If your business was a political party, what would it be?
There is a taboo around political conversations at work. We assume that work is separated from the real and sensitive politics of the outside world. The state, as an agent of a political system, is considered responsible for the climate, collective problems, the management of violence and the maintenance of our human capacities. It promotes well-being, justice, equality, freedom, peace and many other values. Meanwhile, the sole responsibility of businesses is to make money. The business is for profit and that’s just “different”.
As a result, few companies actively analyze their political culture and it is often left to the board and founders to implicitly address this topic, if at all, in busy steerco sessions. As product management moves from a discrete business function to its own work culturethis legacy of exclusion from politics will have to be rethought.
The development of digital and informational products enjoys a shortcut to our minds. Industries and technological innovations lend themselves to the faster and more direct spread of ideas. All corporations are political actors, but product-driven organizations actively shape global politics.
Currently, there is a divide between political and commercial values that particularly affects commodity companies. Increase Base camp recently stopped anyone from talking politics at work. Amazon tries to crush the trade unions. Google employees called on their leaders to support the Palestinian struggle against apartheid. Right wing apps open up new channels for people who feel their political voice has been stifled by Big Tech practices such as shadow banning.
In this increasingly ethically and politically contested world, these companies may find it helpful to think about the kind of political systems they nurture within their borders so they can be more intentional about creating the right ones. Otherwise, as The Twitter Affair shows, you might think you’re a libertarian business, but you find yourself promoting far-right agendas. Product companies need to reconcile their political identity with their ethical values, and in particular the broader values they want to see in society. Guardrails may need to be put in place to make their identities more explicit and consistent.
Political transformation begins with self-knowledge. As a first step, product company executives should conduct a baseline audit of their current political culture. Diving straight into this complex subject in all its nuances will likely overwhelm you. You can start by positioning your organizational culture according to four essential binaries, summarized below:
- Do you care more about collective or individual goals (collectivism vs individualism)? Are you more Japan, characterized by its collective spirit stemming from a long history of communal farming culture, or Australia, which prides itself on the efforts of the individual, at the other extreme? How much value do you place on team results versus individual superstar product managers? As the founder of a new start-up team, you may want all of your employees to be either Swiss army knives helping each other or specialized and on the lookout for their department’s KPIs.
- Do you prefer the concentration of power to be in several hands or a few (democracy vs totalitarianism)? Switzerland’s dispersed, multi-tiered power structure in government and its democratic vote stand in stark contrast to a monarchy like Saudi Arabia. How often can your project managers obstruct a product decision made by executives? If you’re shipping a feature to avoid a hefty regulatory fine, you might even have to be a North Korea in that regard.
- Do you care more about personal freedom or people obeying power (libertarian vs. authoritarian)? Germany’s experience after the fall of the Berlin Wall probably made it more libertarian than Hungary. Are your VPs fighting over their annual budgets or is the Exec team handing them a prescribed budget? Netflix leadership controls the context and treats employees as their own leaders. Amazon’s emphasis on standard procedures and employees lining up quickly to tackle big challenges works differently on the other end.
- Do you want to replace fundamentals or traditional, incremental changes (radical vs. conservative)? The heterogeneous composition of the United States makes it more radical in its social policies than Iceland. Do you prioritize products that want to change meaning in societies or do you want to gradually improve current problems? Stripe is rethinking economic infrastructure for the internet while Microsoft, until Satya Nadella took over as CEO, could have been seen as conservatively iterating on computer software.
There are no simple answers to the questions above. Most likely, you will feel a cognitive dissonance between your personal and professional identities when responding to it. And these questions will vary at different levels (individual, team, group, company and ecosystem).
If this audit stirs up tension, maybe that’s a good thing. You may or may not find it necessary to reconcile organizational ideology with the personal politics of its leaders. Still, the objective is not a perfect congruence but a greater awareness of the political position of the company and the possible risks of this position. Theoretically, no set of political values need be “superior” to the others in terms of impact on the world, as long as the leaders know enough to create moral and ethical boundaries and are serious about their preserve the order.
The alternative – political denial – incentivizes corporations to present a political face to the world that transparently contradicts their actions. An executive committee recently decided that “Health for All” is an appropriate motto for one of today’s giant healthcare companies. This same company refuses to share its Covid vaccine formula with countries like India, which is currently delayed by generations due to the pandemic. Perhaps they are frustrated libertarians?
On the positive side, we see a lot of product companies and startups posting their cultural presentations and living by their political identity (even if they do so unconsciously). Healthy product organizations intuitively understand that this helps them develop strong communities, formulate the right boundaries for their strategy, and establish the right social contract between management, employees, and external stakeholders.
The new employee of the video game company Valve manual says a lot about the deep political views of the company without mentioning the word “politics”. Similarly, Basecamp’s letter to employees banning the policy is itself a very big political statement. Whether you agree with their principles or not, they clearly reflected on their political identity.
Because of prevalence of neoliberalism, one could argue that the majority of businesses today fall into the authoritarian-right quadrant of a political spectrum (economic left versus economic right being one axis and authoritarian versus libertarian being the other axis). However, the capabilities (decentralization, semantic web, large-scale trust…) of the different variants of Web3.0 will be the next paradigm shift that will allow the diversity of value-creating political structures in addition to the usual ones. pyramid structure In the enterprises.
We can start investing today in understanding our political culture, as part of a new, broader work culture, a product culture. This is perhaps the beginning of a reconciliation of our political and professional identities to build a better future.