by Hamed Saber
Obama’s Seven Lessons for Radical Innovators:
Obama’s campaign organization was different in many ways than any other one before. Mainly because of the very innovative way it was put together. It was actually quite entrepreneurial in its scope. It serves as an interesting model of how new online tools coupled with decentralized lines of communication can leverage the social connections of its employees and volunteers.
The idea of grassroots, bottom-up approaches has been used before. The GOP, in fact, was first to really use direct mail in the early 90s to keep its followers informed. But these organizations still retained a hierarchical, top-down approach, with decisions having to move up and down the chain of command. Decision-making was not decentralized and pushed out to the edges as was seen in Obama’s organization.
You can read about some of this as it trickles out into the media but this will be a case study for future organizations who want to innovate, to find answers to complex questions. As Exley states:
The “New Organizers” have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so “top-down” and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or “bottom-up” organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.
It is a model for a type of organization that we will see more of in the coming years. A grocery store might not use with this model but it might work for a bio/pharmaceutical company. innovation often comes when control is pushed to the edges.
Let’s look what Haque discusses and the seven lessons. I know many of these are true because I have worked for an organization that had many of these traits. I know firsthand how innovative self-organizing companies can be, even when restricted for cash.
Barack Obama is one of the most radical management innovators in the world today. Obama’s team built something truly world-changing: a new kind of political organization for the 21st century. It differs from yesterday’s political organizations as much as Google and Threadless differ from yesterday’s corporations: all are a tiny handful of truly new, 21st century institutions in the world today.
Obama presidential bid succeeded, in other words, as our research at the Lab has discussed for the past several years, through the power of new DNA: new rules for new kinds of institutions.
Well, this may be overstating somethings but it must be said that Obama and his advisors put together an organization of several thousand employees and a budget of half a billion dollars that succeeded in ways that no Democrat has in 30 or 40 years. It has many of the hallmarks of an entrepreneurial business, not a political organization.
So let’s discuss the new DNA Obama brought to the table, by outlining seven rules for tomorrow’s radical innovators.
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. The result? Obama’s organization was able to reverse tremendous asymmetries in finance, marketing, and distribution – while McCain’s organization was left trapped by a stifling command-and-control paradigm.
Obama’s organization did not match any of the typical business hierarchies (i.e.e silos of command) because it was designed around the shape of human social networks. As Exley writes, it’s motto was “Respect. Empower. Include.”
It used leaders and managers at each point who understood the needs of the organization without having to have constant monitoring by higher ups. The type of leadership Obama displays makes this possible to his followers (I’ll write about this later). Self-organization of this order can only occur with the right style of leadership.
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.
Responding quickly to change and crisis will be a constant requirement for many organizations in the coming years. Currently, a large number of organizations are brittle, with links of leadership drawn too tightly in non-productive ways. We are watching many of them collapse each day.
A top-down organization often can not respond quickly to threats because of the amount of time it takes information to travel along its length, from the bottom to the top and back again, precludes rapid response. Decision-making is concentrated in a few who have limited time to deal with each one, even if the right information makes its way up the chain of command to them.
In addition, in many brittle corporations, the methods used to control employees’ behavior is restricting, with the attention to process being more important than finding a creative way to succeed. Process is often rewarded while creativity is not. We see this in too many organizations (such as schools) where the exact opposite should be the usual course.
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.
This is a very subtle point. Obviously Obama and his advisor’s had a strategy, but it was not tied to many of the standard tactics we might have been used to. The very manner in which they were organized permitted them to carry out tactics that other groups had previously ignored because the cost to implement was too great.
For example, by making ti so easy for individuals to donate money, Obama was able to generate significant amounts of money yet not have to spend as much of his own time fundraising. Most politicians spend half their day devoted to raising money for their campaign. By being freed from this constraint, Obama was able to spend more time focussed on the campaign, on strategy/tactics and not on fundraising. This was an enormous advantage in the primaries.
His online approaches also helped him identify and maintain individuals who were instrumental in the caucus states, something that most politicians ignored because of the cost and time required. Obama was able to mobilize his small donors and others to push him over the top in these states.
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.
Not every organization needs to follow this model. These sorts of transformational organizations, with their decentralized approaches, work best in areas where simple stick/carrot approaches are not needed. If people are going to change the world, they will be motivated without needed other sorts of reinforcement.
Small companies and entrepreneurial organizations may be best suited for this approach. The feeling of working on something big, creating something that never existed before to fight problems that face the whole world can inspire tremendous innovations. Obama was not the first to use this. He was just able to use new tools in an innovative fashion to create something novel, just as many successful entrepreneurs do.
I’ll discuss the last 3 lessons later.