A canvas for developing purposeful organisations

Introducing the Creative OS Canvas.

What it is and who it’s for

The Creative OS Canvas brings together the very best thinking (in my completely subjective opinion) in creative collaboration and organisation design, into one handy tool.

The point is to enable flowing collaboration to realise creative ideas in the world.

There are so many aspects to building a successful collaboration or organisation it can feel overwhelming. So the canvas serves as a guide for thinking through and improving the many different areas that come together to make work more effective. The canvas breaks it all down for you so you can see the whole picture and then zoom in on individual elements.

This tool is for creative founders and entrepreneurs, operational leaders, and advisors who guide other people through the process of developing purposeful organisations.

Inspirations and influences

This canvas brings together three inspirations:

  1. peterkoenigsystem by Peter Koenig is a lens to understand human collaborations, not focussing on organisations but the process of individuals starting and joining one another’s creative initiatives.
  2. Initiative Mapping by Charles Davies is the process of mapping and visualising the creative hierarchy that underlies any creative endeavour.
  3. The OS Canvas by The Ready is an excellent tool for thinking through the elements that come together to build modern, progressive organisations.

The philosophy

When you’re developing a company or some other creative endeavour, it’s natural to start thinking about organisations. That’s exactly what The Ready’s OS Canvas does.

Organisational thinking is certainly very useful. Yet it’s extremely powerful to make organisational thinking secondary to the thing that really matters: The underlying process of realising a creative vision. Since before any organisation begins to take shape, someone, somewhere had an idea worth investing themselves in. It’s critical to not lose sight of this. To not get lost in thinking that ‘the organisation’ or ‘the company’ is the main thing. What matters most is whether the idea is coming to life or not.

When we look at things this way, we don’t see purpose, vision and values as attributes of ‘the organisation.’ Instead, think of them as inhabiting a deeper layer. This creative layer is the foundation an organisation is built on.

There is also a more natural approach to understanding how authority works in its two forms: creative and formal.

The canvas

The Creative OS Canvas is split into two layers to make this distinction clear. The creative layer contains an ‘initiative map’ which shows how the overall vision breaks down into the smaller ideas which are being realised in service of it. Then it has an articulation of the overall vision itself. Below this in the organisational operating system layer there are six boxes to represent the main elements of an organisational operating system.

Here’s the canvas. Next we’ll walk through it section by section.

The Creative OS Canvas

Open the canvas in Google Drawings where you print it or make a copy to modify. Please respect the creative commons license and maintain the attributions given.

The creative layer

Creative initiatives manifest themselves in all sorts of forms. Some become companies or non-profit organisations whilst others may have completely informal, loose systems, like a group of friends organising a party together. Yet underneath every creative endeavour is a process of realising an idea in the world. Any company or organisation which might be established should be there to support that creative process. So that’s why we focus on the creative layer first.

This layer captures the natural structure that forms as an originating founder begins the process of realising an idea, and others join them to help. It’s important to be clear this is not about the official org chart. It also records a summary of the vision — the creative idea — that’s being realised.

Initiative Map

This is a visualisation of the natural creative hierarchy that has taken shape since the moment an originating founder took the first step to begin realising an idea.

If you’re new to initiative mapping, read this guide.

Learn how creative authority works.

The result of an initiative mapping process is a visualisation in nested circles showing how the overall vision breaks down into the smaller ideas which contribute to it. It shows who’s responsible for what and who’s helping who.

For a first pass at the initiative map you might only set out the main, high level initiatives. It’s useful to map the whole thing later.

You can use the Maptio online tool to create your initiative map quickly, and have a digital version that’s to easier to update and share. Or you can just use pen and paper.

An initiative map presented using the Maptio online tool.

Vision: What we are doing

The initiative mapping process makes clear who is the individual with overall responsibility for the creative initiative, as well as those with responsibility for any sub-initiatives within it. Once we know who is responsible we can move on to clarifying what it is that they are responsible for.

Learn more about why it’s wise to focus on individuals taking responsibility for creative visions, not groups.

The vision box captures the overall creative idea being realised. Think of it as the creative brief for everything that’s happening within the initiative. It defines the outer edge of the initiative map.

You might call this the purpose, vision, mission or north star. I encourage you to make this practical and actionable by stating everything in terms of what you are actually doing — not abstract statements.

You can also state what you’re doing on different timescales: What you’re always doing (perhaps behaving in a way that prioritises certain values or principles); what you’re doing over the medium term (perhaps the focus for the next few years); and what you’re doing right now.

Read more about this approach to vision and the focus on what.

▶ Charles Davies’ Very Clear Ideas process to get a vision clear.

The organisational OS layer

With the initiative map and vision clear, you have the creative foundation on which you can develop an organisation, if that’s what’s needed. Think of the organisation as the operating system to support a collaboration to realise the vision. The second section of the canvas shows you the elements you need to consider.

This layer is broadly based on The OS Canvas by The Ready. For keen observers and fans of their original OS Canvas, here are the specifics of what’s changed and why.

There are two fundamental changes:

  1. There’s no box for Purpose & Values since this is not seen as an attribute of the organisation but rather part of the creative layer.
  2. Authority is not a single attribute of the organisation. Instead it’s viewed as having two forms: creative and formal. Creative authority rests in the initiative map, and only formal authority makes an appearance in the organisational operating system.

Finally, there are three minor alternations. If you prefer to use them as they were before you can of course adapt the canvas any way you like.

  1. The Policy & Governance box has been merged with Authority & Decisions. It’s been retitled as Formal Authority & Decisions to make the distinction with creative authority clear.
  2. Information & Communication has been merged with Meetings, Rhythm & Coordination. I’ve given it the name Collaboration & Coordination. Again, just a small change — we’re talking about the same things here.
  3. Resource Allocation, Targets & Forecasts has changed to Resource Allocation & Measurement. This is just a small tweak to the title.

Here are the top line questions to consider for each box, quoted almost verbatim from The Ready. Some edits have been made to reflect the differences between the two canvases.

I’ve added some of my favourite inspirations for further reading to each section to get you started. These will give you some tips, techniques and pitfalls to watch out for. Many of these resources apply to more than once element so you might find useful ideas across many different areas. I’ve done my best to place each in the location with the most obvious fit.

I also recommend reading The Ready’s explanations, suggested questions, and examples in their OS Canvas introduction for exploring these elements.

As you begin to develop the organisation, it’s vital that you always prioritise the health and principles of the creative layer over other organisational principles and practices. The organisation should serve the creative vision. It’s so easy to get lost in organisational thinking that the underlying creative process is neglected or even undermined. Don’t make that mistake.

Structure & Space

“What is the role of structure in an organization? What is the role of physical space and location? What is good structure? What is good space? What is the current organizational structure? How does the structure learn or change over time? How does the space learn or change over time?”

Formal Authority & Decisions

“How is the organization directed and controlled? What is the role of policy in the organization? How is policy created, documented, and changed? How can we be sure that the organization is achieving its purpose and serving its stakeholders? What constitutes a decision? How many kinds of decisions exist? How should different kinds of decisions be made? What decision rights do all members have? What is the mechanism for changing the decision process?”

Collaboration & Coordination

“What is the role of information? What is the role of communication? How should information flow through an organization? What information is public? What information is private? Why? How should members communicate? What tools or systems support this? What communication styles are helpful and effective? What is the purpose of meetings? What is a good meeting? What types of meetings does the organization require? What is the ops rhythm? How do teams that need to collaborate coordinate their activities? How is the work paced? How often do you deliver, share, retrospect, strategize, and govern?”

Resource Allocation & Measurement

“What is good resource allocation? Does it involve a budget? How and when are resources deployed? Are resources deployed annually or dynamically? What is the role of targets and forecasts? What is the organization’s target/goal setting process (if any)? What is the forecasting process (if any)? How does strategy influence budgets and resource allocation? How does performance?”

Strategy & Innovation

“What is strategy? What is the role of strategy in the organization? How is it developed? How is it communicated? How is it refreshed? What is innovation? Where, when, and how does innovation happen? Who is involved? How does the organization balance the short-term and the long-term? How does it manage its portfolio of ideas, prototypes, products, and services?”

People, Development & Motivation

“What is the role of people in the organization? How should people be treated? What motivates people? What is community? What skills does the organization need? How should people be compensated? How should they receive feedback? How do people develop and grow? How should the organization recruit and hire? How should it fire? How should career paths work? And on and on…”

How to use the canvas

The canvas is a useful tool to put at the heart of a process to either build a modern, creative initiative from the ground up, or to transform an initiative already in progress. Here’s a generalised process which you can follow. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all methodology for building or transforming an initiative, but this guidance will give you a good starting point.

Open the canvas in Google Drawings where you print it or make a copy to modify. Please respect the creative commons license and maintain the attributions given.

1. Get the creative layer clear

Before getting into anything relating to the organisational operating system, the focus should be entirely on the creative layer of the canvas: the initiative map and vision.

I recommend starting by reading Peter Koenig’s Source Principles and establishing which of the co-founders is the one originating founder — the ‘source’ — of the initiative. This may be obvious in some cases, or take a little unpicking in other cases where it appears as though multiple cofounders started it together.

“A prominent angel investor observed to me recently that many founders seem to hire friends as co-founders... This can work fine as long as everyone is clear who the source is. The responsibility to fully own the the role of source rests in large part with the source themselves.” — Graham Duncan of East Rock Capital in Tim Ferriss’ book Tribe of Mentors.

For older initiatives, the original founder may no longer be around. In which case you need to look for a path of succession to whoever holds the role of source today. Be aware that it’s possible for a source to leave but not fully hand over the role of source to a successor. If this is the case you’ll likely be experiencing some difficulties in the initiative. Here’s some guidance about succession from founder-CEOs.

The source should be the focus of the process to get the vision clear. This doesn’t mean that person should simply dictate the vision. They’ll very likely need a lot of help. Yet this person should take full responsibility for it and ask for help from others to input ideas and help them to get the vision clear. You can read more about how to play this key role which I like to call a vulnerable visionary.

This paves the way for an initiative mapping exercise which you can complete using this guide. It should clearly lay out how the key collaborators fit together, showing who has taken responsibility for portions of the overall vision. This may be a quick exercise for new initiatives or require significant research for larger ones. You can use Maptio to capture and share it digitally.

2. Develop an organisational operating system to suit the vision

With the Creative Order clear, you’re ready to think about organisational matters.

For established initiatives you can fill in the organisational operating system boxes to map how things are operating at the moment. At each stage, the key question to ask is whether the organisational elements are actually helping the vision to emerge or getting in the way. It’s very common to see efforts to ‘professionalise’ a growing initiative that actually stifle its creativity. Or to bring in new organisational ideas for their own sake. This should be avoided.

The way to do this is simply to ask the people holding responsibilities in the initiative map whether the organisational elements are helping or not, and whether they are what is needed looking to the future. This will allow you to build a list of organisational aspects that may need to be changed.

This process will also help you to spot gaps. These are areas where no conscious decision has been made about how things work. People are just working informally, on instinct, or process and practices have been adopted without conscious choice simply because people were not aware of any alternatives. In many cases, things may be working just fine. Don’t mess with formal structure or process just for the sake of it. At the same time, there may be areas where becoming more conscious about how things are being done might help people to realise the vision with more ease.

New initiatives may have very little formal organisation in place. My advice is to always seek the minimum viable operating system. You’ll find that if you focus on the initiative map and the people taking responsibility for each part of the vision, the need for formal organisation is greatly reduced.

You can consider implementing an off-the-shelf operating system like Holacracy which has answers to most of the boxes in this section, but be prepared to customise it for your needs. This can suit leaders who don’t want to have to devote too much headspace to org design and would like to start with something that’s been shown to work elsewhere. Just be aware that Holacracy can be done well or badly and is unproven at scale. Above all, don’t allow Holacracy to become ‘the thing’ — it’s always about realising the vision.

Since no two initiatives are the same, it’s usually better to develop your own unique operating system. This doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel. There are a growing number of successful, progressive organisations and approaches from which you can take inspiration for each of the organisational elements. The Ready have included a bunch of these in the introduction to their Canvas.

The exact process to implement change has too many variable to be able to fully explain here, but here are three general principles which you’ll find useful:

  1. Stay focussed on the initiative map and helping the people who are naturally responsible for each part of the vision. Always remember that the real goal is realising the vision. It’s not about ‘the organisation’.
  2. Involve people who will be affected by change in the process.
  3. Take a test-and-learn approach. Work in small iterations, running experiments and evaluating as you go along.

Further reading

A final word on copyright

Publishing this canvas was possible because The Ready generously published their original work under a Creative Commons license, and both Peter Koenig and Charles Davies have also published their ideas in the public domain. I’m pleased to have this new merging of ideas and iteration of the canvas also published under an open license.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The attribution of the work is both morally and creatively important. People should know where things have come from. If you develop and use the ideas and content here, you should clearly attribute this work, including the attributions given in the inspirations and influences section at the start. This gives credit where it’s due, and clarity for anyone picking up further derivatives of this work.