One of the greatest joys of my life at OutSystems is meeting people who are new to our world. Many people joining or applying for a job with OutSystems often ask me about the Small Book of the Few Big Rules: why we have it, when we wrote it, and if it is really taken seriously. Today, I am unveiling the story behind our best-known secret.
In the Beginning
Let me take you back in time to nine years ago. OutSystems was going through a transition, one of those moments that could shake the foundations of the entire company. We were growing fast after some ups and downs, and we had just reached the 100-employee mark.
Which is great news, of course. However—and if you’ve ever worked in a start-up, you’ll know this—we were all proud of our culture, our way of getting things done. We knew all our colleagues by name, we had met several times with everyone, and we managed to get our act together without much overhead or disagreement. But it was just a matter of time before we started meeting people we didn’t know that well, with whom we hadn’t worked with before, and who eventually had their own ways of doing things with lesser impact.
We had a lot of engineers at the helm, so we did what we knew best. We documented our working culture so that we could teach it to everyone joining us.
OutSystems started with a clear mission to simplify and accelerate software development so that developers don’t waste time doing boring and repetitive tasks, thus freeing them to build better and more usable software. Faster—now, that’s a big problem. One that many told us was impossible to solve, or that it had been attempted by many who failed. Our Small Book of a Few Big Rules is deeply rooted in the way we deal with our purpose and on how we can think differently, execute better, and lead our destiny.
Bring on the Rules
Our culture book is a few principles—seven to be exact—that guide the way people are meant to deal with others, with their job, and with our customers.
Rule #1: Ask Why
The first rule is probably the most important. Our North Star. We started with a big problem to solve, a blank sheet of paper, and no one to copy from. So, we’ve always been forced to understand why we’re doing something. Our people are encouraged to put everything into perspective. We seek to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing, and question if it’s the right path. That’s how we keep thinking differently and ahead of others. At OutSystems, the best managers are not determined by job title, but rather by how prepared they are to answer the “why” questions, clarify issues, and drive autonomy with purpose. They are also the ones who are humble enough to recognize great ideas that aren’t theirs.
Rule #2: The Small Crisis
While small, we had to tackle a few crises. Deadlines, demanding customers, lack of market validation, you name it. And we learned quickly that a small crisis is many times easier to fix than a bigger one. Whenever we find something that’s not right, we speak up—ask why—even if it’s “not my responsibility.” That way, you fix a small problem before it grows into a major one.
Rule #3: Challenge the Status Quo
“Fail fast and fail cheaply” is something that you’ll probably hear a lot at OutSystems, and we’ve been saying it since the early days. By contrast, you won’t hear “This is the way we’ve always done it here” very often. We always try to come up with innovative solutions, even if it means to fail sometimes. “Challenge the status quo” is about coming up with novel solutions never tried before by looking at situations from a different perspective and questioning the way we’re doing it, our customers are doing it, or even our competitors.
Rule #4: Be Helpful
You also won’t hear “that’s not my responsibility” often. People who are always there when needed to lend a hand or offer guidance can help us move much faster. They save us all endless hours of extra work and make us all feel part of one really big team. This rule works both ways: we’re helpful, and we’re not afraid to ask for help.
Rule #5: 80/20
If you know the Pareto Principle, then this is going to be easy for you: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This is immensely powerful when applied to prioritizing workloads while you’re solving very big problems. We break problems into small parts, we stack, rank them, establish a timeline, and execute the solution. Relentlessly. Project after project.
Rule #6: Communicate to Be Understood
We have always managed to engage many experts in many different fields. And we found ourselves helping them communicate better about their stuff. When talking about their area of expertise, they’d often use jargon. But different people have different backgrounds. That’s how we came up with the sixth rule. To always put ourselves in the shoes of others, and adjust our communication so we can always be understood by everyone.
Rule #7: Excel
Last but certainly not least, whatever we do, we try to do great. We have always felt better focusing on fewer things but with quality results, rather than doing a great deal of sloppy work.
It’s All About the Culture After All
The Small Book of a Few Big Rules turned out to be much more than a culture statement. We found that it shows people how they can be successful at OutSystems and that it could stand the test of time.
Some of us are more inquisitive, and “ask why” comes naturally. Others love solving problems and are super detail-oriented, and, thus, are great solving the “small crisis.” Others are always willing to help. People are different, after all, and we don’t expect every single employee to shine in every single rule. But we all know that if we all focus on applying the rules, we can all move faster and better towards our ultimate goal.
We tried to keep it short, and well rounded, and as we reach 1,000 employees globally, we keep tuning how we teach the rules to everyone who joins, and how to ensure greater fit when hiring.
Fast forward nine years to today. We are obviously very proud of our success. We’re leaders in our market according to Gartner and Forrester. Our product keeps on getting better every year. We’re considered one of the best companies to work for by our people, and our customers couldn’t be happier. Why? Apparently, our “Few Big Rules” ended-up driving a great deal of autonomy and alignment across teams and offices. We might not take ourselves too seriously, but we do take the Few Big Rules seriously.
So, if you’re looking for your next career challenge or for a company to do business with, always look at the culture. A good product, a good service, a good career opportunity are all consequences of a great culture. Look at the culture first, and all else will follow.