The Board Operating System

In the comments to my post yesterday titled The Religion of Silicon Valley, Rosey commented that the choice of metaphor could be “operating system” instead of religion.

“Brad, I expected your choice of metaphor would be ‘operating system’ more than ‘religion’, as the term ‘religion’ carries a lot of baggage and generally involves some supernatural truth claims. An ‘operating system’ both defines its environment and thrives within it — and the idea of an OS seems less cluttered with other analogies, like heaven, hell, and Eden.

Can you, for example, take the SV’s operating system and drag and drop it into Boulder or Kansas City? You can — but the VC’s the operating system needs to plug into may not be fast or scalable enough — the peripherals the OS expects to interact with.

The SV OS ought to work in a Bolder or Kansas City if we can ‘install it.'”

I love the phrase “operating system” to describe things. I saw a presentation from Anil Dash a year or two ago that completely recast government and how it works into the construct of an OS (it was epic – I wish I had the slides).

Yesterday I got an email from a CEO of a late stage company I’m involved in who is modifying his “board operating system.” He has a new late stage investor and it’s time to change the board OS to incorporate this new director and how he likes to work into the mix in a way that is additive to everyone, especially the company and the CEO.

It’d be easy for the CEO to fight this and say, “Nope, this is how we do things” but he’s wiser than that and instead is spending time thinking through how to modify the OS so that it works for everyone, including all the existing investors who are very happy with the existing board OS.

Here’s a quick table of the “current” and “future” board OS. The communication is clear and the rhythm is well-defined.

Board Operating System

In 2014, Paul Berberian, CEO of Sphero, wrote an email to his board (which I’m on) titled Orbotix Board of Directors Expectations. We use this as our board OS at Orbotix and it’s been incredibly helpful. If you are struggling with your board dynamics, it’s worth reading and contemplating creating something similar.

I’m a strong believer that a great CEO sets the expectations for how the board of a private company works. Too many CEOs of startups don’t put the energy into this and as a result boards take on default behavior that is a function of the experience, style, and temperament of individual board members. This is, at best, suboptimal, and is often a clusterfuck.

  • Sounds like the early days of custom proprietary OS flavors. Next step in evolution are standardized OS per category – Consumer start up board OS, Security start…

  • Why is it necessary to come up for analogy oriented terms for these things? Silicon Valley has a culture. That’s the appropriate term.

    An operating system is a lowest level software that provides a user environment on a computer. There may be some other uses for it in operations research or something but I would bet when used in those situations, its definition is pretty clear and precise as well.

    So this guy’s board meeting agenda and status information is now an “operating system?” How about this? You’re an author. Wrap that up with a bunch of common sense observations and self-help platitudes and you could have a NY Times Best Seller on your hands. 😉

    BTW, grats on the Sphero placement in the upcoming Star Wars. If that doesn’t push sales past where they need to be, I don’t know what will…

    • Thanks on Sphero.

      I like the idea of an Operating System as a metaphor. I find metaphors interesting ways to explore how things work. One of my favorite lines of all time is from Jerry Colonna, who was investing in digital companies that had “analog analogues” when he worked with Fred Wilson at Flatiron Partners.

      And I think an OS does a LOT more than provide a “user environment on a computer.”

  • John Ohno

    Religion is a perfectly acceptable analogy, because the invisible hand is a supernatural entity in which we are expected to have faith and perform rites and sacrifices to.

  • The idea of the operating system is that it exists at an implementation layer separate from other layers such as hardware peripherals. I get how this analogy applies to boards (and SV). But the great part of a good OS is that it works in a variety of contexts.

    Why do you think that so many boards become a cumbersome waste of time? Given how much you have written on this topic, and how little of it people disagree with, it seems like insight isn’t the limiting factor for improvement in boards.

    My operating theory is that there is a lack of good coaching on boards. The education system for boards is still in its infancy. We have the written text book, but we’re screwing up on implementation. There is no great mechanism for delivering coaching to board members since the meetings are small, private, and have little turnover in members. We need the concept of a visiting board member to shake things up, inject fresh ideas into the group, and challenge the status quo.

    • Boards end up being a cumbersome waste of time when board members (a) don’t agree on rules of engagement, (b) don’t have trust between them and the leadership team, and (c) don’t engage in a positive, constructive way.

      Politics and mixed agendas – almost always unspoken, often get in the way. Personalities and experience bases do as well. Control vs. support behavior (and perspectives) often causes chaos.

      And then some people are just shitty board members.

      Your suggestion about coaching is very true. Most private company board members either learned by observing a senior partner at a VC firm that they “apprenticed” under (a model many VC firms still believe is the best model). Others have zero experience and training and just make it up as they go.