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March 2010
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Learning From Success

Over the years I have found that learning from failure was far more instructive because in success it is so hard to differentiate cause from effect. Having just completed one of the best business books I have ever read (and I must admit to being a business book junkie) I find there can be real learning from a well document success story as well. In all honesty the book I am referring to “The Audacity to Win” by David Plouffe is not really a business book. It is the story of getting Barack Obama elected. Before all my Republican readers and friends go crazy it is not political. As I said, it is a business story. The business of getting one man elected President of the United States.

Plouffe gives us a first person insider view of Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, the strategies, process and the execution. It is a primer for every person interesting in increasing their probability of success. While possibly not the author’s intent, the book illustrates the importance of strategy as a guiding light. In a nutshell, he reminds us of the importance of strategy (and the confidence to stick to it), execution and the importance of remaining focused on the objective. The objective in this case was simple, get 270 electoral votes – not get Barack Obama elected. The fact that it worked makes a great story.

People who have worked with me have heard me ask over and over (to the point of frustration on their part) – what is the objective? If you get the objective wrong or don’t keep reminding yourself of what the objective was in the first place your probability of success goes down exponentially. One of my favorite quotes comes from Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going every road leads there.

Another lesson from this book was the importance of developing and executing a new game strategy. Let others play by the established rules of engagement. First the Clinton campaign and then McCain did everything by the (old) book, and lost. Old game strategies may sustain a business for some time but someone else always seems to come along with a new game strategy and displace the incumbent. Apple is a classic example of a company who is always looking for and executing new game strategies. Google is another.

Below I have transcribed several pages from the epilogue of Plouffe’s book. I believe it speaks for itself.

“We were essentially a startup business. We had had nothing when we began — no lists, no equipment, no talent pool just waiting for the green light. Our candidate had had little experience on the national stage and almost no relationships or experiencing the states that would decide our fate. It was an enormous challenge to launch this effort, under intense scrutiny, while we were still trying to get the phones turned on and the computers up and running. But that formative period created our identity, in many of the principles and decisions we employed at the outset were instrumental in allowing us to win. I presume these ideas would have some value to any enterprise.

We entered the campaign, and exited it, in the right mindset, with a unique mixture of idealism and pragmatism. We believed that Obama offered great promise as both a candidate and a potential president, the kind of promise that most of us had assumed we would never witness, much less be part of. This optimism was married to a keen appreciation of just how narrow our pathway to success would be. The odds from the start said that we would not win. So idealism kept us going, but pragmatism kept us grounded. Both were necessary to our success.

We begin with the belief that we needed a clear message as well as a single strategy. The message would encapsulate the emotion and substance we were offering voters, and the strategy would outline our theory for how we would succeed. Both of these were established at the outset and inviolable. There was no guarantee our strategy would work, but we needed to commit to one path, not many, and base every decision on it. And on both message and strategy, we did not pay much attention to what those on the outside were saying, whether we were perceived at the moment is up or down. We had our own radar and metrics and did not change course or rethink our fundamentals when the chorus of critics demanded it.

Everything in the campaign flowed through the prism of strategy, which made decision-making relatively uneventful, a must for any organization. Taking the suspense out of why you say yes or no improves productivity, understanding, and morale, and makes it easier to reach sound decisions for the right reasons. This methodology allowed us to make decisions quickly. In the beginning we had no choice, but as we got established, we carried that approach forward. There was simply no time to dither and second-guess. We knew that we wouldn’t get all the calls right, and of course we didn’t. But when we were wrong, we avoided wallowing or extended recriminations.

Technology played a role in our success. Reaching an audience involves more than just figuring out who your audience is; it also means knowing how to find them. Part of the reason our campaign was so successful is that we were able to identify early that many of the people we wanted to reach were spending more of their time on the Internet. We realized that a smart, and large, Internet presence was the best way to provide people with the opportunity and the tools to get involved in the campaign — they were already immersed in the world of technology and would be more likely to encounter us there. We met people where they lived instead of forcing them to deviate from their habits or lifestyle to seek us out. Our early commitment to a digitally-based platform paid huge dividends.

From the outset, we tried to figure out how to communicate with the target voters with a fresh set of eyes. Establish tactics, like press interviews, TV ads, and mail pieces, would of course be important parts of our arsenal. But we put a huge premium on direct digital communication, as well as on the power of human beings talking to human beings, online, on the phone, and at the door.

The principle underlying this was fairly simple: we live in a busy and fractured world in which people are bombarded with pleas for their attention. Given this, you have to try extra hard to reach them. You need to be everywhere. And for people you reach multiple times through different mediums, you need to make sure that your message is consistent, so, for instance, they don’t see a TV ad on tax cuts, hear a radio ad on health care, and clicked on an Internet ad about energy all on the same day. Messaging needs to be aligned in every level: between offline and on –, principle and volunteer, phone and e-mail.

We tried to be our target voters’ network TV, cable, satellite, and on-demand; on their radios; all over the Internet; in their mailboxes; and on their land lines and their cell phones, if we could; at their doorsteps; and out of their communities. Balanced communications across all mediums is critical to any messaging effort today.

We measured our progress exclusively with our own yardstick. That takes discipline, but discipline without attention to the right metrics is meaningless. Whether it came to fund-raising, voter registration, or local press footprint, filling volunteer shifts, were ultimately reaching our voting goals, we had clear internal benchmarks that the campaign leadership used to measure our progress or lack thereof, and that all of our staff and volunteers could use to measure their own work. This is of chief importance — organizations tend to thrive when analysis of job performance is based on clear and incontrovertible standards. This way, any corrective action is based not on subjective measures but on clear, well-defined, objective ones.

Culture is about people. And the people of our campaign made this victory a reality. There is no more effective courier for a message that people who believe in it and have authentically embraced it. Our secret weapon, day in and day out, was our army of volunteers, real people who brought Obama’s message and ideas to their neighborhoods, coworkers, and fellow citizens, guided by our extraordinary staff. The bonds of trust between individuals who shared values, goals, or even just living space were far stronger than anything we might hope to have forged through more traditional tactics. In many ways, the delivery of our message and the execution of our electoral strategy were successfully carried out on the backs of these bonds.”


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