Your Startup Needs An Operating System

“Every enterprise requires commitment to common goals and shared values. Without such commitment there is no enterprise; there is only a mob.”
Peter Drucker

Most startups spend their early years with fewer than ten employees, maybe in the same room, maybe even at the same table. At that stage, everyone knows what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Everyone is working hard and bought in. Communicating is easy. Not communicating is hard. Taking the time to do a lot of long-term planning and process creation is a waste of time. You’re too busy struggling to find the product and market. Everything else matters less.

After you’ve found your product and market, have more than ten people, and move to the next stage, the team and product have to transition into an organization and business. Running them gets much more complicated. At that point, to succeed and become a high-performing organization, you need an Operating System.

Your company has an Operating System whether or not you consciously build and nurture one. It will happen by default. And a default Operating System is highly unlikely to function well and get the long-term results you’re looking for.

What’s an Operating System?

An Operating System is a set of materials that clearly defines what you’re trying to do and how you’re going to do it. Everything else you do is based on it.

Why have an Operating System?

How can your team achieve the mission and goals if they don’t know what the mission and goals are? How can your team be empowered and work together if they don’t have common guidelines, values, and systems? You need alignment around what you’re trying to do and the high level of how you’re trying to do it. With that, you can get where you want to go.

Why does a computer have an Operating System?

Everything else runs on it.

With a good Operating System for your organization, everything else works. With a bad one, everything else breaks down.

With a good one, you’ll hire and retain the best people. Your team will know what to do and how to approach it. Your team will feel empowered and confident to jump in and start solving problems. You’ll work on the most valuable opportunities. Your team will get the information they need and give the information others need. You’ll be effective and get better results.

With a bad one, you’ll turn over your best people. You’ll lack focus. You’ll move slowly. You’ll waste time on politics, confusion, wrong priorities, and bad communication.1 You’ll be ineffective and won’t get the results you’re looking for.

That’s obviously jumping to a conclusion. How do you know that an Operating System can have that kind of impact? Yes, you can find research that supports it.2 But you’ve also lived it. You’ve worked on teams and at companies, so you know what kind of impact a good and bad Operating System can have. You’ve seen time, money, and brain power wasted on politics and wrong priorities. You’ve seen people quit their jobs, projects fail, and companies miss opportunities, because of bad managers, bad systems, and bad communication. You’ve seen big egos and loud voices beat down the best ideas. You’ve lived it.

You’re not going to want to prioritize the creation of an Operating System. You’re going to want to be building new features, selling your product, and running marketing campaigns. Those things have immediate results. A feature that users have been asking for is live. A deal is closed. More users are signing up. But the difference between those things and building your Operating System is that the Operating System gives you scale. With a good Operating System, you’ll put out ten features, make hundreds of sales, and run multiple successful marketing campaigns. And you’ll do them all well.

Outline of an Operating System

An Operating System has three parts:

  1. Foundation. The Operating System starts with and builds on your organization’s foundational materials. The foundational materials define your organization. They include some combination of a vision, mission, strategy, values, and culture.
  2. Planning. Planning is how you turn your foundational materials into measurable goals and a prioritized to do list to maximize your likelihood of success.
  3. Execution. After you have your foundation and plan, it’s time to execute. The execution part of your Operating System has many parts. Some common parts are project management, people management, decision making, and communication.

Someone must be the owner of the Operating System. Someone who has the time to dedicate to the task. Like any important project, this project will get done well only if someone owns it. This won’t happen by itself. This won’t go well if run by committee. This won’t go well if it’s someone’s side job that doesn’t get the attention it needs and can be deprioritized every day.

Future posts will go into more depth on each part of the Operating System.

Please share and give feedback! What’s missing? What needs more detail?

Thanks for reading!

Notes:

  1. For example, from Culture Code: “The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? Their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem.”
  2. See for example and for other great reading: