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 - to transition to a Teal 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.

Article Contents

How We're Creating a Company Operating System at Circles

Article Contents

What is a Teal Organization

Applying the Teal Organization Principles

Examples of Teal principles:

Teal principles we adopted:

Getting Feedback from the Circles Team

“Learn & Grow”: finding ways to work across continents, efficiently

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

Resources and Citations

 

What is a Teal Organization?

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”.

NB: If you’ve not read the book, watch this video on Laloux delivering a talk on the research that went into the book [1hr 42mins] and/or download the PDF summary here
 

Companies around the world leverage facets of teal, from giants like Zappos and Patagonia to a home nursing company in the Netherlands and a French metal foundry.

Applying the Teal Organization Principles

We decided to embrace some of the teal organization 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.

Examples of Teal principles:

A) Evolutionary Purpose: The organization has its own independent purpose / reason for existing that is beyond the needs/wants of the individuals involved.

B) Self-management: Instead of hierarchical boss-employee relationships, individuals are expected to make and keep commitments to the team(s) they are a part of.

C) The Advice Process: When a team member needs to make a decision, she solicits input from the impacted parties and topical experts, then makes the decision taking the advice into consideration.

D) Flexible Work Hours: Team members are trusted to get their work done and are not expected to adhere to a strict schedule.

E) Clearly Defined Values: The organization has a value system that is reflected and honored by all team members.

Teal principles we adopted:

1) Flexible Work Hours: For the purpose of coordinating meetings, team members keep 10am-1pm open as “office hours,” but are not expected to be glued to their desks at any other times, or during those times if no meetings are scheduled.

2) Organization Values: After a ton of amazing discussion, we have arrived at two values: Learn and Grow.

3) Self-Management: Circles doesn’t have formal manager-direct report relationships. That doesn’t mean there are no leaders, but there are not “bosses.”

4) The Advice Process: We have experimented with this and used it at times, but we would like to continue to expand its use and call it out clearly when we are using it.

Getting Feedback from the Circles Team

To achieve this our goal of creating an operating system that serves everyone working at Circles, 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.

“Orange organizations represent the advance of the scientific and industrial revolutions. The world is seen as a complex machine whose inner workings and natural laws can be investigated and understood.” 

- Frederic Laloux

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 as a coach and a startup executive as well as 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 for the meat of a standard meeting is consistent:

We leveraged this approach to co-create the O/S, with some twists. In the context of creating the company O/S, we also allowed 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 solicited time boxed feedback during a meeting, I also allowed time for commenting in a shared document or on Slack, and then came back with a recommendation to the group. If at that point there was a lot of dissent, we would repeat the process, but often, the direction was relatively clear.

After using this approach for several weeks, we found that we had made progress, but we felt like we could do better. First, the process felt too open-ended. Rather than establishing a new set of practices, we often had a bunch of good suggestions, but not a clear path forward. Second, it felt rushed. Thirty minutes once a week wasn’t enough. And finally, it felt driven off of facilitator suggestions rather than team collaboration.

So, with these areas of improvement in mind, we decided to move to the Holacracy Governance Meeting approach, a process that focuses on integrating multiple perspectives, and extend the meetings to 60 minutes. This approach allows anyone to bring forth a tension, and then the facilitator leads the team in a formal process to get to a way forward that may not address all the open issues but addresses any true objections. So far, we’re finding that this practice has promise for helping us get to actionable O/S decisions quickly, and it allows us to revisit them any time there are tensions.

 

“Learn & Grow”: finding ways to work across continents, efficiently

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, which has thrived on its model of 100% employee distribution..  

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, as defined in Reinventing Organizations.

“We don’t own or run the organization; instead we are stewards, listening to where it needs to go and helping it to do its work in the world..”

- Frederic Laloux

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

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.

If you’re considering creating a company operating system and would like to chat more, feel free to email me at anna@circl.es.

Resources and Citations

  1. Reinventing Organizations Wiki http://www.reinventingorganizationswiki.com/Main_Page
  2. Jason Fried’s Remote https://37signals.com/remote