There is a taboo around political conversations at work. We assume that the work is separate from the real and sensible politics of the outside world. The state, as the agent of a political system, is seen as 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. Business is about profit and it’s just ‘different’.
As a result, few companies actively analyze their political culture and it is often up to the board and founders to implicitly, if at all, address this topic in busy Steerco sessions. As product management shifts from a discrete corporate function to a work culture of its own, this legacy of setting aside politics will have to be rethought.
The development of digital and information products is given a shortcut in our minds. Industries and technological innovations lend themselves to faster and more direct diffusion of ideas. All companies are political actors, but product-oriented organizations actively shape global politics.
At present, there is a gap between political and commercial values which particularly affects product companies. To augment Base camp recently stopped anyone from talking politics at work. Amazon tries to crush employee unions. Google the employees called on their leaders to support the Palestinian struggle against apartheid. Right wing applications open up new avenues for people who feel their political voice has been stifled by Big Tech practices such as “shadow banning”.
In this increasingly ethically contested political world, these companies may find it useful to reflect on the type of political systems they nurture within their borders so that they can be more intentional in creating the right ones. . Otherwise, like The case of Twitter shows, you might think you’re a libertarian business, but you end up promoting far-right programs. Product companies need to align 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, leaders of product companies should conduct a basic audit of their current political culture. Diving directly into this complex subject in all its nuances will probably 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 like Japan, characterized by its collective spirit drawn from a long history of agricultural community culture, or Australia, which prides itself on the efforts of the individual, on the other extreme? How much value do you place on team results versus individual superstar product managers? As the new founder of a start-up team, you might want all of your employees to be Swiss Army Knives helping each other, or specialize and monitor their departmental KPIs.
- Do you prefer that the concentration of power be in several or a few hands (democracy vs totalitarianism)? Switzerland’s dispersed and multi-level power structure in government and its democratic vote stands in stark contrast to a monarchy like Saudi Arabia. How often can your PMs 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 left it more libertarian than Hungary. Do your VPs compete for their annual budgets or does the management team give them a prescribed budget? Netflix’s leadership controls the context and treats employees like their own leaders. Amazon’s focus on standard procedures and employees quickly lining up to tackle big challenges works differently on the other end.
- Do you want to replace the fundamentals or traditional and incremental changes (radical vs conservative)? The heterogeneous composition of the United States makes them more radical in their social policies than Iceland. Do you prioritize products that want to change the direction of companies or do you want to gradually improve current problems? Stripe is rethinking the internet’s economic infrastructure while Microsoft, until Satya Nadella’s arrival as CEO, could have been seen as a cautious iteration on computer software.
There are no simple answers to the above questions. Most likely, you will encounter 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 creates tension, it can be a good thing. You may or may not find it necessary to reconcile organizational ideology with the personal politics of its leaders. Again, the objective is not a perfect congruence but a greater awareness of the political position of the company and of the possible risks of this position. Theoretically, no set of political values needs to be “superior” to others in terms of impact on the world, as long as leaders know enough to create moral and ethical boundaries and are serious about maintaining them. of the order.
The alternative – political denial – prompts companies to present to the world a political face that transparently contradicts their actions. An executive committee recently decided that “Health for All” was 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 in decline for several generations due to the pandemic. Maybe they are frustrated libertarians?
On the bright side, we see a lot of product companies and startups releasing their cultural decks and living by their political identities (even if they do so subconsciously). Healthy product organizations intuitively understand that it helps them develop strong communities, formulate the right boundaries for their strategy, and build 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 company’s deeply held political views without mentioning the word “political”. Likewise, Basecamp’s letter to employees banning the policy is in itself a very big political statement. Whether or not you agree with their principles, they have clearly reflected on their political identity.
Because of prevalence of neoliberalism, one could argue that the majority of companies today are located in 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 capacities (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 political structures that create value in addition to the usual ones. pyramidal structure In the enterprises.
We can start investing today in understanding our political culture, as part of a new, broader working culture, a product culture. It is perhaps the beginning of the reconciliation of our political and professional identities to build a better future.
Ayman Jawhar (INSEAD MBA ’12J) is Associate Professor in Product Management at INSEAD.