The OS Canvas

How to rebuild your organization from the ground up

Aaron Dignan
The Ready


UPDATE: A newer version of this article (and tool) exists. Click here to read it.

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. Leaders in every industry tell us about the myriad problems they’re trying to solve in their organizations:

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

And we all know how you get these things. Transform the culture. But what is the culture? And why does our every attempt to change it fail? Management exorcist Niels Pflaeging offers some clarity. “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time. Culture is read-only.” Trying to change culture is like trying to change traffic or the weather — easy to yell at, but not likely to respond. Or worse, the actions we take have unintended consequences.

The trouble stems (at least in part) from the fact that we still look at organizations mechanistically. Have a speed problem? Let’s pop the hood and see which part needs replacing. But organizations are not that linear. They are complex human systems that require a completely different metaphor. They are more akin to organisms, ecosystems, or networks. 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.

In technology, we think of an operating system (OS) as the foundational layer between the hardware (e.g. your phone) and the software (e.g. your apps). It provides a sort of intermediary between you and an abstract set of resources and helps you cope with the complexity of running that technology.

“The thing about an Operating System is that you’re never ever supposed to see it. And the only mission in life of an Operating System is to help those programs run. So an Operating System never does anything on its own; it only steps in and tries to make it easy to do your job.” — Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux

Like our technology, organizations run on code. But this code isn’t made of ones and zeroes. It’s made of principles and beliefs, practices and rules. This DNA is so pervasive, unquestioned, and deeply held that we don’t even notice it. It manifests in concepts like:

Everyone needs a boss. Executives should have offices. Budgets should be done annually. Leaders decide the strategy. Designers should sit with designers. Conference rooms have a table and chairs. Hourly workers should punch a time clock. People need incentives.

Really? Is that all actually true or is that just what we do?

The concepts above are code. Simple rules. Foundational architecture. Put together, they represent an organizational operating system — upon which everything runs. And amazingly, this OS isn’t even one that we chose — it’s one that we inherited.

Q: What year is this org chart from? A: 1955? 1920? 2016?

Indeed, the vast majority of our most important institutions in business, philanthropy, and government are running on an OS that was designed over 100 years ago by Frederick Taylor and his contemporaries. His big idea was to separate the thinking from the doing, measure everything, and try to make everything (and everyone) as controllable, predictable, and efficient as possible. And for a long time it worked. Corporations grew. Standard of living rose. The manager was truly the master of the universe.

Then complexity happened. Globalization. The Internet. Mobile. Startups making billions just a few years out of the garage. Black Swan events like the financial crisis. Interconnectedness and volatility at unprecedented levels. Slowly but surely, an OS designed for efficiency and the compliance of an unthinking workforce became woefully outdated. And yet we have done very little to change the way we work and organize. We are running the organizational equivalent of MS-DOS, but it’s 2016.

Office Space was a parody of work in 1999. What’s changed in 17 years?

There are signs of hope. More and more companies are abandoning the old way 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 (or even antifragile) in the face of change hinges on the deliberate design of their operating system.

The creation of an OS canvas.

It is impossible to reduce a complex system like an organization to a simple framework. As someone who loves the power of thinking tools, that’s been a struggle for me. In 2014, a few co-founders and I created to try to articulate a manifesto about the future of work. In it, we used conceptual tensions like privacy vs. transparency to describe what needs to change. While this resonated with people, it turned out to be less than practical for the average leader. It’s easy to agree with “be transparent” at an offsite. It’s much harder to put that into practice across an organization.

So, The Ready and I spent the last year on a mission to create a new tool. Something that could take a complex system and make it a practical playground for imagining and implementing a new way of working. It was not easy. At several points it felt like we should just give in to the nebulousness of it all.

But then we remembered another tool that had accomplished a similar feat. In 2008, Alex Osterwalder and his colleagues introduced the Business Model Canvas and changed the way we think about business models. Their tool managed to make business models accessible. The idea of a canvas for organization design took hold. But could we create something equally meaningful?

The Business Model Canvas from Strategyzer

We decided to take a two-pronged approach to deriving the fields of our canvas. First, we examined and compared the contemporary org theories of people like Laloux, Pflaeging, Robertson, Drucker, McGregor, Kotter, Hamel, McChrystal, Senge, Denning, Ismail, Wheatley, Bogsnes, Marquet, and dozens more. Second, we studied a list of companies largely considered to be pioneers in new ways of working. This included companies like Valve, Morning Star, Handelsbanken, Buurtzorg, W.L. Gore, Spotify, Google, Whole Foods, Semco, GitHub, JSOC, Netflix, Zappos, FAVI, AES, Automattic, Basecamp, and many more. In both cases, we were looking for one thing: what are the features that they choose to highlight and hold up as fundamental to (their) organization design?

Where we saw patterns, we began to draw circles. For example, almost every research subject promoted “pushing decisions to where the information is,” or “distributed authority,” or “empowered execution at the edge.” Thus, Authority & Decisions came into focus. As we worked our way through the material, these simple but profound patterns continued to emerge.

An early screenshot of our Trello board for this project.

At this point in our research (and it’s still “day one” as Bezos would say), nine areas have materialized that seem to 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.

In the past few months, we’ve been testing out variations of the canvas with customers and prospects in workshops, discussions, and training sessions — here in New York and as far away as Sweden. While the specifics of the canvas are still being tested, what was validated for us was the power of a tool like this to provoke a deeply practical conversation about how things are, how they should be, and how to get there.

Without further ado, and with appreciation for your patience and support thus far, meet The OS Canvas, version 1.0. Download a high-resolution copy here:

Getting to know The OS Canvas.

First off, let us be clear that this is not a mutually exclusive or comprehensively exhaustive (MECE) framework. From a systems thinking perspective, reducing an organization to its independent parts is a mistake. Rather, these are overlapping and interconnected fields that our research tells us are in a state of flux. To the best of our ability in a two dimensional representation, fields that are next to each other tend to influence each other more (e.g. Decisions — Information — Meetings).

Each field asks us to consider certain aspects of our organization more deeply than we typically would. For example, what is authority, how should it be distributed, and how does that manifest (or not) in your culture? The canvas forces us to confront the delta between our assumptions, our beliefs, and our reality.

In developing the fields, we also aspired to keep the titles of each one value agnostic, meaning that any organization can complete the canvas without influence — regardless of how traditional or contemporary their philosophy may be. This allows us to use the tool honestly for both present state and future state analyses.

What follows are summaries for each field of the canvas — how to think about them, prompts to get you started, and some fresh thinking to provoke new ideas.

After a thorough exploration of the below, each field of the canvas should contain at least two essential pieces of information:

  1. What are our principles in this area? What should we prioritize in order to do this well?
  2. What are our practices in this area? What do we actually do — how does this manifest in the organization?

Structure & Space

This field is dedicated to the functional and physical anatomy of your organization — your spheres of activity, both conceptual and environmental. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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?

Some of the organizations in our study, like W.L. Gore, are starting to view structure as more fluid and emergent. They may refer to org charts as “written in pencil.” As the metaphor for the organization has changed from a machine to an organism, structure is increasingly viewed as a network or in the case of Zappos, a “role marketplace.” Space on the other hand, has undergone a profound transformation on the basis of our obsession with startup culture. Countless multinationals have written checks to Steelcase in pursuit of that elusive startup energy. More savvy firms like Spotify have actually focused on making space purpose-built, with modular and adaptable spaces suited to the squads that inhabit them.

Authority & Decisions

This field is dedicated to how authority is distributed and how decisions are made — the systems for power and processing. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

What is authority? What constitutes a decision? How should authority be distributed? 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 authority structure or decision process?

Some of the organizations in our study, including the Joint Special Operations Command in the U.S. military, recognize that the only way to deal with rapid change (a VUCA world) is to push authority out to the edge. And we are learning that big decisions made with data (as opposed to opinion) and through integrating multiple perspectives (as opposed to any single perspective) significantly outperform the status quo.

Information & Communication

This field is dedicated to how data and information moves through your organization and how it is processed — communication and knittedness. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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?

Some of the organizations in our study, like Buffer, recognize that information flow is an absolute necessity in the 21st century. To that end, transparency has become their standard, sometimes referred to as “default to open” or “work in public.” In these cultures, all information is accessible and searchable for everyone. Financial data. Salary data. Sleep data. Anything and everything. Communication, the non-technical side of information flow, is equally important, and certain principles found here connect strongly to practices in Authority & Decisions as well as Meetings, Rhythm & Coordination.

Policy & Governance

This field is dedicated to the governance of the organization — written policy, the rule of law, and anything associated with right and good stewardship of the organization. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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?

Almost without being noticed, corporate governance has mutated into a circus of compliance and risk avoidance. The word “governance” comes from the Greek verb κυβερνάω [kubernáo], meaning to steer. In the purest sense it is the system of rules, practices and processes by which a company is directed and controlled. Only in the last few decades has that basic duty of steering an organization in the direction of its purpose been pushed aside in favor of fiduciary responsibility and “balancing the interests” of the organization’s stakeholders. Why do we need to balance these interests? Wouldn’t doing what is best for the customer solve for all of them over time? Yes, but not if the shareholder’s demands for short-term growth eclipse everything and everyone else. Thus, the messy art of modern governance.

There is a better way, and legal innovations like Benefit Corporation status are designed to preserve and protect true governance. Meanwhile, others are practicing radical forms of continuous participatory governance, where written policy is edited and refined by the workers themselves on a regular basis. There is much yet to be done here.

Purpose & Values

This field is dedicated to what is important to you — your reason for being and way of being. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

What is the role of purpose in an organization? What is the role of values? What is a good purpose? What are good values? What is the organization’s purpose? What are its values? Should they ever change? What is the mechanism for changing them?

Some of the theories in our study, such as Holacracy, treat purpose as fractal. Starting with global purpose they unpack the concept into every team and role, creating a network of meaning and intent. Others stress the importance of finding a fit between personal and professional purpose. Values continue to play the role of aligning behavior and decisions.

Meetings, Rhythm & Coordination

This field is dedicated to meetings, rituals, and events that bring people together and coordinate action — inclusive of the cadences or rhythms that drive operations. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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?

Some of the organizations in our study, like Pixar, recognize the importance of meetings done well. Unlike legacy cultures that persist in bad meeting overload, these cultures tend to have minimum viable meeting structure that is well understood and highly functional. Pixar’s daily film review meeting is a hallmark of the culture and they attribute much of their success to this session and the debate it encourages.

Strategy & Innovation

This field is dedicated to how an organization manifests its strategy or strategic plan, as well as the innovation process — where ideas come from, how they come to life, and how the portfolio evolves over time. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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?

Some of the organizations in our study, like Valve, view strategy as an emergent process similar to structure. If the purpose of the organization is clear, the strategy may best be revealed by empowering the individuals in the culture to make their own decisions about what is important. Since any strategy we select is likely to be wrong the important thing is continuous steering in service of the purpose. Others organizations are looking at innovation as an essential part of the lifecycle of every role and team. Like a panarchy, the operating system should create the conditions for continual renewal and creative destruction, in the midst of today’s best bets.

Resource Allocation, Targets & Forecasts

This field is dedicated to how resources (financial, human, and others) flow through the organization, as well as if and how we create targets (goals) and forecasts (financial plans) — the connection between what we think will happen, what we’d like to have happen, and how we should deploy resources to achieve that. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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?

Some of the theories in our study, such as Beyond Budgeting, are questioning the value of an annual planning and budgeting process in the face of rapidly changing marketplace. New forms of dynamic budgeting, futures markets, voting with feet, and outside-in capital allocation are all taking hold.

People, Development & Motivation

This field is dedicated to all things people — from recruiting to development, compensation, and beyond. When exploring this field, start by considering the following questions:

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…

Some of the organizations in our study, like Google, have been revolutionizing people operations for a long time, and now even the establishment is catching up. Annual reviews are being supplanted by more frequent feedback. Salaries are becoming formulaic and transparent. Vacation policies are a thing of the past. Parental leave is approaching half a year in some cases. Getting and keeping top talent has become a contest for the most desirable and admirable workplace.

Here’s an example of a very high-level canvas for Google, based on the information in How Google Works and Work Rules!

The OS Canvas work session agenda.

The best first step is to use the canvas to start a conversation and get your team in a generative flow. Below is an agenda for a 90-minute work session that we find particularly useful for that purpose. For other, more in-depth ways to use the canvas, please follow us here on Medium.

  1. Setup. Reserve a quiet and spacious room with at least one big blank wall or window. Print out the OS Canvas (download here) at poster size (~48" tall) and put it up on the wall prior to the session. Provide a pad of Post-it® notes and a Sharpie for each participant (we recommend no more than 15 participants).
  2. Check In. Ask each participant to “check in” to the meeting by answering the following question: “What has your attention?” 10 min.
  3. Introduction. Introduce participants to the concept of an organizational operating system either through portions of this article or with a short discussion that you facilitate. 10 min.
  4. 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 teams) 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 tension, one per Post-it® note (use one color for all participants), with a goal of at least five per person. 10 min.
  5. 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, one per Post-it® note (use a second color for all participants), with a goal of at least five per person. 10 min.
  6. Placement. Now have each person place their tensions and bright spots on the canvas where they feel the issue is rooted most strongly. As they place each one, have them offer a short explanation to the group. Questions and answers are allowed. 15 min.
  7. Discussion. Going field by field, discuss the tensions that were placed on the canvas and identify themes and patterns. As a group, ask yourselves: Why these issues are 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 fields 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.)? 25+ min.
  8. Prioritization. Stack rank the nine fields of the canvas based on your conversation. Which would the group rate as healthiest and which require the most improvement? Based on everything you’ve heard, where would everyone start the journey toward a better way of working by turning one thing on its head? Capture any relevant plans or next actions. Congratulations, you’re done with your first OS Canvas session! 10 min.

Did you know that I recently finished a new book all about how organizations can change the way they operate? If you’re interested in the future of work movement, the work we do at The Ready, or simply how to make your own organization better, then you should definitely order your copy of Brave New Work today.

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Aaron Dignan
The Ready

Founder @theready and @murmur, investor, friend to misfit toys. Author of Brave New Work and co-host of the Brave New Work podcast.