The Operating System Canvas

A new and improved tool for reinventing your organization

Aaron Dignan
Feb 9 · 12 min read

Organization design is hard. Whether you’re the CEO of a global corporation, the founder of a startup, or a team leader inside one of the tens of thousands of companies that make our world turn, you’re up against one of the greatest puzzles ever conceived. We see evidence of this everywhere we look. Corporate longevity is down. Employee engagement is dismal. Leaders from every industry and geography tell us about the myriad problems they’re facing in their own organizations:

We need to go faster. Be more innovative. Make better decisions. Waste less time. Break down silos. Work horizontally. Simplify our structure. Focus on the customer. Increase information flow. Scale without losing what makes us great. Change our business model. Attract different talent. Retain the great talent we have.

Of course, we all know intuitively what we have to do: we have to transform the culture. But what is culture? And why does our every attempt to change it fail? Author Niels Pflaeging has a unique take on this. “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time. Culture is read-only.” Indeed, trying to change culture is like trying to change the weather — yell at it all you want, it’s unlikely to respond. Or worse, some of the actions we take while we’re “driving change” have unfortunate and unintended consequences.

The trouble stems (at least in part) from the fact that we still view organizations as machines—people and processes that should fit together like clockwork. Faced with a problem we think, let’s pop the hood and see which “part” needs replacing. But organizations are not nearly that predictable. Instead, they are complex systems likely to surprise and confound us. They require a completely different metaphor. Think garden, not wristwatch. They are at once interconnected, dynamic, emergent, and ever-changing.

When faced with that level of complexity and uncertainty, we tend to oversimplify. The people say, “We have the wrong leaders!” And the leaders say, “We have the wrong people!” The culture remains.

But, here’s the good news: The problem isn’t your leaders or your people. It’s your operating system.

The Organizational Operating System

Every team has at its core a set of assumptions, beliefs, principles, practices, processes, and policies that act as the foundation upon which the day-to-day work unfolds. I refer to this as an operating system (OS)—a collection of implicit and explicit constraints that shape how we operate. This organizational “DNA” is so pervasive, unquestioned, and deeply held that we don’t even notice it.

It manifests in notions like:

Employees need to be managed. Resources should be allocated through annual budgets. Leaders should set strategy. Developers should sit with developers. Meeting rooms need tables and chairs. Hourly workers should punch a clock. Employees need incentives to stay motivated and focused. And so on…

Really? Is any of that empirically true, or is it just what we do?

The notions above represent what I call our Legacy OS—the dominant view upon which modern business culture runs in almost every country on Earth. What stunning is that this way of working—which shapes the majority of our waking lives—isn’t even something that we chose. It’s something that we inherited.

Q: What year is this org chart from? A: 1955? 1920? 2019?

The vast majority of our most important institutions in business, philanthropy, and government are leveraging an OS that was developed over 100 years ago by Frederick Taylor and his contemporaries working in factories during the Second Industrial Revolution. Their contribution was to separate the thinking from the doing by finding and enforcing the one best way to do every task, making work as controllable, predictable, and efficient as possible. The leader’s job was to study and optimize. The worker’s job was to comply and keep the pace. For the most part, they succeeded. Their methods caused a meteoric rise in quality, consistency, and productivity. Our standard of living rose. Corporations grew. And a new class of managers became undisputed masters of the universe.

But them something happened. A lot of things happened actually. Globalization. The Internet. Mobile computing. Machine learning. Automation. Startups with the potential to undermine democracy. Black Swan events like the financial crisis and the 2016 U.S. election. Interconnectedness and volatility at unprecedented levels. In the midst of all this complexity, the promise of the Legacy OS has started to fade. Slowly but surely, a way of working designed for maximum efficiency and the compliance of an unthinking workforce has become woefully outdated. Looking back, almost everything has changed. And yet, the way we work and organize has not. We are running on the organizational equivalent of MS-DOS, but it’s 2019.

Office Space was a parody of work in 1999. What’s changed in 20 years?

There are signs of hope. More and more companies are abandoning the old ways in search of the new. And based on our experiences around the globe, leaders are finally ready to accept that their organization’s ability to adapt, innovate, grow, and remain resilient in the face of change hinges on their operating system.

An Early Canvas

In 2016, we noticed that leaders and teams struggled to articulate the principles and practices that were foundational to their OS—and worse, that they often missed the patterns and contradictions that were present in their system. So, we developed and released a simple tool to help spark new thinking. We called it The OS Canvas and released it into the wild as creative commons. To date, nearly 3,000 leaders and teams have downloaded that canvas and leveraged it in meetings, workshops, offsites, and other key moments of reflection.

We’ve seen teams use it descriptively, to articulate their way of working (or someone else’s). We’ve seen others use it diagnostically, to explore a positive or negative pattern they’ve noticed (e.g. Why do new hires feel so confused about our onboarding process?). And we’ve seen some use it aspirationally, to imagine ways their firm might evolve. For our part, we most often use it to discuss stories, tensions, and experiments that are happening inside the organizations we advise — asking the teams themselves to interpret what’s happening. But across all these applications, we started to find ways it could be both simpler and more comprehensive.

Brave New Work

By 2018, my desire to accelerate the shift away from bureaucracy had culminated in a book project called Brave New Work. This afforded me the opportunity to look more deeply at the OS Canvas (as well as the feedback we’d received) and take the tool to the next level.

New research. New book. New canvas.

Over the course of a year, I had the luxury of carefully examining and comparing the contemporary org theories of people like Bakke, de Blok, Bosgnes, Bøtter, Deming, Drucker, Edmondson, Endenburg, Fried/DHH, Getz, Grant, Gray, Hamel, Herzberg, Kirkpatrick, Kniberg, Laloux, Little, McGregor, Ohno, Peters, Pflaeging, Robertson, Semler, Senge, Snowden, Zobrist, and dozens more.

I also had a talented research team curating a collection of what the book refers to as Evolutionary Organizations—pioneers in new ways of working—cultures known for their adaptivity, speed, and humanity. This included organizations like Automattic, Basecamp, Blinkist, Bridgewater, Buffer, Burning Man, Buurtzorg, BvdV, dm-drogerie markt, Enspiral, Everlane, FAVI, Haier, Handelsbanken, Incentro, Menlo Innovations, Morning Star, Patagonia, Spotify, and W.L. Gore, just to name a few. Throughout the research, we asked one simple question:

What’s different about this organization that has allowed them to transcend bureaucracy?

As we worked our way through the theories, cases, and data, some simple but profound patterns began to emerge. Grouping the principles and practices of this community together, the original canvas morphed into twelve new dimensions that represent the proving ground for the future of work. It is in these areas that the brave and iconoclastic are taking risks. It is in these areas that recent failures will likely find their faults.

An early screenshot of our research into principles + practices from 70+ organizations and theorists.

Coinciding with the release of Brave New Work, we are now releasing the OS Canvas 2.0. You can download a high-resolution PDF of the canvas (complete with instructions for a simple-but-effective OS work session) at our website: theready.com/os-canvas.

From Brave New Work (Portfolio/Penguin Randomhouse 2019)

Exploring The OS Canvas

First off, let me be clear that the canvas is not a mutually exclusive or comprehensively exhaustive framework. Reducing a complex system like an organization to independent parts is folly. Rather, these are overlapping and interconnected areas that our research tells us are in a state of flux. Each dimension is a lens that asks you to look at your organization or team and reflect on the following:

What are our principles in this area? What do we believe?

What are our practices in this area? What do we actually do?

Are they serving us? Are our actions and outcomes consistent with our values?

The canvas asks teams to consider, often for the very first time, why they work the way they do. And this may force us to confront the delta between our assumptions, our beliefs, and our reality. Why does this process or policy exist? Is what we say what we do? Have we considered this before? The canvas can provoke a conversation, and that conversation can provoke a change.

What follows are definitions and sample prompts for each dimension of the canvas to get you started. For more on how these dimensions are changing inside Evolutionary Organizations around the world, including examples, cases, and stories of change, consider picking up a copy of Brave New Work.

PURPOSE

How we orient and steer; the reason for being at the heart of any organization, team, or individual.

  • What is our reason for being?
  • What is meaningful about our work?
  • How does our purpose help us make decisions?

AUTHORITY

How we share power and make decisions; the right to make decisions and take action or compel others to do the same.

  • Who can tell others what to do?
  • How do we make important decisions?
  • What is safe to try? What is not?

STRUCTURE

How we organize and team; the anatomy of the organization; formal, informal, and value-creation networks.

  • What is centralized? What is decentralized?
  • Within teams, how do we approach roles and accountabilities?
  • How does our structure learn or change over time?

STRATEGY

How we plan and prioritize; the process of identifying critical factors or challenges and the means to overcome them.

  • What are the critical factors that will mean the difference between success and failure?
  • How do we develop, refine, and refresh our strategy?
  • How do we use strategy to filter and steer day-to-day?

RESOURCES

How we invest our time and money; the allocation of capital, effort, space, and other assets.

  • How do we allocate funds, effort, space, and other assets?
  • How do strategy and planning influence resource allocation?
  • How does our approach enable us to respond to emergent events?

INNOVATION

How we learn and evolve; the creation of something new; the evolution of what already exists.

  • Who participates in innovation? Who has the right to innovate?
  • What is the role of failure and learning in innovation?
  • How do we balance the short term and the long term?

WORKFLOW

How we divide and do the work; the path and process of value creation.

  • What is the relationship between our workflow and our structure?
  • How do we maintain visibility across all our projects?
  • How are projects initiated, canceled, or completed?

MEETINGS

How we convene and coordinate; the many ways members and teams come together.

  • Does each of our meetings have a clear purpose and structure?
  • How are meetings facilitated and documented?
  • How do we improve or eliminate meetings that are no longer serving us?

INFORMATION

How we share and use data; the flow of data, insight, and knowledge across the organization.

  • What information is shared freely?
  • What information is contained or controlled?
  • What tools, systems, or forums support storing and sharing?

MEMBERSHIP

How we define and cultivate relationships; the boundaries and conditions for entering, inhabiting, and leaving teams and organizations.

  • How is membership (in the org or team) gained? How is it relinquished? How is it revoked?
  • What do all members expect of one another?
  • How do members move between teams and other boundaries?

MASTERY

How we grow and mature; the journey of self-discovery and development; our approach to nurturing talent, skills, and competence.

  • What is our approach to learning and development?
  • How do we give and receive feedback?
  • How does competence influence the roles we inhabit?

COMPENSATION

How we pay and provide; the wages, salaries, bonuses, commissions, benefits, perquisites, profits, and equity exchanged for participation in the organization.

  • What is our approach to compensation?
  • What mechanisms have we put into place to reduce bias in compensation?
  • How are changes in compensation triggered and conducted?

Using The OS Canvas With Your Team

The canvas can provoke incredible conversations and powerful stories. It can help you and your team identify what to amplify and what to change. It can even help you find unexpected sources of inspiration. But for your first foray into what can be an emotional and challenging conversation, we recommend a lightly structured workshop format that has proven to be both safe and effective. Here are some brief instructions that will help you on your way.

Setup. Reserve a quiet and spacious room with at least one big blank wall or window. Invite your team or a group of no more than fifteen interested participants from across the company. Print out a large poster-sized copy of the OS Canvas and hang it on the wall prior to the session. Provide two pads of sticky notes (yellow and green) and a Sharpie for each participant.

Check-in. Ask each participant to “check in” to the meeting by answering the following question: What has your attention? Push the group for vulnerability and candor. Model it by checking in first.

Introduction. Introduce participants to the concept of the organizational operating system through selected passages from this article or Brave New Work, and facilitate a brief discussion.

Tensions. Ask everyone to generate a list of tensions they’re feeling day to day based on the following questions: What is preventing you (or your team) from doing your best work? What is slowing you (or your team) down? What is our biggest problem as an organization? Ask each attendee to write down each of their tensions on a yellow sticky note (one per note), with a goal of at least five per person.

Bright Spots. Ask everyone to generate a list of the things that are going well based on the following questions: What is working? What is enabling you to do your best work? What is speeding you (or your team) up? What is helping you make better decisions? What are you proud of in terms of the way we work? What is our biggest strength as an organization? Ask each attendee to write down each bright spot on a green sticky note (one per note), with a goal of at least five per person.

Placement. Now have each person place their tensions and bright spots on the canvas where they feel the topic is most strongly rooted. As they place each one, have them offer a short explanation to the group. Allow the notion that some tensions and bright spots belong in multiple dimensions. Allow questions and answers.

Discussion. One dimension at a time, discuss the tensions that were placed on the canvas and identify themes and patterns. As a group, ask yourselves: Why are these issues present now? What underlying structures, rules, or processes are contributing to them? What personal behavior, attitudes, and assumptions are contributing to them? How are the tensions in different dimensions connected? Are there bigger patterns present in the canvas (e.g., we have limited trust, so we reserve all decisions for management, so we have lots of meetings with people asking for permission)?

Sensing. Based on everything you’ve all heard, ask the group what they would like to change. What one thing would they flip on its head? What addition or subtraction might unlock other possibilities? Capture any intentions or next actions and use them as fodder for your first few experiments. Start small. But don’t wait. Be brave.


If you enjoyed this article, please share, subscribe, and give us some claps! 👏❤️ Oh, and please buy the book. 📘

Small portions of this content were excerpted from Brave New Work (Portfolio/Penguin Randomhouse 2019).

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The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works. Topics include org design, self-organization, and dynamic teaming.

Aaron Dignan

Written by

Founder @theready, investor, friend to misfit toys. Author of upcoming book on self-organization and transformation: http://theready.com/book

The Ready

The Ready

Lessons from our quest to change how the world works. Topics include org design, self-organization, and dynamic teaming.

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