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The One Thing Every Great Company Has In Common

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Obscured in the valuation dust of the current unicorn stampede is a key question: What actually makes a great company great? What do the future Facebooks, Googles and Apples have in common — not to mention the current ones?

Let’s take Google and Apple. Both have reached the pinnacle of business success. And some of their flagship products — like iPhone and Android — can even be eerily similar (even before they’ve had time to imitate each other).

But the souls of each couldn’t be more different: Apple is notoriously secretive; Google is a pioneer in transparency. Apple began as a hardware company; Google started as big data research. Apple has a military-style top-down command-and-control org chart; Google has a Burning Man-inspired, bottoms-up chaos to it. Apple is driven primarily by vision; Google worships experimentation and data. Steve Jobs was a heart-centered designer; Larry Page presents himself as a Spockian engineer.

Yet, in terms of revenue and impact on the world, both are among the world’s most successful companies.

How can this be? How have they gotten to the same mountain peak taking such totally different paths? Shouldn’t one of those approaches be right and the other wrong? Shouldn’t one company be decisively winning and the other decisively losing?

The Answer Is Authenticity

Growing up, I would study the habits of great people and the practices of great organizations, trying to chase down patterns, trying to find a magic bullet. If I wanted to do great things like Ben Franklin, Rosa Parks or John Lennon, surely, I assumed, there must be common threads to imitate. If I wanted to help build an organization with Microsoft’s reach, or Netscape’s impact, or Xerox Parc’s imagination, there must be processes and org structures to emulate.

And certainly, there are. But there wasn’t a single path to success. Author Haruki Murakami writes for six hours every morning, runs 10 kilometers in the afternoon and is in bed by 9 pm every night; Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a single 140-hour cocaine binge. Steve Jobs and Marissa Mayer get quality by mandating that designers tweak that button to be two pixels to the left; people who work for Richard Branson say he never once second-guessed them.

Elon Musk looks like he works out a lot; Bill Gates, not so much. Development at Microsoft is frequently test-driven; when I was moving fast and breaking things at Facebook, there was not a code test in sight.

Instead, what all great organizations and all great leaders do share is self-actualization, working in a way that’s authentic to who they are. This requires that they deeply know who they are. Imagine if Apple had decided in 2006 to jump on the Google bandwagon and be radically transparent. That choice would have crushed their ability to create the carefully guarded launch moments that have given the company its magic.

What do the future Facebooks, Googles and Apples have in common?

Every organization has its core essence. It emerges during its first few years, out of the chaos of millions of micro-interactions between teammates and between the organization and its market environment. It’s rare that organizations understand their own essence, and align every person, every process, every product decision, every customer support interaction to that essence. Doing so is extremely difficult. But it’s necessary to achieve the level of coherence required to do great things together. Which helps explain why true greatness is rare.

I still read about great individuals and organizations as inspiration for things I or Asana might try. But there is no right diet, exercise regimen, or spirituality that works for every person. And there is no right org chart, work-from-home policy, or programming language that works for every organization. Being a human, and being a company, are both never-ending journeys to know yourself and make choices that align with your authentic self.

Getting To Authenticity

Even the journey to authenticity will be unique for each person or organization. But there are six practices that have worked well for our company as we’ve walked our own path.

Achieve clarity of purpose. The best-performing organizations know why they exist and what they are trying to achieve. Every team member gives roughly the same answer when asked, “If we’re wildly successful, 
how will the world 
be different?” At Asana, we started by carefully crafting our mission statement: “To help humanity thrive by enabling all teams to work together effortlessly.”

That allows us to explain every project, every priority, every role, even lines of code, in terms of how it serves the mission. Armed with clarity, everyone can feel and act in alignment with the organization’s core purpose.

Determine and live your values. Most companies throw a list of platitudes in their HR manual and never speak of them again. But defining your values requires deep introspection. My partner Dustin and I wrote the first version of our list of values within a week of starting the company.

And we keep iterating as a team. Just last month we dropped some values that had stopped resonating over time (like “being a mensch”), and added new ones as we gained insight on parts of the company’s DNA that had gone unnamed (like “aiming to maximize impact”). Here’s our current values list.

But the real values come from walking the walk: using values to make decisions, explaining decisions publicly in terms of those values, screening potential teammates for alignment with those values and generally operating in true integrity with them.

Define your brand’s personality attributes. By “brand,” I mean what does a (potential) customer think of when they think of your company? Every interaction that person has with your company (marketing, product, support, sales, their friend’s opinion of you …) influences this. To make those touch points both consistent and authentic, we asked ourselves: If Asana were a person, how would you describe that person? To answer that, we brought together a team of people from different roles and departments throughout the organization.

The best-performing organizations know why they exist and what they are trying to achieve.

The goal wasn’t to fabricate a personality that we thought would be most appealing to customers, but to describe who we actually are — or, at least, who we are on our best days. After many discussions, we boiled our personality down to the four words that we felt best captured the company’s essence: purposeful, empowering, approachable and quirky. Then we decorated the office walls with scrolls, with a pithy description of each attribute.

Recruit people compatible with your essence. If our company is in fact this loving, purposeful, empowering, quirky person, with the clear purpose of helping humanity thrive, with what kind of friends should they be spending their time? When choosing friends in your personal life, you look not for similarity but compatibility — indeed, sometimes spending time with people who are very different from you can bring out your best.

So not everyone on the team needs to be quirky, but everyone needs to help bring out the company’s quirk. And everyone needs to share its values and commitment to our shared mission.

Define your company’s “way.” We very consciously make decisions about how we want to operate, and educate every new hire accordingly. For example: On the secrecy-transparency spectrum, we’ve decided to be “transparent by default,” and have an explicit list of criteria for when to be secretive. We use a deliberate feature-prioritization process rather than launching a thousand experiments and seeing what sticks. Internally, we don’t use titles.

On compensation, we’ve decided to be well above market on cash, equity, benefits and perks (in contrast to, say, Amazon’s frugality). These decisions won’t work for every company, but they work for us, and we employ them consistently throughout the organization.

Practice mindfulness. We regularly reflect on what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and if those actions feel in alignment or out of alignment with the company’s authentic core. For example, when we survey customers and enough of them tell us the product interface can feel overwhelming, we know we’re not living up to empowering effortless teamwork. Reflection leads to action (we’re now working on a redesign that greatly simplifies the default interface). We recently sent an anonymous survey to everyone in the company asking what’s going well and what’s going poorly.

In the race to build the best product and win, investing in authenticity discovery can seem like a distraction or waste of time. But it’s this exact investment that actually separates the great companies and leaders from the pack. Finding authenticity allows them to not only win product races, but to become centers of innovation that create entirely new races and benefits to society.

While the bad news is that there is no pattern for greatness to copy, any organization has the opportunity to discover and commit to its true core. Oscar Wilde’s advice applies as well in business as in life: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Featured Image: Justin Henry/Flickr UNDER A CC BY 2.0 LICENSE