Of the people, by the people, and for the people

Dennis Whittle

‘… for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign.’

(Aristotle, Politics, 4th century BCE)

Aristotle: whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign.

Aristotle: whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign.

In the 7th century BCE, Athens was in crisis. The Athenian aristocracy had abused its power for so long that ordinary people got fed up and revolted. There was widespread chaos and violence; day-to-day life seemed to be in a downward spiral. Finally, the aristocracy and people turned to a poet named Solon for mediation, and he negotiated a settlement, in 594 BCE, that created a sort of constitution. Solon’s constitution limited the power of the aristocracy, established rules for legal redress for all, and created forums where all male adults could at least participate in governance – though most power nonetheless remained with wealth holders.

Greeks and Romans’ slow progress towards democracy
Though Solon’s reforms were not entirely successful, they did presage the emergence of the Roman Republic, which lasted almost five centuries. Beginning around 500 BCE, Rome was governed by consuls selected by the wealthiest and most powerful citizens. The Roman Republic also had ‘assemblies’ that allowed ordinary citizens to cast ballots on many matters of public interest, but these assemblies did not have much power. Instead (according to the Roman historian Livy) they were ‘designed so that no one appeared to be excluded from an election and yet all of the clout resided with the leading men’.

Power gradually became more concentrated until Julius Caesar seized near total control as emperor in 49 BCE, setting in train centuries of dictatorship until the Roman Empire fell in 476 CE. Even after the fall of the Empire, dictatorship in various forms reined for over 700 years. Only when the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 did an elected parliament come back into existence for the first time in over 1,000 years. Since then, history can be read as a gradual but by no means smooth increase in the sovereignty of ordinary people, during which the elite try to give up as little power as possible while ‘appearing to exclude no one’ from the governance process.

Even in the US, the first country explicitly founded on the idea that, in Aristotle’s words, ‘whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign’, progress has been gradual. Initially only white males could vote, and it was only over the next 200 years that women and blacks were fully enfranchised. During that time, the elite tried all sorts of manoeuvres – including landownership and literacy requirements and even more recently voter ID laws – to avoid realizing the Aristotelian ideal of one person, one vote.

Why is this history relevant?
Why is all this (admittedly stylized) history relevant? Because it is playing out in the aid and philanthropy fields right now. Will aid and philanthropy democratize themselves? Will aid agencies and foundations cede power and sovereignty to the people they are trying to serve, or will they do what the Romans and so many others have done, which is put in place ‘assemblies’ that give ordinary people the illusion of influence without real power? Recent trends appear to make real sovereignty for ordinary people a possibility, maybe for the first time in history. But history also teaches that progress is not guaranteed, and even breakthroughs such as the limited power sharing in Athens can be reversed for centuries. 

‘Will aid agencies and foundations cede power and sovereignty to the people they are trying to serve, or will they do what the Romans and so many others have done, which is put in place ‘assemblies’ that give ordinary people the illusion of influence without real power?’

Fortunately, three relatively new books shine a collective light on how we might make real progress in bringing Aristotelian ideas to the aid and philanthropy fields. These books are unlikely bedfellows, with only one of them addressing the work of aid agencies and foundations directly. But the other two have profound implications, and together they suggest how a series of conceptual, operational and technological developments might enable a fundamental shift that could allow people themselves to become the real makers of decisions about what they need to make their lives better.

Thanks for the Feedback
The first of these, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (Portfolio Penguin, 2014) is about personal relationships, not modes of governing. It starts out by noting that each year in the US alone 877,000 spouses file for divorce, and 250,000 weddings are called off. Stone and Heen argue that the failure of these marriages is rooted in an inability to get feedback at a personal level – about what we say, how we act, what we wear, the words we use, the attention we pay to our partner’s needs. The same dynamic holds true with respect to our working relationships, which the authors argue is responsible for much of the unhappiness of poor productivity in the workplace.

40-42 ThanksForTheFeedback_paperback coverThe authors cite research showing that a ‘spouse’s willingness and ability to accept … input from their spouse is a key predictor of a healthy, stable marriage’. Similarly, ‘feedback-seeking behavior … has been linked to higher job satisfaction, greater creativity on the job, … lower turnover, … and higher performance ratings.’ They build the case that the ability to receive constructive feedback both increases happiness at the personal level and improves concrete outcomes as measured by stable marriages and productivity at work.

If the benefits are so powerful, what’s holding us back? The authors cite three ‘triggers’ that often make us shrink from seeking feedback. The first is the content of the feedback, which we often perceive as unfair (‘that would have been impossible to get done’) or even plain wrong. The second is what the feedback implies about the relationship we have with the other person (‘that guy considers himself better than me’), and the third is about what the feedback implies about our personal identity (‘if I failed at that again, maybe I really am a loser’).

Thanks for the Feedback unpacks, in considerable but entertaining and accessible detail, where these triggers come from and then provides a whole series of practical exercises and mindset shifts to enable us to recognize the triggers and overcome them – all with the end goal of becoming more effective in our personal and professional relationships. Although there are many excellent insights, perhaps the most fundamental is the need to see things from the other’s perspective. The cultivation of empathy is key to disarming the content, relationship and identity triggers so that we can become happier and more productive in our personal relationships and at work.

The Ultimate Question 2.0
If Thanks for the Feedback is about the rich texture of relationships at a personal level, the second book, The Ultimate Question 2.0: How net promoter companies thrive in a customer-driven world by Fred Reichheld, with Rob Markey (HBR books, 2011), is about big, impersonal data at an organizational level. This book traces the evolution of a tool that nearly all leading companies in the US and many in Europe use to get feedback from customers – the Net Promoter Score, or NPS. Companies succeed if people buy their goods and services, and sales figures provide the ultimate feedback loop.

40-42 Ultimate QuestionTo better understand what’s driving sales (or the lack thereof), companies have historically deployed a wide array of tools, including focus groups and sophisticated surveys. However, something extraordinary has happened over the past decade. A large number of companies have found that asking a single question to customers is key to developing the internal systems to listen and respond to what customers want: ‘On a scale of 0-10, how likely are you to recommend our company (or product or service) to your friends or colleagues?’. Many companies then ask just one follow-up question: ‘Why do you say this?’.

What companies discovered was that the complexity of the information they had been collecting through bespoke tools tailored to their specific products and services obfuscated understanding and impeded responsiveness. They realized that the greater the complexity, the easier it was for people in the company to make excuses about the quality or cost of their products (‘these pesky customers just don’t understand that it’s impossible to have a phone that also surfs the web!’). Second, they discovered that the idiosyncratic nature of their tools made it impossible to compare themselves with other companies, even in the same industry (‘sure our customers hate us, but they hate our competitors too!’). 

‘A large number of companies have found that asking a single question to customers is key to developing the internal systems to listen and respond to what customers want.’

The NPS methodology, by contrast, cuts straight to the chase: how many of our customers like what we sell them so much they would recommend us to friends and family? How do we compare to others in the industry? If the answers to those questions are not positive, then there is a strong incentive to seek out and address why. Suddenly, the importance of the more complex data being collected becomes clear, and the case for not only analysing but acting on the data becomes urgent.

The Ultimate Question 2.0 contains important details about the methodology for calculating the NPS and the social dynamics of how and why companies, both individually and collectively, converged on this approach. It also reviews the considerable evidence that this approach leads to greater productivity, innovation and customer satisfaction at companies that use it systematically. As with Thanks for the Feedback, the writing is accessible and entertaining, and for most readers will be filled with ‘aha!’ moments that bring a smile to the lips.

Harnessing the Power of Collective Learning
The third book, edited by Roy Steiner and Duncan Hanks, Harnessing the Power of Collective Learning ( manuscript under preparation for publication), is an eye-opening and encouraging compilation of examples of how some aid organizations are listening to the people they seek to serve. The 11 case studies (each written by someone from inside the organization) highlight how new attitudes (it’s the right thing to allow people to participate in programme design), tools (SMS on mobile phones) and processes (design thinking that incorporates people’s feedback into programme design) make it possible to learn and adapt aid programmes much more nimbly and iteratively. Any aid organization serious about improving its performance would be remiss not to reflect on how these case studies might help them to see new possibilities for listening and learning.

capture-20150527-135421One of the key challenges identified in this book is ‘closing the loop’ – ie getting the organization to act on the information it gleans through better listening. The best chapters are candid about the difficulties in adapting, changing, or even cancelling programmes when doing so would be costly or imperil the career advancement of individuals or funding for the organization. The diversity of new approaches highlighted in this book raises the question of whether some consolidation and convergence analogous to the Net Promoter methodology will be needed to create the pressures for organizations not only to listen but also to respond to what people themselves want to make their lives better.

The most provocative part of this book, however, may be the introduction. One of the authors reports how he and a foundation colleague climbed the steps of the presidential palace in Ethiopia, home to one of the most repressive regimes in Africa, to present the findings of a new agriculture extension study based on a nine-month participatory process to the prime minister. The author reports his ‘trepidation’ because the process itself – of listening to ordinary farmers – might be threatening to the authoritarian regime. He also felt he was taking a big risk within his own organization by relying so heavily on insights from farmers themselves instead of on the technological breakthroughs the foundation’s programmes typically relied on. Compounding his nervousness was the fact that one of the benefactors of the foundation had made a personal deal with the former prime minister to conduct the study. 

‘Was this project in Ethiopia successful because it provided what the Roman poet Juvenal described, as “bread and circuses”.’

In the end, all turned out well. The prime minister was happy, because he could see how this approach might better attract financial support (and political legitimacy) from the more than ten aid agencies and foundations that later provided millions of dollars to implement the new strategy.  The author’s organization, and its benefactor, were also presumably pleased, since the study enabled them to show leadership among their funding peers in trying to improve agricultural productivity in a desperately poor country. 

‘Or did it serve to push the system down a path towards a situation where, in Aristotle’s words, ‘whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign’?’

But this outcome, in this fraught context, points directly back to the evolution of democracy discussed at the beginning of this review, and to the larger issues at stake: Was this project in Ethiopia successful because it provided what the Roman poet Juvenal described, in the first century CE, as ‘bread and circuses’ – keeping the people fed and diverted just enough to take the heat off their demands for real democracy so that the elite could remain in power? Or did it serve to push the system down a path towards a situation where, in Aristotle’s words, ‘whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign’? That is the big question that faces all of us who, through our work in aid and philanthropy, hope to make the world a better place.

Dennis Whittle is director and co-founder of Feedback Labs. Email dennis@feedbacklabs.org

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