Think very fast

What managers do at a company that’s trying to replace them with software

May 22, 2014
May 22, 2014

The enterprise software company Asana manages to serve multi-billion-dollar startups such as Airbnb, Uber, Dropbox and Pinterest with only 65 employees. That’s because streamlining workflow is what the company, whose motto is “Teamwork without email,” is designed to do.

The company, founded by the Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskowitz and the former Google and Facebook engineering manager Justin Rosenstein, was built using its own efficiency software from the start, and the result is a management culture that’s defined by its own technology.

“People often ask, ‘how do you have only 65?'” Rosenstein told Quartz. “I think a lot of it is technology, but a lot of it is a management philosophy of taking the best people and really teaching them to fish rather than doing the fishing for them—and constantly giving them more responsibility.”

Asana’s origin was in software that Moskowitz built at Facebook—a “rudimentary prototype” of the task-based system that Asana is now. Rosenstein said the early version of Moskowitz’s software allowed Facebook to double the size of its engineering team in a year without hiring any new product managers.

Asana has plenty of competitors, from big ones such as Jive and Microsoft’s Yammer to new entrants such as Slack and Convo. The difference is that Asana is centered around units of work and accomplishing them, not social tools or chat. 

Despite his history at Facebook, and the fact that his co-founder was there from the very start, Rosenstein doesn’t see social tools or chat as the way forward in the workplace. “If what you needed in your work life was Facebook for work, we would have stayed at Facebook,” Rosenstein says. “We had plenty-good Facebook at Facebook.”

Instead, Asana’s system tracks tasks, making it clear to all who’s responsible for achieving them, and where they are in their process. So what do managers do every day at a company where many of their usual coordination and communication functions are automated? We spoke to Rosenstein about how technology and management interact at his company, and how Asana has redefined the role of managers. Here’s his advice:

Free your managers by empowering employees

In many workplaces, Rosenstein says, employees feel like cogs in a machine, and frequently must turn to their managers for answers or next steps. Managers end up spending their days answering questions and keeping people on task.

“I was watching super-talented engineers, super-talented people, spend half of their day just on this work about work, on coordination, and I hated to watch it,” Rosenstein says.

The solution, he argues, is more clarity and autonomy for employees. If you ask any engineer at Asana why they’re working on a piece of code, they should be able to explain not just what it does, but its importance, next steps, end effect on the customer, and why it supports the company’s mission. In the task-based system, information is attached to each unit of work.

Asana makes all of the steps to a goal public to everyone at the company, along with the progress made and deadlines. That cuts down on the need for status meetings, because managers know instantly where they need to take action or solve problems.

“You need to know all of the things left to accomplishing a goal,” Rosenstein says, “because even at Google and Facebook, which are really well-organized companies, we would get to launch day and realize that there were like five things we had forgotten to do.”

Both Asana the product and the company are governed by one main idea: taking all that information out of people’s heads, email, and meetings and making it public, so that managers are free to solve problems and mentor, instead of being well-compensated taskmasters.

Change the metrics for success

Creating and maintaining that environment is a management feat in itself. New hires need to get used to the idea of transparency in their work and their progress completing tasks, and managers still have a role in assigning, prioritizing, and giving clarity on particular tasks.

Another source of conflict comes when people aren’t clear on who’s responsible for what. To that end, every unit of work or step at the company has just one person who’s accountable. Not zero, which makes it unlikely to get it done, Rosenstein says. And not two, which risks splitting tasks incoherently.

The focus is on making sure that those discrete tasks actually get done, people are accountable, and that managers don’t have to search for who’s working on what. That intense focus on tasks means that progress on those tasks is what managers track, instead of hours or any other metric of productivity.

“That’s the really critical data source: What are people working on? What do they need help on?” Rosenstein says. “People look at things like how many lines of code someone wrote, and that’s just BS. Those sort of metrics give you really skewed understanding of the people’s value. The data that doesn’t lie is what work the person is accomplishing each week.”

When you do call a meeting, make it count

Rosenstein dislikes the sorts of meetings where managers dictate all the decisions, as well as the ones where 10 people go around the circle and update each other on what they’re working on. But he’s not completely anti-meeting. If you’re going to have a meeting, he argues, it’s worth using the time to nurture and empower employees to make decisions themselves—which means less of the same meeting down the line.

In service of the overall philosophy of “teaching people to fish,” the focus is on creating learning experiences at meetings. “The tempting thing as a manager is to be like, ‘I would choose option B over A,'” he explains. “But that sets them up to always be dependent on me, and really disenfranchises them.”

Instead Rosenstein says, he’ll ask staffers how they’re thinking about their current problem and choices, and their framework for making a decision. He’ll guide them, but as much as he can, have them figure it out on their own.

“The next time they have a similar decision, they can do it themselves,” Rosenstein says. “What we get from that is that the people on our teams are constantly getting better and better, so we keep trusting them with more and more responsibilities.”

Meetings at most companies don’t go this way, Rosenstein says. “(It’s) an insane situation,” he says. “If you get 10 people in a room for an hour, people think of that as an hour; it’s really 10 hours. Typically the reason the meeting is necessary is to get clarity they didn’t have during the week. But during the week they were going ten degrees in the wrong direction.”

Meetings instead are reserved for the sort of big meaty questions that don’t work in a messaging environment and are even worse handled by email (which can amount to long digital essays that detail every possible contingency).

“Basically, I see two extremes that are unhealthy,” Rosenstein says. “You have the companies that are like, ‘All meetings, all the time,’ [and] never get any work done. The other companies: ‘All meetings are bad, meetings suck, no meetings, zero meetings.’ That’s equally ridiculous.”

Spend a “ridiculous” amount of time recruiting

One of Rosenstein’s most important jobs, he says, is recruiting the kind of people who can survive, thrive, and be productive in the company’s  environment.

“The downside is that I spend a ridiculous amount of time recruiting,” Rosenstein says. “The upside of that is that it’s just a joy to work with people who are the best in the world.”

That means a nuanced recruiting process that looks for more than just exceptional engineers. “We’re not just looking for raw IQ, we’re not just looking for culture fit and values-alignment, and we’re not just looking for someone we think will work well in this environment,” Rosenstein says. “We recruit them as whole human beings.”

The interview starts with one question. “Tell me why you do what you do.” Based on that answer alone, Rosenstein will either let candidates know that Asana isn’t the right place, or explain why there could be a good fit. Then the conversation continues.

“We try to do a lot of non-standard things with those interviews,” Rosenstein says, “everything from asking deep philosophical questions about your purpose in life, to actually having them do the work.”

Turn management into a role, instead of a promotion

Management at Asana is seen as service role, rather than the next step in the pyramid on the org chart. The usual model, where exceptional work leads inevitably to the management track is a mistake, Rosenstein argues. “The effect of that is that individual work is looked down on,” he says. “That is so caustic.”

It also can fail to take advantage of people’s talents, he says. “You end up losing your best individual contributors and your people in management often suck because they’re not great managers; they’re great individual contributors.” Becoming a manager at Asana isn’t a promotion but a role-change, not necessarily offered to the best or most productive employees, but to those who show that they would be good managers.

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