Today, most people, even those who have their own material needs satisfied, default to the search for personal wealth and power, which is in turn celebrated by the society.Businesses are typically judged, internally and externally, only for fiscal growth. But economic value does not always correlate with human value (indeed, in many scenarios it correlates negatively). If I could inspire a movement, it would be a worldwide shift in consciousness from identifying with the interests of our individual selves, to identifying with the interests of life as a whole–a shift from “me” to “we,” or “me+we.” A shift from only being content with our own well-being to taking full responsibility for the shared wellness of all. A shift in business from seeing profit not as an ends in itself, but as a tool within the existing capitalist framework for accomplishing world-positive change. And a shift from a spirit of competition to a spirit of cooperation, in which organizations and nations see themselves as part of one team with a shared purpose and shared long-term interests. With care, mindfulness, humility, and determination, I believe that teams can transform our world, one step at a time, toward increasing abundance, harmony, sustainability, wisdom, beauty and love.
Justin Rosenstein is the co-founder of Asana, the fast-growing work tracking app for teams. Asana’s mission is to help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly. He’s also a featured author in Wavelength, an online publication for teams who aspire to do great things together — through a mindful, purposeful approach. Justin has driven the development of products that billions of people use daily. At Facebook, he co-invented features such as the Like Button and Facebook Pages. At Google, he managed several products in the communication/collaboration division including Google Drive, and helped create GChat. At Asana, he’s helped build one of the fastest-growing SaaS companies, most recently valued at $900M in Series D funding led by Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management. Justin majored in Math and got part way through a Master’s in Computer Science at Stanford. He is a devoted student of yoga, meditation, and cats.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I started designing and programming software when I was 10 years old. Even back then, I was fascinated by the idea that I could possibly make people’s lives easier by giving instructions to an inanimate box. This fascination continued throughout college, and led me to my first job at Google, and then to Facebook. While at these companies I
co-invented a number of products including GChat, Google Drive, Facebook Pages, and the “Like” button.
But the whole time I was working, I felt frustrated by how much time was spent not on building great products, but on coordinating with my teammates: emailing, meeting, writing status updates, all this “work about work” just to stay on the same page.
Facebook’s co-founder Dustin Moskovitz was feeling the same pain as he struggled to efficiently manage Facebook’s growing engineering team. So the two of us hacked together an internal tool at Facebook, called Tasks, designed to break down projects into pieces and make them easy to track. The tool quickly became the backbone of how Facebook coordinated work.
We soon realized that every team in the world has this problem — how do you maintain clarity on who’s responsible for what? — and that solving it could have a huge impact on every organization’s ability to accomplish its goals. We left Facebook in 2008 to start Asana, which is now the fastest-growing major work management app in the world.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
This may sound corny, but for me, by far the most interesting stories are the stories I hear about how people are using Asana to do great things. I once met the CEO of the Whale and Dolphin Conservatory who told me that, because of the way Asana has accelerated their ability to coordinate the team’s efforts, “there are whales and dolphins alive today who wouldn’t be if not for Asana.” Enterprise-software-saves-whales sounds like a joke headline, but tools have always been essential to humans’ abilities to accomplish more. As a toolmaker, I’m most inspired by how real people use the tools we make.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A few months into my career at Facebook, my manager discovered I was perhaps not the most popular person on the team. After asking around the office, the reason became pretty clear, and he sat me down, saying “I have some bad news. You’re an ashhole.”
I can’t say I laughed at the time, but this is pretty funny in retrospect.
This was not an easy pill to swallow, but fortunately my manager was determined to see me succeed. He collected more specific feedback (good, bad, and ugly) from my colleagues, typed it up, printed it out, and asked me to go through each line in detail to identify themes. We then built an action plan and, with his help, I successfully tackled each theme, one by one. Six months later, these same colleagues said they felt like they were working with a completely different (i.e. non-asshole) person.
That experience marked a major turning point in my career and my life, fundamentally changing the way I relate to others and even myself. It’s amazing how effective direct feedback, coaching, and mentorship can be.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
Over time — as strategies shift, plans change, and teams grow — teams tend to become confused about who is doing what and by when. In an effort to cut through the chaos and confusion, people resort to endless emails, chat threads, status meetings, and other “work about work,” but are still stuck re-assessing what needs to get done every day. I’ve seen this happen at even the best run companies.
Moving teams from confusion to clarity is one of the most vital functions of leadership. We built Asana for this very purpose, to dynamically track a plan within a team. But if your team can get by with a big whiteboard in the middle of the office, that works too. The important thing is that everyone has easy access to an accurate “source of truth” on the team’s current plan.
We’ve found this kind of clarity improves our team’s ability to execute projects and change direction more confidently. It also increases people’s job satisfaction, reducing confusion and drama and giving everyone confidence that what they’re doing is important work, because they can see why it matters to the success of the company’s mission.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
When you’re on a small team and you sit next to your employees every day, it’s easy to give them the benefit of the doubt. If someone slips a deadline, but you saw them burning the midnight oil the night before, you tend to cut them some slack for trying.
But as companies grow, especially to different time zones, it’s easy to develop an “us vs. them” mentality. Every mistake “we” make on this team, or on that project, is because of unforeseeable problems, while every mistake “they” make on other teams or projects is because “they” didn’t care enough.
I’ve found two solutions that prevent this from happening. The first is face time — ensuring that people get the opportunity, at least a couple times a year, to bond in person with their global teammates. The second is context — creating protocols that ensure that everyone has enough information to be able to understand and empathize with the challenges each team faces (while simultaneously holding each other to high standards of excellence).
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Treat your culture as a product, and a product that is just as important as the one your company delivers to customers.
Your company’s culture is the sum total of all of the interactions that people have in your organization — from processes and business workflows, to compensation and reward systems, to how people treat each other in meetings. But great cultures don’t just magically happen. Like building great products, building great cultures requires consciously designing each of its features, carefully implementing them, monitoring for bugs and continuously improving.
In order to find these bugs and identify what needs to be improved, you need channels for open and honest communication. Every person — up to an including every intern — at your company should feel confident that speaking up would be met with praise for their honesty — the opposite of a “shoot the messenger” culture. At Asana, at regular intervals we anonymously survey everyone in the company about how we’re performing along a variety of variables. We use the resulting data to prioritize company-wide and team-wide lists of culture bugs, then assign owners to systematically fix those problems.
We’ve found this mindful approach to continuously improving our culture creates an environment in which our teammates can thrive.
(Here’s a talk I gave for a full discussion of how to do this.)
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
I strongly agree with this observation. It’s really a manager’s responsibility to ensure that everyone on their team feels seen, heard, and valued, and is given opportunities to
grow and do their best work. And that starts with actually caring about each employee as a human being, not just as an employee. As a person with feelings and dreams and a life outside of work, not just a cog in the machine whose efficiency you’re trying to maximize.
I make a conscious effort to ask lots of questions of my teammates — about their personal ambitions, their frustrations, their desires to learn new skills, what they’re proud of, what they’re confused by — and then to deeply listen to their answers. I listen for intellectual content, but I also work to empathize with their feelings.
I try to allocate each employee to projects that most align with the things that interest them — projects that will challenge them given their current skill level, without overwhelming them. And I work with each person to coach them in the areas they need to grow. Indeed, I see coaching as the primary responsibility of a manager. Rather than focusing on telling people what to do, grading their performance, or even giving reports on how to do their jobs better, coaching is about teaching your employees how to teach themselves to do their jobs better, through Socratic dialogue, blunt loving feedback, and setting audacious goals.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
1. How to inspire with mission and vision
Whether you’re managing a small team or a giant enterprise, it’s critical that everyone on the team understands why they’re doing the work they’re doing.
How will the world look different — how will people’s lives be better — if we succeed?
In order to make it 100% clear, we spent many hours to crystalize our mission down to 11 words — “Help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly.” More recently, we spent many weeks to produce a vision video so that everyone at Asana exactly what we’re aiming to build and why.
2. How to clarify your plan
With clarity of mission and vision, the team knows the destination. With clarity of plan, the team knows how to get there.
Complex missions get translated into action as a series of increasingly detailed plans. Based on your mission, you define a strategy, a succinct explanation of the high-level approach you’re taking to achieve the mission. From your strategy, comes objectives, medium-term (e.g. one year) goals for achieving the strategy. From your objectives comes key results, shorter-term measurable (e.g. one quarter) goals. From there you get projects, and ultimately the individual tasks that each team member is responsible for completing.
3. The way of mindfulness
The default state of both individuals and teams seems to be one of reactivity, of just continuing to operate today roughly the same way you operated yesterday.
Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention and being able to make choices consciously rather than reflexively. It involves being honest with yourself about what’s going on in the moment, reflecting and learning from the past, and proactively deciding what you want to do going forward.
Often from the outside you’ll look at a company or team that falls apart and ask “how could they have been so stupid?” Often the case is that on any given day, doing the thing they did the day before made sense. It was the sum of these “autopilot” decisions that resulted in eventually driving off course. Mindfulness enables a team to notice they’re going in the wrong direction, and then course correct.
One way we apply this at Asana is a process called Roadmap Week, where every 6 months each team takes a whole week to reflect on what’s going well and what’s going poorly, evaluate the possible strategic directions we could take, and consciously choose among them.
4. How to empower teammates
On a traditional team, the manager calls the shots, and employees often feel like cogs in a machine. Not only is this extremely demotivating, but it also fails to harness the skills and creativity of everyone on the team. Rather than telling people exactly how to do their jobs and calling all the shots, great leaders will articulate a vision, goals, and clear definitions of success, and then empower people on their team to make most of the decisions about how to achieve that success. This requires a high degree of trust in the people you’ve hired.
As a result, the primary role of managers at Asana is to coach and empower team members, rather than telling them what to do. If we drew an org chart, instead of having the CEO on top, we’d have the CEO on the bottom: it’s like a tree, where individual contributors are the fruit — the people doing the work — and managers are supporting branches.
5. How to create a culture of candor.
The free flow of information is critical for any team trying to do great things. Often the most important information to share is about what’s not going well, and about how teammates can improve their performance. Even on healthy teams, it can feel awkward to share this kind of feedback bluntly. But on many teams, it can be dangerous to one’s career: all too often, managers shoot the messenger when teammates offer legitimate criticisms of their decisions.
Great leaders publicly praise teammates who offer helpful insights and feedback, even or especially when they disagree with the leader’s original perspective. At Asana, new employees take a 2-day training on “Conscious Leadership,” that includes learning and practicing how to offer feedback in a way that’s direct but respectful and caring.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Today, most people, even those who have their own material needs satisfied, default to the search for personal wealth and power, which is in turn celebrated by the society.
Businesses are typically judged, internally and externally, only for fiscal growth. But economic value does not always correlate with human value (indeed, in many scenarios it correlates negatively).
If I could inspire a movement, it would be a worldwide shift in consciousness from identifying with the interests of our individual selves, to identifying with the interests of life as a whole–a shift from “me” to “we,” or “me+we.” A shift from only being content with our own well-being to taking full responsibility for the shared wellness of all. A shift in business from seeing profit not as an ends in itself, but as a tool within the existing capitalist framework for accomplishing world-positive change. And a shift from a spirit of competition to a spirit of cooperation, in which organizations and nations see themselves as part of one team with a shared purpose and shared long-term interests. With care, mindfulness, humility, and determination, I believe that teams can transform our world, one step at a time, toward increasing abundance, harmony, sustainability, wisdom, beauty and love.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“This is the true joy in life: the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” — George Bernard Shaw
I want to devote my life as much as possible to being useful to the world. And I want to do so enthusiastically — giving my all not to causes that just feel good or projects that keep me in a safe zone, but to the work that will best contribute to a beautiful, just, and ultimately thriving world. This quote for me captures that energy, while also reminding me to constantly unearth and eradicate any biases or “selfish little ailments,” so I can be the best steward possible of this torch before “handing it to future generations.”