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Review: Asana Project Management

Mark McElroy
Written by Mark McElroy

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are mine and mine alone; they do not represent and should not be represented as my employer’s  opinion. Further, Asana did not ask me to write this review, and I’ve received no compensation, discounts, or gifts of any kind in return for sharing my opinions or experiences.

Over the past year, I reviewed more than a dozen different task and workflow tracking solutions: signing up for trials, entering projects, creating sample reports. As it turns out, the best available task management, project management, and workflow system for me (and for my team) is the one we’ve been using for more than four years: Asana.

Team Project Management

For years, and with great success, I managed personal projects with a Mac-only solution called Things, the best personal task and project manager I’ve ever found. But for those of us whose work integrates deeply with the contributions of others, Things has one major limitation: it does not provide a way to manage shared projects.

Once I began managing a team of creatives, we realized that managing our own personal tasks wasn’t enough. Media creation projects are complex, involving many players and dependencies. Graphics provided by one person must be folded into the After Effects project created by another, which, in turn, will be folded into a video being shot and edited by another, who then must add a musical score and narration sourced by someone else.

A team like ours needs a tool allows us to draft complex plans quickly, assign owners and due dates to each task, and see the status of each step (and the entire project) at a glance. If a project stalls, we need instant insights into which projects are overdue and who is responsible for them. So far, the only system that does all these things as quickly and efficiently as we need them done is Asana.

Just Complex Enough

Asana strips away the massive overhead found in bloated project management software. (Microsoft Project, I’m talking to you!) There are no Gantt charts. There are no arcane settings. Instead, there are:

  • Teams, which consist of members. 
  • Projects, which consist of sections (but only if you want them), tasks, and (again, only if you want them), dependencies.
  • Tasks, which consist of owners, due dates, status (complete or not), comments, and (only if you want them) tags and fields.

Creating a Project

Creating a project in Asana is fast. In fact, over the course of weeks of research into alternatives, we found that Asana is the only tool that moves as quickly and nimbly as our creative team does. 

To create a project, we click the new project button (it looks like a plus sign in the middle of a circle), give the project a name, associate it with a team, and decide whether or not the project needs to be private (visible only to project members) or by everyone on our team. For us, this process takes less than fifteen seconds.

Once a project exists, we sit in our project launch meeting (or even a client meeting) and brainstorm the individual tasks we need to take to get us from where we are to where we need to be. We do this free form, using Asana to capture each task as quickly as we come up with it. 

Organizing Work

As the session progresses, we begin to see how these tasks need to be grouped: research tasks here, logistical tasks there, graphic tasks here, writing tasks there, editing tasks here, video tasks there, etc. Asana allows us to drag and drop tasks into any order we choose, grouping tasks in a way that makes sense to us.

With that done, adding labels to the groups — that is, creating section headers that make the various phases of the project evident at a glance — is as easy as typing them as tasks and ending them with a colon (which causes Asana to render them in large, bold text).

Because dragging, dropping, and editing project elements is fast and easy, we can complete complex project plans in 15 minutes or less. Once we assign owners and due dates to each task, we’re done. 

Always Up to Date

Interactions in Asana — checking off tasks that are complete, rearranging tasks into a more logical order, updating owners or due dates, or leaving comments and questions for others — happen in real time. Asana keeps all this in sync; the instant anyone makes a change, everyone else can see it. The result: if everyone invests at between five and fifteen minutes per day checking off tasks and updating progress, then everyone is always up to date, and no one is working with an outdated version of a plan.

I don’t have to call or text or otherwise interrupt someone to ask, “Is this task done yet?” or “Is this project on track?” because I can check status myself in seconds. Over days, weeks, months, and (for us) four years, that’s a lot of time and effort saved by Asana.

Focusing Attention with Inbox and My Tasks

Lists of current projects and their associated tasks will grow quickly. Rather than check each project for updates and due dates, Asana draws your attention to important changes through the Inbox and My Tasks list.

Your Inbox will bring you any comments or questions others have addressed to you, regardless of which project contains those interactions. Replies made in the Inbox are documented in the project itself — where such updates belong — and copied back to the people who care to see them. 

My Tasks presents a filtered view of all the work in Asana, surfacing only those tasks assigned to you, organized by due date or project. When you don’t care so much about context and just want to know what to do next, My Tasks is a godsend. 

Advanced Features

The development team behind Asana continues to add features. In our experience, some of these sound more useful than they turn out to be … while some really important and badly-needed features have been left up to third parties to provide … when they ought to be native to Asana.

Kanban Boards. Kanban is a workflow system that analyzes work flow, organizes each discreet step into a column, and then shifts tasks through the columns from left to right until they reach the “completed” column. It’s very visual, of course, and staff can, if they prefer, just watch their “column” to see when tasks appear there. 

Asana’s boards are an (unattractive, text-only) implementation of kanban. Frankly, if this is the way you work, you’d be better off with a competitive service called Trello (which does kanban ad only kanban).

Templates. If you do the same kinds of projects over and over again, you can save a project as a template.

For example: if we’re doing a lot of one-minute videos, we could create a “One Minute Video” template, complete with sections like Script, Shoot, Edit, and Review pre-filled with the tasks associated with each activity. If we wanted to, we could even include specific owners to these tasks, so that any project created from the template would include tasks assigned to certain people automatically. 

Templates sound great, but, in practice, we find we build most projects from scratch. 

Custom Fields. Asana supports custom fields, making it possible to add “Estimated hours needed to complete” and “Actual hours needed to complete” fields to a task in order for the owner to track how long she expects to work on a task vs. how long she actually works on a task.

You can search data entered in these fields (“Show me all tasks with an estimated work hours greater than 5”), but Asana cannot tally or perform even very basic operations on them (“Show me how many actual hours David worked last month.”). To make any of this information really useful, you’ll have to export it to Excel. 

Worse, unless you build these custom fields into templates and produce all your projects from those templates, users must remember to add the custom fields manually to any relevant tasks. I probably don’t need to tell you that that ain’t ever happening. 

To make custom fields useful, Asana needs a setting at the Team level that includes specific custom fields in every task a team creates, whether that task is created from a template or not. 

Tags and Labels. Asana supports tags and colored labels; in our experience you can invest a lot of time and effort into creating a tagging and labeling system, and then invest a lot of time and effort in maintaining that system, without getting very much benefit out of it. 

Challenges

Sometimes, you have to live in a house before you can discover what’s not quite right about it. By the same token, sometimes you have to use a project management system for a while before its limitations and issues become apparent.

Four years into using Asana every single day, here are some of the issues we’ve identified:

No Reporting. Asana has recently begun to call saved searches “reports,” but this does nothing to address Asana’s biggest, most frustrating weakness: a total lack of a reporting function.

Asana knows how many projects we have in progress, how many tasks are in those projects, and how many of those tasks are complete or incomplete. A simple search can product a text list of these.

But Asana’s value as a partner is extremely limited by the fact I can’t ask, “How many tasks were completed this week?” or “How many projects have we completed this year?” or “How many projects did we complete for Client A in 2017?” 

There are third-party solutions that try to compensate for this deficit. (In my opinion, none of them provide functionality worth paying for.) And there are ways to export Asana’s data into Excel, where, if you’re willing to invest several hours poking around at figures and formulas, you can gain some insights.

That said: we think it’s well past time for the Asana team to make the data we enter into the system more accessible and easier to review. Asana will never realize its full potential until it offers flexible, powerful native reporting. 

No Resource Intelligence. With Asana, it’s easy for me to assign work to any member of my team: I just click a task and click that person’s name. But how available is that person? How many other tasks is he or she carrying? How over-booked is he or she during that time? Of all the hours he or she has available, how many of those are available for this task this week? 

We think Asana should be able to know that Team Member X is overbooked — and help us identify better choices for taking on new work. 

Visual Clutter. When my team was the only team using Asana, the long list of projects displayed in the left-hand sidebar contained only projects we were working on. Now that other teams have adopted the tool, many of their projects appear in that sidebar as well.

You can click a triangular control to collapse the lists belonging to other teams, but your choices won’t persist from session to session. We think we should have a finer degree of control over exactly what we see in the left-hand project bar, and we think Asana should remember and honor those choices each time we sign in.

Limitations on Guests. Every day, we work with people who don’t use Asana. The program offers a feature — guests — that offers “view only” access to project plans at no additional charge.

This works pretty well, as long as your guests are willing to sign up for Asana with an email address-based account of their own. (It doesn’t work well, by the way, if your guests have email addresses on the same domain as yours. Asana will see these as additional members of your company and, when they sign in, they will take up one of the seats you’re paying for. If your plan limits the number of seats available, this becomes a problem very quickly.) 

We think we should be able to share a simple URL that allows anyone to see a project plan without that person having to create an Asana account. We think our internal clients should be able to use that URL to monitor our progress on their projects without taking up a paid seat.

No Request Forms. If everyone in your organization uses Asana, you could use the system to create templates for work request forms, and use Asana to manage projects from request to delivery.

But if you work with clients who don’t use Asana, there’s no way for them to access or fill out the forms you create. You’ll have to come up with some other way to offer and ingest work requests — an inefficiency we think Asana should address.

No Awareness of Archives. When a project is completed in Asana, you can archive it, and that project will disappear from the left-hand projects and tasks pane. But what if you want to revisit a list of archived projects? Shouldn’t you be able to search those archives?

We think so — but Asana doesn’t. Despite the fact that projects can be marked “archived,” there’s no way to search archived projects only. 

No Simple Search for Overdue Items. Since every task in every project has a due date, we think we should be able to do a simple search for overdue items: “Asana, show me every task in every project assigned to my team that is overdue right now.” 

It’s bizarre that Asana can’t do this. We can search on complete vs. incomplete tasks, but not overdue tasks. 

Speed. As Asana fills up with projects and tasks, the system gets slower and slower. It’s still usable, but with 40 people tracking dozens of projects and hundreds of tasks at once, we’ve seen notable declines in responsiveness — particularly when using searches.

Still the Best

Despite these (pretty severe, in some cases) limitations, Asana remains the best shared project management system for teams. (Which, we think, tells you something important about the state of shared project management solutions in general.)

We should note that we’re aware there are some solutions out there — Workfront comes to mind — that offer a lot of the functionality we’d like to have. Unfortunately, these solutions either:

a) come at such a high price, we’d never be able to justify the purchase, or

b) come with so much additional overhead — features and options we’ll never use — that acquiring them would be the equivalent of renting a castle when a banquet room would do. 

For us, for now, we get by okay with Asana (plus a few home-brewed spreadsheets for tracking time and resource availability). If your needs are fairly modest and your teams are fairly small, Asana can be a very good option for breaking down large projects into tasks, assigning due dates and people to those tasks, and getting things done more efficiently. 

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Mark McElroy

Mark McElroy

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