How We're Creating a Company Operating System at Circles

Usually when I think of an operating system, it’s in the context of my Macbook telling me I need to install the newest update, and me ignoring that reminder, once again. So when Dan, founder of Circles, and I were talking about the need to create a company operating system for the organization, it took me a little while to wrap my head around what that might mean. If the operating system of a computer is the backbone that makes it run smoothly, what is the operating system of a company? It matters, because the operating system is the set of norms, values, processes, and behaviors the company agrees to run on together. A strong one leads to cohesion and moving quickly. A weak one leads to finger pointing, confusion, and slowed growth.

We started out by reviewing the work of other companies and thinkers we admire. We were inspired by the work of Frederic Laloux and the guide to self-management he lays out in Reinventing Organizations, a primer on the principles and approaches of how to run a company without the traditional hierarchy of top-down authority many of us are used toin the Reinventing Organizations shorthand, this is called a “teal” organization. Companies around the world leverage facets of teal from giants like Zappos and Patagonia to a home nursing company in the Netherlands to a French metal foundry.

We wanted to embrace some of the teal principles, many of which center around the guiding value of allowing the organization to evolve, and the people within it to make decisions for themselves without waiting for someone above to dictate the path or the answers. So, we knew we wanted the operating system to be made for the organization by the people within it—not handed down from above.

To achieve this, Dan had the idea of running a series of company debates, another idea that I hadn’t seen before in my previous orange (more Reinventing Organizations language!), authority-based settings. The idea was that if we could truly hear the perspectives of the individuals in the organization, a solution that reflected the true needs of the organization would reveal itself. As a group of about 10 team members at a company that had just formally incorporated, it felt like the right moment and a manageable group size to try the exercise.

We started with the debates, taking on topics like goal setting and remote work norms. I facilitated, and while interesting, at first our discussions trended more towards me presenting a way of thinking, based on my experiences and outside content and expertise, and the team reacting. This isn't bad, per se, but it doesn't quite embody the spirit of what we were looking for--a truly co-created operating system that draws not only from our pattern recognition and learned information but from our shared experiences as well.

So, we changed tactics and, elegantly, we were able to use a framework built right into the organization itself: our Circles meeting format.. At Circles, we bring people together for deep conversations in bi-weekly online meetings. The format is always consistent: participants present challenges, and the other learners have defined time windows for questions and storytelling. We leveraged this approach to co-create the O/S, with some twists. In the context of creating the company O/S, we also allow direct reactions, because there is more of a focus on getting to clarity than in our normal circles, in which we’re not attempting to arrive at a decision, but rather to invite deep conversation. After I solicit time boxed feedback during a meeting, I also allow time for commenting in a shared document or on Slack, and then I come back with a recommendation to the group. If at that point there's a lot of dissent, we can repeat the process, but often, the direction is relatively clear.

So far, we have used this approach for topics as core as our values--which we’ve defined as simply as “learn and grow”--to things as procedural as how to organize our meetings. As a distributed company, figuring out ways to work together across geographies was a key component, so we started there. This was a great example of the power of leaning on examples from books like Jason Fried’s Remote and companies like Wordpress. Other topics we’re tackling are largely drawn from a comprehensive list of O/S needs that is on this immensely helpful Wiki for self-managed companies. We’ve also tackled progress and performance management looking at the Art of the OKR, meeting norms (how many? How often? What happens during them?), and evolutionary purpose.

Along the spectrum from philosophical to seemingly banal, we’ve seen interesting things come out when people simply have something to react to, and the space to react. We’re just getting started with the “how” of this process. It’s exciting and fun, but will take lots of time, and in a way, it will never be truly done: as with  a computer, if you don’t install updates frequently, things start to run less smoothly. For now, though, we are getting going, and enjoying the ride.

To summarize, here’s the process we’re following:

  1. Identify areas of O/S that need to be defined
  2. Collect examples of how to approach each area through interviews, books, articles, and personal experience
  3. Present proposals to the team for feedback
  4. Synthesize team feedback and finalize approach with feedback taken into account
  5. Bring final proposal to team for any remaining red flags
  6. Put into action and monitor