In a data-driven world, going with your gut is no longer enough.
Whether you’re developing better products, designing more effective teams, or innovating new problem-solving approaches, experimentation in modern organisations is paramount. Over the past few years, work habits have undergone their most significant change in recent history. For most leaders, the knee-jerk reactions have been to make changes based on their gut or instinct, rather than by adopting a research-backed approach.
But the most effective companies are resisting these knee-jerk reactions. Instead, they are embracing experimentation to fundamentally evolve their work practices—not just incrementally improve them.
We launched The Work Innovation Lab, a think tank by Asana, to help more organisations adopt a data-driven approach to experimentation and solve their biggest challenges of today. Partnering with more than a dozen leading professors and other researchers at top universities and research centres around the world, the objective of The Work Innovation Lab is to create an interdisciplinary bridge between research and practice in ways that empower employees and companies to navigate today's dynamic work environments. Already, our experiments and research have yielded impactful results.
Rethinking the status quo through experimentation
In many organisations, the majority of work happens cross-functionally, across many departments, yet disconnected tools make cross-functional collaboration challenging and create needless silos. My own research with colleagues at Stanford has found that there’s a tension between the natural tendency for teams to optimise tools for their own specific purpose and the strong need for teams to work cross-functionally to accomplish their most important but also most complex work.
The most common response to solve cross-functional team woes is to collaborate more—like schedule and attend meetings—or invest in more collaboration tools. But more is not better, and is often worse. Fortunately, the shift to remote and hybrid work offers leaders an opportunity to hit the reset button. Yet if leaders want to change the status quo, they must think outside the box—and use data and research to do so.
Take meetings, for example. Meetings are a staple of companies today, yet are consistent time sinks, with UK workers spending almost three hours a week in unnecessary meetings. If leaders look at their calendars and see that the vast majority of their and their teams’ meetings are weekly, and for 30 minutes, something is wrong. Each meeting has a different purpose, so if most meetings are the same length and cadence, there hasn’t been enough thought put into how meetings ought to be designed to maximise productivity.
Our first body of research at The Work Innovation Lab conducted in partnership with Stanford Professor, Bob Sutton, was aimed at developing a research-backed approach to fixing meetings. We called our first experiment, ‘Meeting Doomsday. It involved all participants deleting their small (less than five people) recurring meetings from their calendars for 48 hours before they were invited to repopulate their calendars—but in a way that was going to be most valuable for them. This approach forced teams to completely rethink their meetings and rebuild calendars from the ground up.
As part of the Doomsday, meetings were shrunk, cadences were made less frequent, and some meetings were deleted permanently, saving those who participated in the experiment a whopping 11 hours per month or about three and a half work weeks per year (based on 8-hour workdays). We then ran a larger experiment, which analysed more than 1,100 meeting assessments across Asana's marketing team. Based on this experiment, we developed a model to predict low-value meetings with more than 80% accuracy, accounting for factors like the number of attendees, day of the week, and even the title of meetings.
Applying learnings to modern workplaces
Leaders often cling to their meetings like life vessels. Often they know that meetings could be improved, but they don’t recognise just how much of their valuable time is frittered away in meetings. Especially if meetings are of different lengths and cadences and involve different attendees, this can easily distort leaders’ perceptions of how much time they actually spend (or waste) in meetings.
Unfortunately, for many, the sabotage that meetings inflict on employees' productivity has only worsened in the era of remote and hybrid work. Why? Because they've become a catch-all for many other activities that were once commonplace in the office, such as water cooler chats, brainstorming sessions, and even happy hours.
Though the shift to remote and hybrid work can shoulder some of the blame, it can also be part of the solution by offering leaders an opportunity to hit the reset button on their work practices, including unproductive meetings. Most companies are overdue for an evolution in how they approach meetings. Our Meeting Doomsday is an experiment that can be replicated by any company, and we’ve designed a Fixing Meetings playbook to help all companies fix their meetings.
Experimenting with other common staples of work
We’ve conducted several other experiments and studies over the past few months at The Work Innovation Lab. For another study, we partnered with academic researchers to understand the impact of “collaborative intelligence,” or intelligence about how employees are collaborating within their organisations. What happens when you give people more information about how they are actually collaborating with their teammates? It turns out that they start to collaborate in more “healthy” ways, and begin to trigger fewer notifications or “collaborative overload” for others.
We’ve also conducted research on how executives set goals. It turns out that the goals executives think that they should set are different from the ones they actually need to set. In partnership with Sharpist, a digital leadership coaching platform, we found that executives overemphasise the importance of setting goals around strategic planning and leading through change) and underemphasise the need to set goals around areas like self-awareness and self-compassion.
We also have more than a dozen other experiments in the works. For example, we’re designing experiments around topics like data analytics and artificial intelligence. We are also studying “adaptive teaming”—how can leaders rapidly assemble teams with the exact “right” characteristics to solve a specific problem?
The time for experimentation is now
Now is a critical moment to consider where experimentation can help leaders evolve their workplace strategies to create better workplaces and enable their teams to work with more ease and efficiency.
Much of my excitement for what we are doing at The Work Innovation Lab was born out of my own experiences completing my Ph.D. As I read organisational and management theory, I was struck by how great academic research was not being meaningfully embedded in companies.
Leaders can no longer afford to rely on their gut. The only way to effectively adapt to the rapidly changing nature of work is to leverage rigorous research and adopt a human-centred approach to experimentation and change. By embracing this approach, we’re continuing to uncover actionable and impactful insights to help leaders transform their workplaces for the better.
By Dr Rebecca Hinds, Head of The Work Innovation Lab by Asana.
Experimentation Can Jolt Organisations Out Of Ineffective Habits