Jul 28 2022

The Concept of the Operating Philosophy

I’ve always been a big believer in the Operating Framework and the Operating System as two of the management underpinnings behind every well run company.

The Operating Framework is the company’s Mission, Vision, Values, Strategic Objectives, and Key Metrics. Companies have all sorts of different labels for this, from Balanced Scorecard to Salesforce’s V2MOM to Patrick Lencioni’s 6 Questions. It’s what you have to define up front, refresh annually, and tweak quarterly so that people in the company are aligned and know where you’re going.

The Operating System, as I wrote extensively about in Startup CEO, is the collection of practices, meetings, mailing lists, routines/rhythms, and behaviors that your company and team use and depend on to run the business on a day to day basis. It’s what you have to put in place and tweak as needed so work gets done efficiently – the thing that turns the sprint of a raw startup into the marathon of a scaling business.

But there’s a third leg to the stool of company management underpinnings that’s often overlooked and underappreciated – the company’s Operating Philosophy. The Operating Philosophy is the intellectual underpinning of how you want to run and lead the business. It’s related to, but different from, your company’s values. Think of it as the essence of how you want to work and shape the work of others…what defines your form of company.

You can run a company perfectly well without a clear Operating Philosophy, especially with a tight Operating Framework and Operating System in place. But my guess is that you have one, you just haven’t articulated it yet, and you might benefit from doing so. At least that was our experience where we had an undefined but real one at Return Path and have now tried to define one front and center at Bolster.

A useful way to think about these three legs of the stool is the analogy of government (bear with me on this and pretend like our government in the US isn’t quite as dysfunctional as it is at the moment). Our Operating Framework is the Constitution – it lays out the broad contours of what our government does. Our mission, vision, and values. Our Operating System is the collection of policies, practices, and programs that run the country, from the timing and cadence of elections, to the ways the three branches of government enact and execute policy, to the ways state and local governments fit in. Our Operating Philosophy is the Declaration of Independence. It’s our essence. It is what separates our form of government from other forms of government. We are a Representative Democracy, a Constitutional Federal Republic. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Some examples? Zappos is a Holocracy – defined as a system of corporate governance whereby members of a team or business form distinct, autonomous, yet symbiotic, teams to accomplish tasks and company goals. The concept of a corporate hierarchy is discarded in favor of a flat organizational structure where all workers have an equal voice while simultaneously answering to the direction of shared authority. Patagonia (and lots of other companies) is a Delaware Public Benefit Corporation (PBC or often called a B Corporation), which must by law follow Stakeholder Capitalism and not Shareholder Capitalism. Plenty of crypto organizations are set up as DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations), which is a group of people who come together without a central leader or company dictating any of the decisions, built on a blockchain using smart contracts and a currency of tokens that give them the ability to vote on decisions that are made around how the pool of money is spent and managed.

Hopefully that makes sense. Next week, I’ll talk about our Operating Philosophy at Bolster.