by Justin Rosenstein
October 27th, 2011
When I walk through a beautiful building, the first thing I experience is the emotional effect of the finished product: a sense of grandeur, or a feeling warmth. But my appreciation grows deeper when I consider how the building was made, to look at every brick or every bolt placed one by one by a person, and then to imagine the architects and designers, who must have thought and debated and iterated on each piece, from the largest design decisions to the smallest details. It’s humbling to stand there, physically held by the fruit of their collective labor.
Lao-Tzu observed that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. But the journey is the million steps that follow, and the experience that emerges along the way. That’s how great things are built as well: from skyscrapers to software, from cinema to cities, greatness happens one step at a time. These steps are the “tasks”, the atomic units of work, the building blocks of all effort.
Breaking down ambitious goals into small pieces, assigning ownership of those tasks, and tracking them to completion is how creation happens. The tasks may be complex, interdependent, and involve passionate conversation among many contributors. Their coordination is crucial to the success of a project’s vision.
Everyone knows this and yet, astoundingly, most teams don’t yet have a unified, trusted record of what they have to do. There are project management apps galore, and “enterprise-grade collaboration platforms” are big business, but none of them are good enough at addressing teams’ real-life needs; almost no one’s using them to drive hour-to-hour work (even when they’re paying for them).
Some companies have felt the need for a centralized internal task list so acutely that they’ve built them in-house: Apple has their legendary Radar system, Facebook their collaborative “Tasks” tracker that Dustin and I had the privilege of helping to design and prototype. But in general, good tools for staying in sync just haven’t been built and made available to the world. Teams are getting by on a hodge-podge of email, spreadsheets, physical notebooks, and untracked verbal commitments. And the important conversations and files about those tasks are spread out, disconnected, and out of context.
We see this as the fundamental challenge to the rising productivity of teams. Working together in concert more smoothly not only helps us move more quickly; it changes the nature of what we can undertake. When we have the confidence that we can orchestrate the group effort required to realize them, we dare bigger dreams.