Two Face­book Alums Seek a New Cor­po­rate Zen


Acou­ple of years ago, Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder and CEO of Asana, opened a meet­ing in a way that, at most com­pa­nies, would have come across as down­right pas­sive-ag­gres­sive.

It was Road Map Week, a semi­an­nual event at the San Fran­cisco com­pany, which makes busi­ness soft­ware that helps teams col­lab­o­rate on projects. Dur­ing that time, all op­er­a­tions pause for five days of re­flec­tion, as­sess­ment, and plan­ning. One of the many Road Map Week ses­sions was about the struc­ture of fu­ture Road Map Weeks; the sales and prod­uct teams had con­flict­ing ideas about how they should run. Moskovitz, a low-key bil­lion­aire with bushy hair and usu­ally seen sport­ing a check­ered shirt, kicked off the dis­cus­sion by ex­plain­ing ex­actly how he would like to see the con­flict re­solved. Then he ex­cused him­self and left the room. Thirty min­utes later, Moskovitz was sum­moned. The ver­dict: His pro­posed so­lu­tion had been po­litely dis­missed. The staff had come up with a bet­ter one.

Moskovitz couldn’t have been more pleased. By re­ject­ing his sug­ges­tion, his em­ploy­ees demon­strated one of the cen­tral tenets of Asana, both the com­pany and the soft­ware it makes: The boss isn’t al­ways right, even if he’s al­ways the boss. Lots of com­pa­nies pay lip ser­vice to this no­tion; Asana has in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized it and ren­dered it as com­puter code. Asana means it—so much that Moskovitz will walk out of a meet­ing, as he did that day in 2016, rather than risk in­flu­enc­ing the out­come with his two cents. “Even if you tell them it’s their call, know­ing what the CEO thinks can feel equiv­a­lent to a di­rect or­der,” he says. “In this case, I had made some of the orig­i­nal de­ci­sions my­self, giv­ing them ex­tra in­er­tia, so I wanted to cre­ate a con­tainer where the team felt free to go their own way.”

For all the trendy crea­ture com­forts Asana of­fers—yoga classes, kom­bucha on tap, three free and de­li­cious or­ganic meals a day, un­lim­ited va­ca­tion and gen­er­ous fam­ily leave—the over-thetop perks are not nec­es­sar­ily what bring peo­ple here, nor do they ex­plain why the 300-em­ployee Asana is one of the hap­pi­est work­places around. More of­ten, it’s the op­por­tu­nity to wield re­spon­si­bil­ity in a way that’s hard to find else­where. From the be­gin­ning, Asana’s two founders, Moskovitz and Justin Rosen­stein, set out to build a cul­ture un­like any other, one where job ti­tles are mal­leable, trans­parency is ab­so­lute, fail­ure is met with Zen calm, and the only qual­i­fi­ca­tions are self­aware­ness and cu­rios­ity.

In do­ing so, they also built a jug­ger­naut. Asana com­petes in a crowded space. Its soft­ware en­ables mem­bers of teams to break up com­pli­cated projects into dis­crete tasks, as­sign and sched­ule each one, and track their progress, while in­te­grat­ing the whole with email, cal­en­dars, and other ap­pli­ca­tions. Ri­vals like Trello and Base­camp boast many of the same ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but 35,000 pay­ing com­pa­nies pre­fer Asana’s ver­sion, and that fig­ure is grow­ing by 80 per­cent a year. Sales reached an es­ti­mated $60 mil­lion to $90 mil­lion in 2017.

Sounds oh-so-very Sil­i­con Val­ley, doesn’t it? Yet Asana was born as a rem­edy to the New Age man­age­ment style so preva­lent in tech’s cap­i­tal. In the mid-2000s, Rosen­stein was a prod­uct man­ager at Google, where his work in­cluded the ini­tial idea and pro­to­type for Gchat. In the spirit of the free­think­ing and egal­i­tar­i­an­ism that char­ac­ter­ized Google then, big de­ci­sions were ex­pected to be con­sen­sus-driven rather than dic­tated by some top-down hi­er­ar­chy. “A liv­ing hell,” says Rosen­stein, who re­calls the or­deal of get­ting a green light this way. “There were so many peo­ple who could say no, and there was no good pro­to­col for who could say yes.”

In 2007, Rosen­stein left Google for Face­book, where he helped come up with one of the fledg­ling so­cial net-

work’s sig­na­ture innovations, the Like but­ton, while work­ing un­der Moskovitz, one of the com­pany’s ear­li­est em­ploy­ees by virtue of his hav­ing been Mark Zucker­berg’s col­lege room­mate. As Face­book’s head of en­gi­neer­ing, Moskovitz over­saw a team that was grow­ing as fast as it could fill empty Aeron chairs with coders. Keep­ing track of who was work­ing on what be­came more dif­fi­cult.

Rosen­stein vol­un­teered to help, and the two hacked to­gether an in­ter­nal tool called Tasks, which broke down projects into pieces and made them easy to track. Tasks was such a hit that Rosen­stein was asked to set aside other as­sign­ments and build it out.

As they got to know each other, Moskovitz and Rosen­stein dis­cov­ered they were both se­ri­ous prac­ti­tion­ers of med­i­ta­tion and yoga. ( Asana is a Hindi word mean­ing “pose,” as in yoga.) In­de­pen­dently, each had found that the em­brace of East­ern wis­dom tra­di­tions like Bud­dhism and Tao­ism brought not just feel­ings of well-be­ing but also height­ened pro­duc­tiv­ity. Why, they won­dered, weren’t com­pa­nies har­ness­ing that to make their em­ploy­ees’ work eas­ier? “There are thou­sands of years of tra­di­tion that has been demon­strated to work re­ally well for im­prov­ing your ef­fec­tive­ness and state of mind, but his­tor­i­cally, that just hasn’t been ap­plied at an or­ga­ni­za­tional level,” Rosen­stein says. But it could be. “The prin­ci­ples work just as well as you scale up as they do at the in­di­vid­ual level.”

In 2008, Moskovitz and Rosen­stein left Face­book to start a com­pany whose prod­uct would al­low teams to work to­gether more suc­cess­fully, elim­i­nat­ing much of the “work

about work” that had dogged Moskovitz at Face­book. In their first week as a two-per­son startup, they ac­com­plished two things: They wrote a sim­ple ver­sion of the Asana code base, and they com­piled a list of the val­ues the com­pany would em­body. Such an ex­er­cise might seem self-in­dul­gent for a two-per­son com­pany with­out a prod­uct, but Rosen­stein says the val­ues list was the key to ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened since: “It’s al­ways been very coun­ter­in­tu­itive and strange to me that peo­ple think, ‘Oh, cul­ture— that’s the thing we could put on the back burner.’ Cul­ture’s the sum to­tal of all the in­ter­ac­tions you have as an or­ga­ni­za­tion. Even if we were just cut­throat busi­ness peo­ple, it would still be the ra­tio­nal thing to do.”

One of those val­ues, clar­ity, is at the core of how Asana func­tions both as a prod­uct and as a com­pany. In the prod­uct, ev­ery task can be as­signed to only one per­son and car­ries a spec­i­fied com­ple­tion time. Sim­i­larly, within the com­pany, ev­ery piece of work re­quir­ing a de­ci­sion falls within an area of re­spon­si­bil­ity, or AOR, and is as­signed to an in­di­vid­ual AOR holder. Ar­eas of re­spon­si­bil­ity are as­signed on the ba­sis of ex­per­tise, not se­nior­ity. There’s no find­ing con­sen­sus or run­ning ideas up the flag­pole to see what might fly; while AOR hold­ers are en­cour­aged to so­licit other opin­ions and ar­gu­ments in al­most all cases, the de­ci­sions they is­sue are fi­nal. Ev­ery­one is the CEO within his or her own sphere of in­flu­ence. “Some­times, we call it dis­trib­uted dic­ta­tor­ship,” says Rosen­stein.

The AOR sys­tem re­quires other val­ues to get the best re­sults. One is au­then­tic­ity, de­fined at Asana as “be­ing able to speak hard truths.” To help em­ploy­ees get over their learned habits of play­ing safe and mak­ing nice, Asana sends them to a two- day train­ing pro­gram of­fered by the Con­scious Lead­er­ship Group. “They get to lit­er­ally prac­tice speak­ing un­com­fort­able truths in a way that’s both blunt and com­pas­sion­ate,” Rosen­stein says. Al­most all in­for­ma­tion about who’s work­ing on what is vis­i­ble to ev­ery­one.

In Zen Bud­dhism, med­i­tat­ing on para­doxes is a way of get­ting the mind to re­lax and let go of what it thinks it knows. That’s how Asana en­cour­ages peo­ple to ap­proach prob­lems. Get­ting hung up on false di­chotomies of­ten leads to com­pa­nies’ ac­cept­ing trade­offs they don’t need to ac­cept, says Rosen­stein.

Asana’s high­est value, mind­ful­ness, is ripped straight from Bud­dhism 101. Mind­ful­ness is the abil­ity “to be aware of what’s go­ing on, to be able to re­flect on and learn from our mis­takes, and to be able to make con­scious de­ci­sions go­ing for­ward about how we want to op­er­ate,” says Rosen­stein. Road Map Week is one way the com­pany “in­sti­tu­tion­al­izes” mind­ful­ness. It’s the mas­ter value be­cause, in such a large cul­tural ex­per­i­ment, mind­ful­ness is what lets the com­pany see when a novel hy­poth­e­sis isn’t prov­ing out as ex­pected.

Asana’s con­spic­u­ously thought­ful at­mos­phere might seem like tor­por com­pared with the move-fast-and­break-things ethos of most star­tups, but the idea that the lat­ter are in fact mov­ing faster is ex­actly the sort of false di­chotomy Rosen­stein is al­ways look­ing to re­fute. “Peo­ple who are start­ing com­pa­nies, they’re like, ‘We don’t have time to mind­fully re­flect on where we’re go­ing, be­cause we’re too busy do­ing the thing,’ ” he says. But when you’re blaz­ing new trails, the trav­eler who checks his or her com­pass of­ten will al­most al­ways end up tak­ing a more di­rect route. “We’ve seen the ex­treme cases of com­pa­nies that com­pletely un­ravel at some point be­cause they’ve un­der­in­vested in cul­ture.” (Are you tak­ing notes, Uber?) You don’t have to buy into the value of East­ern wis­dom tra­di­tions or care too much about em­ploy­ees’ emo­tional well-be­ing to think there’s some­thing to the Asana way. Rosen­stein and Moskovitz are happy to stake the com­pany’s re­sults as proof. “Over time, more and more com­pa­nies will just start to look this way and it won’t seem un­usual,” Rosen­stein says. “Peo­ple will dis­cover that it’s just more ef­fec­tive.”

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