How to Develop Great Culture? Treat it Like a Product

Justin Rosenstein, co-founder of Asana, spoke at Lean Startup Week this past November on thinking about your startup’s culture from the ground up.

A great company culture doesn’t just happen, explained Justin. Just like great products, it takes “years of careful craftsmanship, design, implementing.”

Culture is the sum total of all of the interactions that people have in your organization, he shared. “It’s the language that you use. It’s the practices that you have. It’s the values that you share.”

The point of building great culture isn’t just to attract great talent—though that is often a result—but it enables a company “to move much more quickly toward your mission…and your business objectives.”

Justin mentioned that Asana has put a lot of work into their culture by busting the “pernicious myth that business success is maximized when you have a cutthroat culture and people are burning the candle from both ends.”

He believes in a culture where people feel relaxed and comfortable to do their work.

Asana’s culture has garnered notice, as Fast Company recently described it as “the best culture in tech,” Justin said.

They’ve done so by treating the process of developing culture much the same as they do creating a product: “Design, implement, measure, and improve.”

Design Your Company’s Soul

Justin called designing a culture a “deeply introspective process. It’s soul searching as a team into who you are deep down, and what it is you’re really trying to accomplish.”

He compared this stage of culture building to “thinking about your company’s soul.”

What this looks like on the practical level is finding the individual contributors in a company, from executives to “anyone throughout the company who you feel most deeply understands and embodies the soul of your organization.”

Then you get everyone together and find out what these folks all agree on.

And “more juicily,” Justin added, “what are the areas where you don’t yet agree.” Between those two poles you need to come together and figure out what you want your organization to look like.

Implement Your Values at Every Level

Asana strives to infuse their design principles in every aspect of the culture, Justin explained. One key value is focus. So they’ve developed a practice of “no-meeting Wednesday,” which he described as “such a pleasure to have an entire day in which you have no distractions, in which you can get into real flow and make your time.”

Justin finds that some of the most creative parts of Asana happen on these Wednesdays.

Another design value that gets implemented in the culture is learning from each other. So they’ve developed a process of “giving each other regular blunt loving feedback.”

Once a year, everyone gets peer reviews from six people they nominate. “We tell each other what’s going well, what are places where you still have to improve, and so we’re all in this together and helping.”

Sometimes this feedback phase “requires a kind of reprogramming of people,” Justin said. For example, in their org chart, the CEO is at the bottom. “And then it grows out like a tree where the fruit are the people who are actually doing the real work, the individual contributors. The managers are the branches who support them.”

In some cases, a new manager hired from another organization will have trouble with this organizational flow, so they have to work hard on implementing the values on a daily basis through bi-weekly “all-hands meetings,” documentations of their different practices and opportunities to link the particular implementation details to the cultural design principles and values at work.

Measure and Improve with Honest Feedback

How do you measure a culture’s success? Asana does it in a couple ways. Once a year they send out anonymous surveys with over a hundred questions. “This allows us to find out…the places to celebrate…and the places that we need to improve,” Justin said.

Then they take all that data and “identify our top culture bugs, triage, prioritize, and assign owners to each one.”

Then this list is shared with everyone in the company for transparency. And it doesn’t look like glad-handing themselves only for what they’ve done well.

He gave an example of a company-wide meeting where they projected, in big font up on a screen “an anonymous, angrily written quote where someone said they did not understand Asana’s compensation structure and did not have any idea what it was going to take to get a promotion.”

Justin explained they prefer to be open about issues “to stare those problems in the face,” which enables them to solve them more readily.

In addition to treating culture building as product development process, they’ve added four other features to their culture, a set of values they try to infuse in everything: empowerment, inclusivity, clarity, and mindfulness.

Empower Every Person

Another key value at Asana has been to empower all employees to do their best work “and not be at the mercy of pointy-haired bosses,” by finding the right person for every task.

After one culture audit, however, they found they had let the pendulum swing too far.

“We had people who were straight out of college being asked to make some major architectural decisions and getting overwhelmed,” Justin shared.

So they improved by starting people off with a more reasonable amount of responsibility and increasing it over time.

Implement Inclusiveness

Asana makes clear that regardless of age, sex, skin color, position in the company, or any other determining characteristic, “every single person at Asana deserves deep mutual respect.”

This value is of extreme importance to the company, Justin explained, and he finds it frustrating that he has to make this point at all.

“It’s not enough to just not discriminate; you have to proactively foster spaces in which people feel safe to bring their full selves to work.”

As such, they have implemented three employee resource groups: A women’s group, an LGBTQIA group, and a group for people of color.

“Asana provides budget and staffing and space, and people can come together and talk about real issues facing the world and the workplace.”

He feels this helps them to keep “Leveling up our game and being as radically inclusive as possible.”

Create Clarity

The value of clarity is “deeply infused not only into our culture but to our product,” Justin said.

Teams are more able to be effective when everyone has perfect clarity on their purpose and roles. “We want everyone in the company to deeply internalize the mission and their role in it,” he said.

Every year they look at their mission and figure out annual objectives that will enable them to make the most progress, and ask every employee to pose the question of themselves, “How does my work fit in in serving the overall mission and purpose of this organization?”

“Annual objectives are a way for the company to come together and really clarify what we’re trying to do on a year-to-year basis.”

Mandate Mindfulness

Mindfulness may be a buzz word on everyone’s lips, but it’s a key value at Asana because, Justin pointed out, being in the present moment allows them to “pause and reflect on our past.” It also allows them to “make conscious decisions about where we want to go in our future.”

One way they implement this is through a practice called Road Map Week, where, twice a year, they take a full week out of their calendar and “basically stop doing normal operations,” Justin explained. They divide into committees where each one focuses on a different part of the company, and ask a series of questions:

  •      What is our purpose?
  •      How does that fit into our strategy and mission?
  •      Where have we come in the last six months?
  •      What do we think went well?
  •      What went poorly?
  •      What could we do in the next six months?
  •      What are the pros and cons of those options?

If other companies think they don’t have time for this, Justin urges, “Taking the time to pause and reflect gives you the opportunity to course correct.”

He encouraged people to go back and ask:

  •      What is your mission?
  •      What are your values?
  •      What is your collective fantasy of your organization at its very best?

This may require facing some hard truths, Justin cautioned, “but it’s worth it because then you’ll know where to focus your implementation energy.”

However, this is not just advice to be handed down from leadership. Justin urged, “Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a leader is to start from within. Because to an amazing extent, the culture of a company reflects the inside of its leadership.”

Justin hopes to see a renaissance in the quality of company cultures. “I think culture is one of the most massively underappreciated levers you have, and a competitive advantage in building a business.”

It’s never too early or too late to think about building it. “You don’t have the time not to.”

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