How Extreme Transparency Can Make Your Team Its Most Productive

At Asana, the collaboration software startup from Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and Justin Rosenstein, the culture is designed to be "transparent 'til it hurts." Here's how to replicate it for pain-free productivity.

Justin Rosenstein and Dustin Moskovitz, the founding duo of collaboration software startup Asana, officially launched in 2011 with one lofty goal: “To empower every group on earth to have clarity, accountability, and transparency in their daily work.”

So what began as rudimentary solutions to productivity problems both Moskovitz and Rosenstein faced in their previous positions (the former as cofounder and CTO of Facebook, the latter as a software engineer at Google) has turned into a tool to save teams from doing “work about work” and get down to business. Essentially, it's a web application that facilitates project management. Any team can post a task they are working on and then keep track of who is doing what to complete it, without using email or calling status meetings.

Though it hasn’t quite helped all of mankind yet, Asana is currently used by the likes of Foursquare, Airbnb, and Uber to eliminate status reports to the dreaded weekly check-in meeting. To date the company has had “tens of thousands of teams create more than 40 million tasks using Asana." No wonder they’ve been able to raise $38 million from Founders Fund, Benchmark Capital, Peter Thiel, and others.

What the two also managed to pull off was to embed those very same values in their company’s culture--with an emphasis on the transparency. Rather than let it be a buzzword in the vein of publicly airing a failed product launch or relegating it to the release of quarterly financial statements, Rosenstein maintains that the kind of transparency both Asana the tool and the company are trying to achieve is more subtle. It’s not about everyone knowing everyone else’s business, says Rosenstein, “It’s that everyone has the information they need to do their job effectively.” Lots of companies are so siloed that there is no context for anyone to make good decisions about their work, he says. “For us, transparency is providing as much information as [an employee] needs to act in the best interest of their team, the company, and its mission as a whole.”

They call it “transparency 'til it hurts.” Here’s how they make it pain free:

Start With Hiring
It’s one thing to strive for hiring the best and brightest. It’s quite another to hire people at ease with the notion of transparency (as opposed to the more common workplace power plays like, say, withholding information to use as leverage). Yet when Asana hires, they don’t tell candidates that they must be comfortable with the idea. Instead, when they discuss how the company operates, it becomes a selling point. “People that are attracted to [working here] already feel that way,” Moskovitz says. “They are not trying to hide,” adds Rosenstein, “They are excited to share the experience, not just get paid and go home.” The side effect that’s rippled through Asana’s 38-person ranks is that “we can all celebrate success,” says Rosenstein.

Empower Through Context
Even if you hire the best people, Rosenstein says if you tell them exactly what to do, it limits their creativity. Empowering them by offering context around what the company cares about and its goals allows staff to bring their own wisdom and experience to bear as they tackle projects.

One way Asana does this is to take exhaustive minutes of board meetings and weekly executive meetings and post them for all to read. Rosenstein contends that most companies would keep such high-level meetings under wraps or couch the information in a way that doesn’t reveal it all. “We think it’s really critical for everyone to understand to know what the high order bits are and what is top of mind for leadership,” he argues, so when a staffer is making individual decisions about parts of the product or marketing, they can position it against the company’s overall goals.

Set Areas of Responsibility
Another silo buster at Asana is the concept of areas of responsibility, or AORs. Rather than having everyone report up to the boss, AORs allow individuals to own performance metrics. With an understanding of overall strategy, they can take input from others and make decisions. No one is ever stuck making all the decisions, notes Rosenstein. The AORs change frequently depending on what is a priority any given week. “This allows for distribution of responsibility, and people can develop expertise,” he notes.

Create a Roadmap
Instead of dividing time according to fiscal quarters, Asana has “episodes,” which are roughly four-month blocks of time. Before each episode, everyone “stops doing normal work” to sit down for a week-long session to create a roadmap. Committees are formed around different agendas that are relevant for that time period and members are selected to be on them not solely based on their job description but what they can offer to achieve the goal. This allows everyone to offer input as well as to make it absolutely clear what milestones need to be hit in order to reach the goal.

At the end they pull together a document that summarizes their hits and misses. Moskovitz then puts the summary out on Google Docs to share not just with the team or investors, but the entire rest of the world. Taking a page from the playbooks of Toyota and Eric Reis, Moskovitz says they also dissect trouble spots using the “5 Whys” method to figure out how to do better in the future. They publish that analysis, too. “At some companies that can be scary, but our culture is set up so we all respect each other. It is not a blame game,” adds Rosenstein.

Recognize Accomplishments--In Your Own Way
Aside from their offline champagne celebrations for product launches and TGIF get-togethers, Asana staff developed “hearts” for the software tool which allows for colleagues to recognize each other’s achievements. Rosenstein argues that “hearting” completion of a task is less shallow or political than liking someone’s comment on Yammer. “We have the ability to celebrate accomplishments on a much more granular level.

When To Dim the Lights
There is such a thing as too much transparency, says Moskovitz. That’s why performance reviews and personal matters that come up in meetings aren’t shared with the company.

Rosenstein admits they’ve had to coach people to be more confident about receiving the flood of feedback that can come from this practice. “One of our values is balance,” he says, to maintain the flow of ideas without having someone bottleneck over a perceived slight to their work.

Related: Former Facebookers Want To Accelerate Your Project Work With Asana, A Virtual Whiteboard

[Image: Flickr user Mike Bitzenhofer]

Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • Mike Wangsmo

    Holy Cow! I never thought I'd see a company fundamentally based on transparency. I've preached for years that transparency up/down and sideways from me is the most critical success factor. I will be watching this company, this is truly amazing!

  • Mary

    I am a strong believer in transparency. Thank you very much for the excellent. I use Asana myself and I cannot sign its praises enough. The emphasis this article places on communication of a clear plan is excellent. I have been a part of a lot of projects that made a great plan, but the end result was a disaster because of lack of communication. Here is another article that gets into the details about how and why communication in planning/roadmapping is so important: http://www.consultingcafe.com/...

  • Greg

    Posting Executive Meeting Notes for everyone to see is remarkable. It gives "Open Door Policy" a whole new meaning...

  • Patricia Lotich

    Great example of a culture that fosters teamwork, accountability and professional development.  This model of transparency is a great way to ensure achievement of corporate objectives.  Thanks for sharing.

  • robbiecat

    Warms my soul, lights me up and fills me with excitement to read your story about Asana!  Thank you. My insight from your piece, aligned to the value of 'transparency' is about valuing contribution. 'Contribution' deserves more airtime.  A favorite mantra is "people support what they create" and to be openly recognized for one's own contribution and know the collective contributions of all is 'living transparency.'  And 'living a value' means its in the culture. Just great!

  • erin bradley neer

    I love how the company focuses on hiring people who want to work out loud. To me, this is one of the biggest ways to show transparency is part of your company's culture.

  • erin bradley neer

    Transparency is key to maximum performance. So many employees (and companies) still work in silos with a command-and-control culture, some to use "information as leverage" and others because of fear they've incorrectly interpreted as risk.