Asana is basically a shared, collaborative task list,” he says, “allowing users to reference the product and know what everyone on the team is working on, as well as having all conversations, files and artifacts around those tasks collected in one place.”

By “following” a task, users are kept up to date on all actions and comments related to it via email, as well as who is assigned responsibility for the task. You can easily “unfollow” tasks that aren’t pertinent, set tasks as private or search the system for past comments and actions. Users can view tasks by project, including information on project priorities, group a project’s tasks by assignee, or sort by person and see all tasks an individual is involved in across all projects. A mobile version of Asana is a new improvement on the beta.

Eroding barriers to adoption

Other more social productivity tools based on following people or conversations not tasks are often simply too noisy and too slow, frustrating new users who then fall back on old standbys like email, and in-person chats, according to the Asana team (and, to be fair, my personal experience as well). For this reason, Rosenstein feels their main competition isn’t other offerings in the space, but the inertia that drags down new tools:

When we think about who our competition is, it’s not really the other productivity tools or enterprise collaboration tools because that’s not what people are using. Even among the early adopters who have been trying out Asana, 75 percent of them prior to using Asana were using email and documents to keep themselves organized. Email, documents, white boards, notebooks, in-person meetings, that’s the competition. Those are the tools people are still using today in order to try and keep themselves on the same page.

We have certain people who signed up for the beta who said, ‘I’ve tried a dozen different tools for project management, for group collaboration and could never get any of them to work. None of them would ever stick. I couldn’t adopt them. My team couldn’t adopt them.’ And so I think the big differentiator from those tools is this is the only one that actually works.

Will it work? The team is striving to make Asana as fast, flexible and easy to get started with as possible, minimizing the number of keystrokes or clicks to accomplish anything and making sure the signal-to-noise ratio is high so users get only relevant information. Asana can also be used as a personal, rather than team, task manager and grows virally as a single user assign bits of work to others, though Rosenstein warns that managers looking to lead a top-down adoption of Asana for their teams think carefully before proceeding.

“The biggest failure mode for adoption has been when someone comes in, plays around for a minute, doesn’t think about how they want to organize things, say ‘everyone, hey, come use this,’ and doesn’t set up any structure ahead of time,” says Rosenstein. “You need some sort of order.”

The future

In short, Asana’s future is vague but hopefully populous. The team’s immediate goal is getting users signed up rather than bringing in revenue. “We’re really focused on going for ubiquity, for mass-scale adoption,” says Rosenstein, “so at this point in time, we don’t even have a pay model. That’s something we’ll announce later. The product is free and will remain free for teams of 1-30.”

The product was beta tested by everyone from a sports management firm to a political campaign (plus, obviously, plenty of tech companies) so Asana is aiming for a broad market, though one that’s not without serious competitors, including major players like Microsoft (s msft) and Cisco, (s csco) as well as alternatives from other startups.

Will Asana’s streamlined, task-centric approach and limited use of social be the secret sauce that makes its tool the irresistible pizza of task management rather than another worthy but unappetizing product your boss nags you to use? Check it out and let us know what you think.

Do you agree with the Asana team’s general point that excess sociability and noise makes many productivity tools hard to stick with?

Image courtesy of Asana.