Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Kenny Van Zant, photo by Susan Lahey

Kenny Van Zant, photo by Susan Lahey

At Asana, every job is added to a list of Areas Of Responsibility (AORs) and anyone in the company who has the qualifications and desire can take on any one of those areas. It’s the manager’s job to ask questions about whether the employee is up to the challenge and available to tackle the task. But after that….they get out of the way and trust them to do the job.

Kenny Van Zant, executive with Asana—a web and mobile software application that allows teams to work together without email—spoke Wednesday afternoon at Capital Factory on “Building a Culture of Accountability.”

Asana’s accountability system distributes tasks, measures results and provides clarity. Asana has yearly strategy and vision sessions and periodic committee meetings to make sure it’s producing the right results. The meetings are open to everyone.

Asana doesn’t actually aim for 100 percent success on key results. Seventy percent—a number stolen from Google management—is considered success. In fact, while the AOR system is Asana’s invention, they borrowed many other management approaches from employees who worked at places like Google and Facebook. What works stays; what doesn’t goes.

Missions and Values

Every company should have a mission explaining why the company exists, Van Zant said. But then it should have values like house rules. Some of Asana’s values include “Transparency by default” and “Wisdom over rules.” When the company hired a finance guy he wrote a long list of rules about the company’s finance policies. Van Zant asked him to rewrite it so it would be more fun to read and more in line with “Wisdom over rules.” The document came back considerably shorter, basically explaining how people get reimbursed and encouraging them to “Spend Asana’s money like it’s your own.”

Asana does not believe in micromanaging its employees, Van Zant said. A manager’s job is to ask questions like “How are we organized? How well do we function?” The team, he said, has areas of responsibility and it’s not his job to know all the things they’re doing and be in control but to help them manage their growth and careers and “unblock” them.

“I managed for 20 years before this model, and I found the most stressful thing for a manager is feeling like you had to have your arms wrapped around everything,” Van Zant said. “Their failure is my failure. Their pain is my own pain’s messed up for managers. That’s just not right.”

They practice peer to peer communication. If an employee has a question, needs help or has an issue with the way someone else is functioning, they don’t invoke the bell curve: I talk to my manager, my manager talks to your manager, your manager talks to you, with scheduled meetings and memos all along the way. That’s what Van Zant calls “Work about work” and it takes up a huge amount of time and energy. Instead, people talk to those who have the answer, or the issue, directly.

Their idea is to be “tightly aligned but loosely coupled,” Van Zant said. So everyone is working toward the same goals but doing so independently and only coming together at certain points.

Learning to Trust

The hardest part, he said, is trust. A company mantra is “Everyone has a genius.”

“The root word of genius is every person had a genius…and their skills were different from yours….,” Van Zant said. “My job is to get out of the way and let them offer it. It requires so much trust. You have this temptation where you want to be in their shorts, wondering what they’re doing at every moment of the day…. Ten years ago I would not have been able to do this.”

People are paid according to seniority, performance and other factors, Van Zant said.

“It’s the manager’s job to see people are compensated fairly,” Van Zant said. “The compensation strategy is part of the mentorship and career guidance…we don’t really connect performance with salary. That just breeds a bunch of bizarre neuroses.” If they see someone is over reaching on AORs, they’ll check in with that person as to whether they can hand off a responsibility or whether they need to hire more people. “You get an egolessness when this system is implemented,” he said. “You don’t see examples of people amassing control. It’s more like ‘Do you want this responsibility? I don’t want to step on your toes.’ It becomes very polite.”

Asana has launched a marketing campaign in Austin and is advertising with Silicon Hills News. This is a sponsored post.