The Obama phenomenon happened, and happened surprisingly quickly. Over the next year, and I daresay decades, the hows and whys of Obama's presidential campaign are going to be picked apart and analyzed to death. To so many of us, something wonderful just took place, and even people on the other side of the political aisle have been impressed with Obama's ability to campaign.
It is tempting to let the spirit of “newness” overwhelm the narrative and to dominate discussion of what lessons should be taken from Obama’s campaign. But like the "new" economy, the "new" political frontier will really only be matching technological innovations with old realities.
Which is why things like articles like "Obama's Seven Lessons for Radical Innovators" bothers me. It's an attempt to turn something that was remarkable in its own right into something radically different and almost mythological, and to see it as a structural overhaul in some way.
Let's dive a little deeper into Mr. Haque’s deep thoughts:
1. Have a self-organization design. What was really different about Obama's organization? We're used to thinking about organizations in 20th century terms: do we design them to be tall, or flat?
But tall and flat are concepts built for an industrial era. They force us to think - spatially and literally - in two dimensions: tall organizations command unresponsively, and flat organizations respond uncontrollably.
Obama's organization blew past these orthodoxies: it was able to combine the virtues of both tall and flat organizations. How? By tapping the game-changing power of self-organization. Obama's organization was less tall or flat than spherical - a tightly controlled core, surrounded by self-organizing cells of volunteers, donors, contributors, and other participants at the fuzzy edges.
Not to be didactic, but all campaigns are essentially described this way: a tight center controls the messaging, media buying, resource allocation, while the footwork is done by volunteers and “contributors” (how is a contributor different than a donor or volunteer?), and the money comes via donors. The number of volunteers drives the hierarchy of the campaign apparatus, and is itself driven by geography and popularity of the candidate. The description above doesn’t tell you anything about how or why Obama’s campaign was different, and his hierarchy doesn’t look new. It's not as though Obama's volunteers were suddenly making inner-circle decisions.
(Hint: Obama did something really new and cool in terms of organizing; I’ll get to it later!)
2. Seek elasticity of resilience. Obama's 21st century organization was built for a 21st century goal - not to maximize outputs, or minimize inputs, but to, as Gary Hamel has discussed, remain resilient to turbulence. What happened when McCain attacked Obama with negative ads in September? Such attacks would have depleted the coffers of a 20th century organization, who would have been forced to retaliate quickly and decisively in kind. Yet, Obama's organization responded furiously in exactly the opposite way: with record-breaking fundraising. That's resilience: reflexively bouncing back to an existential threat by growing, augmenting, or strengthening resources.
I’m not sure if the author thinks there is something new in trying to use your opponent’s attack adds to both motivate your own base and to drive fundraising, but as a tactic, it’s the oldest in the book. So, at best, this is an observation that Obama succeeded where others have failed, and the real wisdom here is “be better at doing something we all try to do.” It’s nice cheerleading, but not very instructive. And that is accepting the cause-effect that he suggests, which is generous. In fact, Obama broke fundraising records from wire to wire; I’m not sure that it is more attributable to McCain attack ads than his own political talent or appeal.
Further, it’s worth questioning why McCain’s attack ads did less damage than expected. My take is that some of the impact was lessened by the long and brutal primary season, which made targets like Wright and Rezko seem stale and unsuccessful; and the general irrelevance of Ayers, particularly while the period between the conventions and mid-October was dominated by news of a financial crisis. Not the best time to make fear of the radicalism of the 60s your point of differentiation.
3. Minimize strategy. Obama's campaign dispensed almost entirely with strategy in its most naïve sense: strategy as gamesmanship or positioning. They didn't waste resources trying to dominate the news cycle, game the system, strong-arm the party, or out-triangulate competitors' positions. Rather, Obama's campaign took a scalpel to strategy - because they realized that strategy, too often, kills a deeply-lived sense of purpose, destroys credibility, and corrupts meaning.
Somebody has already forgotten the primaries, it seems. In the primary phase of this election season (which, I think, was about 75% of it), one of Obama’s great strengths was understanding that he could make better inroads in caucus states, and lining up his organizational strength to get those delegates. His map was not an accident. You can argue whether this was “gaming the system,” but you can’t argue that it was basic, in-the-trenches political strategy and execution.
4. Maximize purpose. Change the game? That's 20th century thinking at its finest - and narrowest. The 21st century is about changing the world. What does "yes we can" really mean? Obama's goal wasn't simply to win an election, garner votes, or run a great campaign. It was larger and more urgent: to change the world.
Bigness of purpose is what separates 20th century and 21st century organizations: yesterday, we built huge corporations to do tiny, incremental things - tomorrow, we must build small organizations that can do tremendously massive things.
And to do that, you must strive to change the world radically for the better - and always believe that yes, you can. You must maximize, stretch, and utterly explode your sense of purpose.
There is something to this, but it is not well explained. There are two things that the author seems to be asking for: greatness of vision, and strategic broadness.
As to greatness of vision: Obama has the ability to give aspirational speeches without sounding naïve. Not an easy task, and one few politicians attempt. But periodically, they do, whether it is about Morning in America or a Great Society. I’ve always been a fan of the quote by Goethe – “Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men." But he was around a little before the 21st Century, and whether broad messages succeed will change with the times and with the messenger.
Strategic boldness: Contra point number three, Obama really rolled out the 50-State Strategy as proposed by Howard Dean. Recent elections have been all about the battleground states; the idea was that you should put your money where it was likely to do the most good, and by looking at the electoral map, you knew which dollars made a difference. In that view, everything else was wasted. Call that the Carville approach.
With the funds and the popularity to expand the board, Obama made a strategic decision to go after lower-probability states in addition to clear battlegrounds like PA/OH/FL. Some panned out (IN, NC?), some did not (MO?). Combined with broad popularity and poor fundamentals for the Republicans, the effect was that McCain had to play defense all over the board. He couldn’t patch leaks fast enough, and he couldn’t focus his own resources in just a few places. Turns out shrinking the map is good for an underdog, but maybe not the best plan if you are in a very strong starting position.
5. Broaden unity. What do marketers traditionally do? Segment and target, slice and dice. We've become great at dividing markets into tinier and tinier bits. But we're terrible at unifying them. Yet Obama succeeded not through division, but through unification: we are, he contended, "not a collection of Red States and Blue States -- We are the United States of America".
Obama intuitively understands a larger truth of next-generation economics. Unified markets are what a world driven to collapse by hyperconsumption is desperately going to need. We're going to need not a hundred different kinds of razors - and their spiralling costs of complexity and waste - but a single razor that everybody, from the slums of Rio to the lofts of Tribeca, is overjoyed to use.
As mentioned above, Obama certainly rejected a slice-and-dice strategic approach. And I’ll agree that a part of his “great vision” is a message about unity; indeed this was also a winning electoral message for George W “Uniter, not a Divider” Bush.
And while I personally believe in a “single razor,” well-designed products that get the basics right (shout out to 37 Signals!) rather than feature-crammed monstrosities, I’m not sure that this was a driving factor in Obama’s campaign. Apart, that is, from the fact that a broad message also tends to sound a) less like an obvious pander and b) harder to attack on specific grounds. But those are features that are fairly unique to politics, and Obama did need to undergird his rhetoric with actual proposals anyway.
6. Thicken power. The power many corporations wield is thin power: the power to instill fear and inculcate greed. True power is what Obama has learned wield: the power to inspire, lead, and engender belief. You can beat people into subjugation - but you can never command their loyalty, creativity, or passion. Thick power is true power: it's radically more durable, less costly, and more intense.
Can anyone tell me what this actually means? I don’t think I get the metaphor. In general, it is certainly easier to arouse fear than inspire passion. I think it is a little premature to describe the lasting nature of the power that you get by doing so. Bush and Cheney inspired a lot of fear, and they got a lot of power that they were actually able to employ to their own ends; their power was certainly too “true” for my tastes. I think it is worth studying whether and how strong an affinity to a candidate is created by these types of appeals, but this election hardly answers even that question, and once the candidate shifts into governance, it is not clear to me that this matters much.
7. Remember that there is nothing more asymmetrical than an ideal. Obama ended his last speech before the election by saying: "let's go change the world." Why are those words important? Because the world needs changing. A world riven by economic meltdown, religious conflict, resource scarcity, and intractable poverty and violence - such a world demands fresh ideals. We must mold and shape a better world - or we will surely all suffer together. As Obama said: "we rise or fall ... as one people."
In such a world, forget about a short-lived, often meaningless "competitive advantage". It's a concept built for the 20th century. In the 21st century, there is nothing more asymmetrical - more disruptive, more revolutionary, or more innovative -- than the world-changing power of an ideal.
And this one… can I admit I’m lost? Ideals and even lofty goals are certainly not new, and have been used in politics both successfully and unsuccessfully for generations. Again, I am a fan of looking of both having morals and looking for emerging disruptive technologies, but… there is nothing actually instructional here, is there? Is the author suggesting that going forward, cynicism will now and forever fail? Count me skeptical.
So, now for the cool part – the things that the Obama campaign really did well:
Lower the barrier to entry by asking for very small commitments:
I’m furiously digging for the report of this that I read, but the story was as follows: among somewhat committed people (e.g. unions), Obama and other organizers asked at his speeches for people to make three calls. They handed out pieces of paper with scripts and three phone numbers. Between the short amount of effort (ten minutes at most) required, and the appeal to duty, they were able to get a lot of people to make this small effort. But what really happened was that a lot of people found out making a few calls wasn’t so bad. They moved themselves out of the “I could never see myself calling someone” category. Once that step had been made, and the psychological hurdle had been cleared, it was a lot easier to get people to make more calls, and at the same time to see themselves as quite deeply invested.
Create reassurance and solidarity, before facing opposition:
In many places, volunteers’ first assignments weren’t to get out into the cold with a clipboard, but to call people that had already expressed interest either by donating or giving money, and their “entry” goal was increasing the volunteer staff rather than converting voters. Speaking first to the most friendly audiences makes for a better experience, and more hands mean more solidarity. The work became more pleasant; at the same time, there were more hands to tackle the hard stuff.
Let the message get personal:
The temptation in politics, as in business, is to retain a tight control over what people are saying about you, and on your behalf. But letting people own a small personal stake in your message is a powerful thing for commitment. Don’t be too afraid that someone might get something wrong – it takes an Ashley Todd to make the news in the wrong way, and the personalization is powerful both for your volunteers and for their audience.
Face your critics:
Joe the Plumber became famous during the debate and after. But he got his start when Barack Obama took the time to explain, patiently but unyieldingly, why he thought his plans were better to Joe, an unsympathetic listener. This approach, the opposite of the “kick people out that are wearing my opponent’s shirt” approach , confers an amazing amount of credibility.
In the end, most of what Obama did in terms of campaigning was evolutionary, not revolutionary. But that doesn’t mean that the lessons are any less powerful.