A couple 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.
The San Francisco company, which makes business software that helps teams collaborate on projects, was holding its semiannual Road Map Week. 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 who's 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-the-top 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 self-awareness 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 thanks to them Asana's revenue is growing by 80 percent a year. Sales reached an estimated $60-$90 million in 2017, yielding a $900 million valuation in its latest funding round.
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 network'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 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, at 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-and-break-things ethos of most startups, but the idea that those startups 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 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 under-invested in culture." (Are you taking notes, Uber?)
You don't have to buy into the value of Eastern wisdom traditions or care that 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."