Last year, I set out to build “Tettra Academy”. I envisioned this course as a series of videos and written articles about the building blocks of good documentation. The goal was simple: help people learn what they should document and how, so that they’d be more successful using the Tettra knowledge management system.
I felt excited to build it, but it was also daunting to embark on such a massive project. I agonized over which topics to cover, how many lessons to include, and whether to include practical “assignments” for those who wanted to act on what they’d learned. In the throes of my deliberations, my teammate, Nelson, reminded me that at Tettra, we always seek ways to start small and then share early and often. He suggested I build just one lesson and then seek feedback.
This advice changed my entire mindset about the project. I’d been letting the perfect get in the way of the good, thinking that I needed to have the entire curriculum fleshed out before I could move forward with building each lesson. Instead, I followed his advice and shot one video. I shared it with my team and even with a few of my favorite Tettra customers. People responded with encouragement, as well as valuable input about how to make other lessons more useful. In less than a month, I was able to build and launch all the pieces of our Tettra Academy Documentation Course.
Had Nelson not reminded me of this shared team mindset, I might have continued to procrastinate for weeks on end. I could have built dozens of lessons, only to realize too late that my format wasn’t quite right. Instead, I iterated on this first try, finding a more useful format. Plus, the positive response from our customers renewed my enthusiasm and help increase my motivation. These two principles – “start small” and “share early and often” – play a major role in our team operating system. They allow me, as well as my teammates to make the right decisions, especially in moments of doubt.
All Teams Have an Operating System
Whether they recognize it or not, all companies have a team operating system. A team’s operating system refers to the way they work, behave, and make decisions. Just as a computer can’t function without an operating system, teams don’t function well without a system to guide how the work gets done.
Here at Tettra, we believe that an operating system is made up of two parts: core values and operating principles.
Core values are the characteristics that you expect from your teammates. These are the personality traits that you look for when hiring, encourage on a day-to-day basis, and leverage, so the team works smoothly. The core values we look for and prioritize on our team include:
Generally, core values can’t be taught or changed. It would be foolhardy to think we could hire someone with a cutthroat mentality and team him or her to be more caring. Core values tend to be innate personal characteristics, and therefore, pretty immutable.
Core values are highly subjective, and they vary widely from team to team. Though we think it’s important to be caring towards one another and towards our customers, another company might take a different approach. They might have a “revenue-first” mentality, believing that company growth supersedes everything else. Which is fine! There’s no single right way of doing things. Every company functions differently, so it’s natural that every team has different core values.
Your Operating Principles, on the other hand, can be taught. These principles are the guidelines that direct people’s behavior. They define how you should manage a project, make decisions, and interact with others. Here at Tettra, we function according to the following operating principles:
- Talk to customers: Instead of guessing, try talking directly to a customer when you need to solve a problem.
- Ask questions: Relentlessly seek the truth. Never assume something is unchangeable.
- Find answers: Be curious. Use all the information and data at your disposal to answer questions.
- Start small: Ship something useful as fast as possible. Validate then iterate. Learning fast > being right.
- Share early and often: We have the tendency to hide our work until we think it’s perfect. Fight that urge and share your work, data, and ideas early and often.
- Optimize for the long term: Don’t burn out. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Build systems and use your time wisely. Patience is a competitive advantage.
- Celebrate results together: Remember to take time to celebrate each other’s accomplishments and learnings. We’re all in this together as a team.
Again, there’s no “right” set of operating principles. These will – and should – vary from team to team. For instance, many companies would disagree with our principle “start small”, since it directs us to launch things quickly and improve on any problems that crop up. A company that builds airplanes can’t risk releasing a product out there that might have bugs, (or if they do, you get situations like the Boeing disasters.)
But since we build a SaaS product and can fix bugs immediately, the stakes are lower if we discover a problem. This isn’t to say that we’re ever willing to release something bad, but rather that we don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. The longer explanation about shipping something “useful” helps us remember that we don’t want to release something faulty, (since it would therefore not be useful). But ultimately, if deciding whether to release something that’s 99% right or take more time to get it 100% right, we want people to choose the former. The faster we release something, the easier it is for us to test and get feedback.
How We Use Core Values and Operating Principles
Here at Tettra, we use the two components of our operating system in different ways. We rely on our core values to identify the right people when making hiring decisions. This “shared vocabulary” also serves as a useful framework for having tough conversations. Everyone on Team Tettra knows and understands the what, how, and why behind being a rigorous team member. We might not discuss these core values all the time, but they act as the foundation for strong team member relationships.
Our operating principles, on the other hand, come into play every single day. When we’re grappling with which features to build, we go directly to the source to get input from customers. When choosing between marketing campaigns, we prioritize the long term ideas that will pay dividends for years to come over the short term hacks that could yield more immediate – but limited – results.
How to Build Your Company Operating System
We followed a pretty rigorous process to define our core values and our operating principles. (No surprise there, given our fourth core value, huh?) If you want to build out yours, we made a template you can use with your team.
The conversation was pretty interesting, and we all found the process to be fun. And since our CEO had built such a clear agenda, we stayed on topic and on time. It’s worth mentioning two factors that made the process successful:
1. We got everyone involved
The entire team joined in the conversation about what we value and how we operate. Each of us had time to share the characteristics and behaviors that we see as most important. We spent time discussing and explaining the pros and cons of various ideas. Naturally, there were differences of opinion, but the conversation felt very respectful and collaborative.
Because everyone had a chance to share their points of view, we all felt a sense of ownership over the final version. Cultivating a sense of ownership makes it easier for people to feel personally invested in using these core values and operating principles. This means we’re all more likely to use them on a day-to-day basis.
2. We identified the people directly responsible for the final version
Though everyone was involved in brainstorming and refining the initial ideas, our two co-founders finalized them. They aggregated everyone’s input to build the final versions of our core values and operating principles. Because we knew that they’d be the directly responsible individuals for the final version, we didn’t get caught in endless debates.
How to Document Your Company Operating System
Once you’ve landed on the core values and/or operating principles that fit your team, make sure they’re easily accessible to everyone on the team. Don’t drop them in an email and make people go hunting through their inbox months later to dig them up. We keep our core values and operating principles documented on a Tettra page that anyone can access in Tettra or even from Slack.
We also make our values and operating principles a key part of the onboarding process. All new team members are directed to read them and learn about the process we used to get there. By helping new team members understand how we do things and why, it’s easier for them to be productive from Day One. When confronted with a tough decision or situation, they can always lean on our operating principles to find a resolution.
By codifying and documenting how we do things, our team is able to punch above our weight. We’ve seen many of our customers document their operating systems in Tettra. So often, they cite these systems as foundational to their success. We’re honored to be such a cornerstone to thousands of companies, helping them to grow and thrive together.