Protest as a strategic lever

On Saturday the 14th of July, I was exchanging messages with a friend in the Bay Area/ California and she texted: “Ok I have to rush now, we have a Bastille Day party!”

A Bastille Day party!

On a normal day, my instinct would be to laugh at the absurdity of some concepts but something has been brewing a while.

In June 2018, Google employees began to protest the company’s partnership with the Pentagon. Project Maven was to deploy Google’s AI technology in war zones. Over 4000 employees signed a petition and a dozen or so resigned to protest Google’s participation in “the business of war“. Google’s leadership decided not to renew the contract.

Next up were Microsoft employees protesting the company’s work with ICE. The company was forced to make a statement clarifying its technology is not being used in the family separations being undertaken by ICE.

Amazon workers were also protesting allowing ICE to use its face recognition technology. Further a reported nineteen groups of Amazon shareholders also wrote to Jeff Bezos and the company responded by citing “positive use cases” even though it was shown to match legislators’ faces with known criminals.

Google’s employees are now protesting the company’s secret work in China. The CEO Sundar Pichai has tried to quell their fears by saying Dragonfly, as it is called, was nowhere close to launch. Google has had past entanglements in China about which I have written here.

Also protesting are Salesforce employees asking it to quit working with border agencies. The CEO Mark Benioff, widely acknowledged as a solid leader, ruled out dissociating with the border agencies and the company donated $1 Million to agencies helping families affected by forced separations. There is however now renewed pressure on Salesforce, as activists raise the game.

All these developments point to something remarkable.

Business is not business-as-usual. The power to shape strategic direction, which resides with the executive group and the board, and the power to deliver on execution, which is the rest of the organisation, are in negotiation, so to speak.

While we may not be seeing a modern day storming of the Bastille any time soon, it is clear that leaders are being forced to contend with values that they espouse and that are supposed to inform strategic direction and the day-to-day decisions made by the organisations, and actually show those values in action.

Failing which they should expect to face protests from employees, shareholders, and wider stakeholders alike. Strategic direction as lettres de cachet is no longer a viable way to think.

Protest is now a strategic lever which leaders ignore at their peril. And, as our world deals with rapid change in polity and society, protest is here to stay.