The real innovation of the Obama campaign

Washington Post reporter Dan Balz’s new book, Collision: 2012, will soon be released and the Post has been running excerpts, including this one today that revisits the Obama data and analytics advantage from 2012 .   The Obama campaign has been held up, studied, and envied most for their unprecedented use of analytics, technology, and data science created by people from outside the  normal political realm.  However, today’s article from Dan Balz highlights two things they did that were as valuable, and rare, in political campaigns.

1.  They broke down barriers between local volunteers, state field offices, and national headquarters.  So many campaigns run top down.  And despite a Republican policy preference for local and state control, most of our national committees and national campaigns run on a Father Knows Best kind of model.  Local and state offices and staff are usually frustrated that they can’t get the attention or resources from the national office.  Lots of local intelligence gets lost or goes uncollected.  The analytics are part of the equation – a big part – but so is the culture.  Usually, the national staff thinks they are smarter than the local or state staff and that only they have the big picture. The Obama campaign had a culture that valued, in fact, prioritized what was happening at the local level.

2.  They taught their campaign team to manage and to work together, eliminating one of the major reasons campaigns blow up:  the dysfunction that results from a collision of big egos who don’t want to share, protection of turf, and the dysfunction of throwing political people together who don’t  have people skills. (see:  Mark Penn, 2008)  Yes, they brought behaviorists and academics in to given them insight into voter (human) behavior, but they also brought in management consultants and coaches to help them create a healthy corporate environment.  Dan Balz writes in today’s Post:

The team’s attention to detail rivaled that of the most successful corporations. One innovation was the recruitment of corporate trainers or coaches, who volunteered to help teach everyone how to manage. “We recruited a whole group of pro bono executive coaches,” Bird said. “These are people that coach Fortune 100 companies.” Obama’s team recruited them as volunteers, but instead of having them knock on doors, they were asked to provide management training. “We had them partner up with our state leadership,” Bird said. “They didn’t need to know anything about campaigns, because we didn’t want their advice on how to run a campaign. We wanted their advice on how to be a manager.”

This is actually pretty huge and something sorely needed in most campaigns.  As Republicans look ahead to 2014 and 2016, the focus seems to be on catching up on the data, technology and analytics.  That’s important.  But just as important is creating an internal culture that is just as innovative and seamless.

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