I’ve been spending time recently getting to know a technology company that helps companies succeed by allowing them to more effectively listen to their customers. Among many innovations, they do so by giving their client companies tools that give their customers a voice.
Coincidentally, it happened that today I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay, "The Gift of Doubt," in the most recent issue of The New Yorker about the economist Albert O. Hirschman, and the idea of voice presented itself there as well.
This happens often in my reading. I’m not sure it’s coincidental so much as me picking up on subtle aspects of what I’m reading that match what I’m thinking about. In this case, I’ve been thinking about organizations and dissatisfied constituents.
In the broad sense, I’ve always been interested in the topic, particularly since, about a decage ago, I decided I wanted to focus on building great companies. I believe in the ability of a well-run company to improve this world—by hiring and training people, by delighting customers with great service and customers, and by generating returns for investors. At its core, the idea is powerful: groups of people come together to create something that creates value for sellers and buyers. There’s an honesty in the market, and (generally speaking) the better offerings and the better companies win.
As part of that exploration of what makes a company great, the idea of being connected to customers is a constant theme. It saddens me when a once-great company becomes obviously disconnected. I certainly acknowledge the difficulty of the problem. Large organizations are hard to manage and tougher to lead. Listening to customers is difficult. Reacting to that feedback is even tougher. The ability to give companies tools to solve this problem is why this company’s mission resonates with me so strongly.
More recently and on a similar note, I’ve been affected by disenchantment with governments. As I wrote, the unrest bubbling to the surface with varying intensity in almost every major country is too significant to ignore.
I hadn’t realized these ideas were connected until I read Gladwell’s essay. Gladwell mentions that Hirschman’s most famous book is Exit, Loyalty, and Voice: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. As Gladwell describes it:
The closest Hirschman ever came to explaining his motives [for fighting in the Spanish Civil War and World War II] was in his most famous work, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” and even then it was only by implication. Hirschman was interested in contrasting the two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions. “Exit” is voting with your feet, expressing your displeasure by taking your business elsewhere. “Voice” is staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. There is no denying where his heart lay.
I’m going to read that book after I finish the (admittedly daunting) one I just started: The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen. I ordered Sen’s book and What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel to try and come up with a framework for the role business, and in particular we in the technology industry, might play in the global events I’ve mentioned.
In his book The Idea of Justice, Sen echoes some of Hirschman’s ideas. The central idea he puts forth is that we don’t need to agree on the exact shape of a perfectly just world. Rather, he argues, reasoned discussion and debate among parties with different views and philosophies can still lead to enough agreement about what sorts of actions and institutions increase or decrease justice that we can move forward.
It’s a subtle and beautifully argued idea within which is the same idea of debate…voice. People have to participate. They have to speak up.
I’m still developing this idea, but at its core, the idea of voice is something that resonates within me deeply as does the related idea of participation, as opposed to exit. I’m going to write more about this later because I'm observing that some of the ideals that seem to be emerging in the Valley eschew participation. There seems to be a belief that government is so broken—so “90s-era enterprise software company”—that it can’t be fixed, that the best strategy is to avoid or marginalize it.
I disagree. I argue we in the Valley have an incredible opportunity to improve government and, through it, the lot of many who are suffering.