Building mindfulness into the Asana culture
Above all else, mindfulness is the value that most contributes to making Asana a great company. When reflecting as a team, we’re drawn again and again to the ways that it manifests positively in our culture — it underlies the honesty and regularity with which we iterate on our processes, the equanimity we bring to our communication, and our ability to proactively shape a culture that is built to last. These, in turn, empower us to make better decisions, run the company more efficiently, and craft an environment that attracts and retains great people.
“Doesn’t it make sense to look around a bit from time to time so that you are more in touch with what is happening now, so that you can take your inner and outer bearings and perceive with clarity the path that you are actually on and the direction in which you are going?” — Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
Conversely, when hearing about problems here or at other companies, I can often find a way to reframe them as a lack of mindfulness. If you have ever worked with a team that liked to refer to themselves as “dysfunctional,” then there is a good chance you were actually experiencing such a deficit. It may manifest in the form of underdeveloped review practices, insufficient mentorship for new employees and managers, not listening to feedback from customers, etc. To be clear, you can still make mindful decisions that turn out poorly, or build a mindful company that ultimately fails, but mindfulness will help you avoid many kinds of mistakes. At the very least, you’ll have a much better chance of understanding why things went wrong in the end.
In our culture, we’re deliberate about our choices and thoughtful about their consequences, and we discuss both openly. Though this practice can occasionally lead to conservative thinking as objections are raised, it more often has the opposite effect, empowering us to be aggressive and take risks in a safe way. Mindfulness does not mean that you need to resolve every concern, but rather that you seek to be aware of as many potential issues as possible so that you can make an explicit decision about whether you want to do something about them. Once a decision has been made, we also have a lot of confidence that choices resulting in unacceptable outcomes will be surfaced and reconsidered, because we have so many structures in place that aim to do exactly that. Thus, in much the same way that process can help provide a safe environment for autonomy (by ensuring certain things get done even among varying forms of internal organization), mindfulness can make your culture feel more comfortable with experimentation and iteration.
Mindfulness does not mean that you need to resolve every concern, but rather that you seek to be aware of as many potential issues as possible so that you can make an explicit decision about whether you want to do something about them.
A mindfulness-based culture has many benefits, but how do you make it happen? Though most people know that meditation is a big part of creating mindfulness in their personal life (it is more or less “practicing awareness”), that isn’t what we’re talking about here. A group meditation session with your team is neither necessary to manifest it, nor nearly sufficient. To create a mindful workplace, you have to make it a palpable subject within the culture and coach your employees, establish channels for open communication and feedback, and institutionalize regular processes that give the team a chance to integrate what they’ve heard and learned. Though these activities take considerable time, in our experience the benefits derived have always been worth the investment.
The quality of the environment is predominately defined by the people within it, so everything starts with hiring. At Asana, we seek people who embody Equanimity or at least have a wish to learn to do so. We don’t explicitly test for this in interviews, but the presence of a big ego in those conversations is nonetheless hard to miss. Moreover, we go out of our way to broadcast this part of our culture (for instance, this post) so that like-minded people will seek us out. Mindfulness and Equanimity are both part of our official values list, and we talk about them regularly in discussions with potential candidates and the press.
After someone joins the team, they are regularly reminded of our intentions to build a mindfulness culture and coached on how to participate:
- In onboarding, we recommend the book Nonviolent Communication to all of our new hires (and keep it stocked on the bookshelf), which teaches you about active listening and effective patterns for navigating tense conversations. Even though not every asana has read the book, enough have that the lessons get propagated throughout the team and learned via osmosis.
- Within your first year, you’ll be given an opportunity to attend a workshop with your team led by the very impressive Conscious Leadership Forum. They equip our team with concrete tools to facilitate identifying our internal emotional states and to approach conflict from a place of curiosity rather than anxiety or fear.
- We provide external coaches to anyone who would like to work with one, a practice usually reserved for executives at other companies.
Each of those elements helps to empower members of our team to communicate well and stay cognizant of stumbling blocks that may interfere with their ability to collaborate with their peers. They also give us a shared framework and language to use when we need to communicate about how we’re communicating. For example, many asanas will sometimes start a conversation by saying something like “I’m feeling low-energy this morning”, so that the other people in a conversation can view their words and body language through that lens (or consider rescheduling the meeting altogether if that seems warranted). Very self-aware ones will even offer statements like “I think we should prioritize this feature next, but I know I’m attached to the idea and that’s inhibiting me from giving the alternatives fair consideration.” Because we have this transparency and shared understanding, people feel comfortable talking about important issues and have confidence that the people listening are doing their best to truly hear them. With that trust in place, you have a much better shot at making sure that the team collectively is aware of everything that is important to making the business successful.
In addition to helping develop proficiency around mindfulness, these activities serve as a continual re-affirmation of our desire to have it be present at all. As with any value, it’s critical that people in your company talk about mindfulness early and often for it to be manifested. Creating attention and mindshare around it is more important than following any particular practice and you don’t have to look very far to find a myriad of paths:
- Google pioneered the well-known Search Inside Yourself program and made it available to other companies. They also encourage some of their teams to start their standing meetings with short meditations to ensure they approach communication from a centered place.
- Peter Deng from Facebook practices intentional language and cleverly co-opts conference room names to be cultural reminders. For example, you might have a 1:1 in “This Moment.”
- Evan Williams is using the Holacracy system at Medium to make sure issues regularly surface in a container explicitly designed to make them safe. Additionally, he set aside a clear space in the office where people can meditate if they would like to, alone or in groups: “You can’t force people to be mindful at all, as it turns out. I think you can make it easier to be mindful… If it’s on your calendar, and there’s a room over there to sit in, and there’s someone there to guide you, you’re 10,000 times more likely to do it.” Physical space, an expectation that time can be usefully spent this way, and guidance all catalyze mindfulness.
Most product companies understand the need to clearly hear feedback from customers and a variety of best practices exist to ensure they do: answering support requests, communicating via social media, leveraging account managers, going on-site, etc. This same attitude needs to apply internally if you want to build a great company. A good starting place is having periodic 360 feedback cycles, interspersed with regular manager 1:1s that focus on feedback and coaching in addition to planning.
At Asana, we use our own platform as a primary tool to go deeper on this skill. One of my favorite channels is a project simply named “Asana Opportunities,” where anyone can file a suggestion for an improvement to the company and host a discussion around it (we modeled this project after “Product Opportunities,” where anyone can file a suggestion related to improving the product). Asana Opps are often proposals for process iteration or ideas for how to communicate better internally. In fact, the very first one is the suggestion to start the list itself. We don’t act on all these suggestions, but we pay attention to the ones that are the most popular and try to make them happen. More generally, we use Asana whenever we want people to be able to easily opt in to a longer discussion, e.g. around interesting articles or meeting notes.
Internal surveys complement our practices in Asana by giving us a way to solicit specific information. Many individual teams use them to quantify specific questions such as “does the company understand what the growth team is working on and how to offer new ideas?” Each episode, we send a high-level survey that attempts to understand as much as possible about what currently does and doesn’t work well in the company. It’s optional, but we usually get around 50-60% participation, and receive remarkably thoughtful answers. Questions like What went well during the past episode? What went less well? What has been your most exciting moment since joining? What is the biggest drain on your energy? help ensure that everything is out in the open. The answers are public and we use an Asana project to collaboratively extract highlights and heart the ideas that most resonate. Afterwards, most importantly, we discuss the top items from each category as a group.
Reflection → Response
Feedback is great data, but you have to take action around what you hear before it will actually make a difference. In general, we try not to do anything important without setting aside some time after to think about it how it went and record action items for the future. Several product teams have institutionalized reviews after each sprint of work to ensure this happens at regular intervals. Similarly, after any big event (product launches, special weeks like Polish Week, the holiday party, etc), the organizers will typically get together to debrief and catalog what worked and didn’t work leading up to it and during (again, surveys can be a nice supplement to this process). The next time we repeat that event is guaranteed to be an improvement, since we’ll get a chance to build on what worked and refine the parts that needed iteration.
We try not to do anything important without setting aside some time after to think about it how it went and record action items for the future.
Reflection is particularly important when things go seriously wrong, which is why we run a 5whys processes whenever we have a product availability interruption, a high severity bug, or fail on an important goal. In short, this means continuing to ask the question “Why” about the causes of a problem until you get to a true root cause, usually in the form of a process failure. When these conversations go well, they epitomize the idea of exploring an issue from a place of curiosity and avoid the temptation to just find an appropriate person to blame. Once you get to a root cause, you can then evaluate each stage of questioning for opportunities to make a proportional investment to fix problems. Since we run this process using the Asana product, we record those opportunities directly as actionable tasks, which are then prioritized and added to the schedule.
In addition to our ongoing opportunities to reflect, we also have one special process dedicated to the idea: Roadmap Week. Every episode (which is ~4 months long), everyone puts aside their core work and focuses on reflection and planning. The discussion around the above-mentioned episode survey happens immediately prior to RMW so that it can be used as an input to discussion. Often, we’ll decide to have a new committee focused on one of the ideas surfaced. For example, we had a committee focused on discussing our Areas of Responsibility program during the E11 RMW, since a few people mentioned there wasn’t sufficient clarity on how it is supposed to work. Additionally, each of the standing committees start their meetings by reflecting on the prior episode of work, gauranteeing that our planning is grounded in the recent reality.
Following Roadmap Week, we create our goals for the new episodes. At Asana, we have both company wide Key Results (the “KR” in Intel’s OKR methodology) and Personal Individual Goals (PIGs™). Between the episode survey, Roadmap Week, and other forms of reflection, we are able to define these goals from a state of maximum awareness and have a much better chance of aligning them around the most important problems and opportunities. Those activities benefit us precisely by grounding our planning in the current reality. In other words, because we have just taken our inner and outer bearings, we can confidently set out on a new path.
Between the episode survey, Roadmap Week, and other forms of reflection, we are able to define these goals from a state of maximum awareness and have a much better chance of aligning them around the most important problems and opportunities.
All asanas are encouraged to feel like as much of a co-creator in the way we do our work as in the work itself. We seek to build an environment in which people love to work and to produce a product that helps other teams do the same. These are our practices, our values, our way. By sharing them, we hope to help others as they think about the companies they wish to build and to learn from the feedback you provide.
We’ve created a few other resources about mindfulness and related subjects if you’re interested in learning more:
- How to Overcome Procrastination by Facing Discomfort
- Stop wasting time: 4 steps to take back your day (mindfulness around how you spend your time)
- Why Asana Embraces Mindfulness as a Business Model (with emphasis on mindfulness of purpose) — Fast Company
- Lessons from a Mindfulness-based Startup — Video from the Wisdom 2.0 Conference
Note on the title: in addition to being the inspiration for our company name, an āsana is a position you take during a yoga practice. It is usually the suffix of the sanskrit version of the name, e.g. adho mukha śvānāsana (downward dog). Thus, this post is about how we manifest flow from a stance of mindfulness.