The political campaign playbook for building empowered organizations
I worked for roughly a decade in politics followed by a similar amount of time in tech. Between the two careers — in business school — I was introduced to the concept of case-study method; a teaching strategy that aims to develop leadership muscle-memory through study of recaps. The standard case studies come from the private-sector, military or sports and provide a useful catalogue of moves to deploy in most business situations. However, neither academia nor the business-press seem to have properly covered lessons from political campaigns (outside of a few articles on media strategy and data targeting) and I think this is a missed opportunity.
Why should the business world care about political campaign operations, which have no revenue targets and are fueled by passionate zeal rarely found at corporations? Well, first, the management environment in the private-sector is starting to look more like the one on political campaigns. Command-and-control models are being replaced by autonomous team-based designs as new generations of leaders seek empowerment and rapid professional growth. And, because customers can tweet-away market share with one bad review, companies must focus on improving service from frontline workers. Political campaigns have long built teams using decentralized and frontline-focused management models.
Political campaigns also provide a unique managerial environment to study: Campaign managers face two unavoidable operational constraints; the deadline (aka election day) is set in law and, with winner-take-all rules, a one vote swing can be the difference between success or failure. Additionally, operations must be built from scratch over a few months, grow to thousands of people and the entire venture is heavily scrutinized. This unforgiving environment makes political campaign leaders maniacally efficient, goal oriented, frontline focused and some of the world’s best at scaling organizations.
This post describes lessons from one area where campaigns especially excel: creating large empowered organizations. To illustrate these principles, I’ll use the Barack Obama presidential campaign, which has been widely-studied and is still a model for operational excellence. And, as way of background, I was a Senior Advisor for Biden for President in Pennsylvania and built four successful state efforts on the 2008 Obama campaign. I most recently led Lyft’s business in the Rocky Mountain region
Start with a single target and make everyone accountable to a portion
All campaigns begin by creating a vote goal. The best campaigns then assign each team member a piece of the target and ensure the targets are MECE (Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive), meaning — if you add up each individual person’s goal it equals the exact number of votes you believe you need to win. The campaign leaders also ensure there is no ambiguity about priorities — supporting metrics exist but are clearly secondary to the vote target.
This fundamental first step is often overlooked or overcomplicated in many organizations. Some suffer from death-by-a-thousand-metrics where everything is important and therefore nothing is prioritized. And, too often, teams receive goals without context or are measured by actions that don’t support a top priority — so there is no connection between their effort and the overall success of the business. Because campaign goals roll up into a precise win number, all can be confident that their efforts will impact the election.
Give up control
“I didn’t care where you organized, what time you organized, how you organized, as long as I could track it, I can measure it, and I can encourage you to do more of it.” -Jim Messina, Campaign Manager for Obama For America 2012
There are hundreds of thousands of American neighborhoods and the Obama campaign wanted a volunteer leader in every one. Quickly inspiring and managing that many people requires radical team empowerment. So, instead of enforcing one strategy, the campaign allowed many different tactics to emerge from the ground-up: some teams focused on launching campaign offices, others on volunteer house-parties and many would prioritize social media strategies.
Most startups have this same empowerment mindset, but once they grow — tend to centralize control. Big companies create rigid rules to improve predictability but these standards can also stifle innovation. Campaign leaders, meanwhile, have learned to give up control of the operation to gain control over the outcome.
Regular reporting from those most responsible for the work
Of course, autonomy only works when paired with accountability. And to ensure accountability across a very large group, the Obama team had nightly all-staff calls where each regional leader would report numbers — his or her name appearing on a shared screen with the percentage towards a weekly goal highlighted in either green or red.
In a typical corporate environment, senior managers speak for their team. In contrast, campaigns have very junior people report and own the results of their work (and by junior, I mean — often times — first-job-out-of-college junior). This reporting system properly recognizes the person who can most influence the goal and super-charges professional development for young leaders.
Share data broadly
Volunteers power political campaigns — so, to create a sense of ownership, the Obama campaign gave volunteers access to the same database as paid staff. Building the systems to democratize the data was time consuming but the effort was far outweighed by the increased motivation from a wider group of people.
When I left campaigns and joined the private sector, I was surprised by the number of seemingly harmless documents marked “confidential — do not share.” I found dashboards with locked-down access and wasted way too much time trying to find basic stuff. By hoarding information, team members are denied the tools they need to succeed. And, even worse, organizations that guard data create “haves” and “have-nots,” which intensifies internal politics. Ironically, the political world is often better at avoiding these unnecessary power struggles because of their willingness to freely share information.
Create and enforce a strict set of norms
With large teams and open data-sharing policies, how do campaigns limit risk? The effective ones create a strict code of conduct. This set of norms reflects the values of the candidate — and the Obama campaign was governed by three simple words: respect, empower, include. This phrase became a shortcut to guide all actions and decisions.
Most companies now create mission statements, however, many lack the commitment to turn those carefully crafted commandments into a company culture. When taken seriously, staff or volunteers who exemplify values are celebrated and those who consistently fail to operate by these norms are asked to leave. All other goals, like speed and autonomy, are only achieved because of the trust created by an effective code of conduct.
Do your job and, by the way, prepare to have your job change often
Bill Belichick’s famous motto is “do your job” and empowered organization must embrace this attitude to ensure that the team performs without constant oversight or micro-management. But, how do you tell someone to “just do your job” when there will be frequent periods of ambiguity and large changes in priorities? Shifting polls and spiky fundraising mean that campaigns are constantly evolving their org-chart and a typical campaign staffer will change roles or scope nearly every month. On one campaign, we overhauled the job description for several hundred people on a 8PM conference call with the first action happening the next morning. This level of thrash only works if you can instill the value of flexibility early and reinforce that value throughout the campaign. To promote this objective, the Obama campaign repurposed a Marine Corps saying of “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.”
Since leaving campaigns, I’ve enjoyed the relative stability of corporate roles; it isn’t necessarily healthy or productive to ask for a campaign-level of flexibility in a long-term job. However, stability can calcify a team and lead them to stubbornly cling to role definitions. The teams that can stay nimble and embrace change will inevitably outperform those who aren’t prepared to deal with occasional ambiguity. But, to build a nimble team, you must set the expectation that change will happen — in interviews, onboarding and throughout an employee’s career and then reward those who embrace that change.
The entire team must be focused on the frontline
Lastly, the successful campaigns orient culture around the work of young field organizers not the highly-paid consultants or more experienced headquarters staff. Obama leader Paul Tewes created a defining culture by focusing on these frontline workers. Tewes frequently knocked on voter doors to highlight the importance of frontline work and expected everyone, even elected officials and wealthy donors, to follow suit. And, across the campaign, leaders gave platforms to the most marginalized team members: for example, rural organizers, who might otherwise operate in anonymity, had prime speaking slots on all-staff calls. In fact, if you charted the amount of praise and attention-given, by role, it would likely resemble an inverse org chart — with the most senior leaders at the bottom and the most junior at the top.
Most companies have some version of a frontline worker: they are service agents, baristas, cashiers and drivers who work most closely with a customer. Companies who uplift these employees and focus attention on their work deliver more reliable customer service and better motivate and retain their teams.
Those campaigns who get these principles right can quickly build a national operation with minimal bureaucracy and maximum output. This picture above is from a week before election day in Colorado. We invited our top neighborhood volunteers to come to Denver for a special event. We had only been operating for five months and only invited top volunteers so we didn’t know what to expect. But sign-ups surged and, to accommodate the crowd, we moved the rally at a college gym. The team had embraced focused goal-setting, autonomy, empowerment and the results filled the bleachers…and a few weeks later we won the election.
While most businesses don’t need to grow this-big-that-fast, I believe the campaign model can help anyone brainstorm new ways to manage their organizations. My hope is that those who want to better empower a team will look to the young leaders coming off campaigns — we just finished an election cycle so there are many great ones available.