Gadgets are smart these days. You can buy a refrigerator that tells you you're out of milk. Your car knows when its tires are low. You can even ask your mobile phone for parenting advice. We owe the increasing power of our toys and tools to the fact that all of them now sport powerful operating systems.
Similar to our gadgets, organizations have operating systems. Think of them as cultural operating systems. Both electronic and cultural operating systems provide a set of rules that guide the behavior of the device or the people respectively. For example, when you press the ON button of an iPhone, a whole series of coded rules display an Apple logo, followed by the time of day, your customized wallpaper, and an unlock bar.
Similarly, a cultural operating system engages a set of rules that guide the behavior of employees when they enter a high-stakes meeting, react to abrupt organizational changes, or contemplate what to do with discretionary time. But while electronic intelligence is processed by written coded rules, a cultural operating system (COS) is often driven by a combination of written and unwritten rules. For example, executives may have written cultural mandates in the form of values, mission statements, and corporate creeds that prompt employees to take initiative, speak candidly, and act as a team. Yet when you watch what employees actually do, you realize the unwritten rules are avoid risk, defer to the boss, and stay in your silo.
Executives have known for decades that their COS largely determines organizational success or failure. For example, renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer has created a cultural operating system that influences his 1500 employees to create superlative hospitality experiences for his 100,000 daily guests. Recently, a harried guest forgot her cell phone and purse in a taxi that raced away after depositing her in front of the restaurant. The maître d', prompted by Danny Meyer's COS, welcomed her, assured her all would be well, and seated her with her party. In the meantime, the maître d' began calling the guest's cell phone repeatedly until the cab driver noticed and answered it. Before the guest had even ordered her entrée, an employee had been dispatched to meet the cab driver, retrieve the phone and purse, and deliver it to the overwhelmingly appreciative customer. And, while much credit for the remarkable experience is due to an enterprising team, less dramatic versions of unrivaled customer service happen hundreds of times a day because Danny Meyer has designed crucial skills into his intentionally created COS.