Wednesday, August 13, 2008

on the Clinton Campaign memos

The Front-Runner’s Fall

If you haven't read the piece in The Atlantic about the internal workings of the Clinton campaign, you really should.

Oh, not because it gives you a little thrill to have all your bad feelings against the Clinton campaign reaffirmed (if that was your wont) but because of what you can learn about basic lessons of organizational management.

For me, especially if I remembered part of my past at a strategic communications firm, the story of the campaign's implosion was a textbook lesson of what happens when an organization A) fails to ensure proper values and strategy alignment among its teams, B) doesn't address bad information flow and C) lacks trust. None of these issues are siloed from one another. In fact, they depend on one another and soon you just have a ball of entrenched dysfunction, as the Clinton campaign discovered.

Not to sound all Fast Company, but values and strategic alignment is the glue that holds an organization together. In corporate speak, it's what folks talk about when they say they're 'on the same page.' Folks in leadership talk a lot about 'being on the same page' but there is usually a big gap between where the Leader says they are and what folks on the frontline see.

Say what you will about the GOP, in every single one of the candidates they run, values and strategy go hand in hand. The DNC? Not so much. I don't know if this is because the left likes to 'process' shit so much and no one likes to be the bad guy or deliver bad messages but when I think of the messy politicking of the left, aligned is the last thing they are.

(See the continued wrangling over what's going to happen at the convention, which I won't be able to attend, and how we seem to run into the same thing every election cycle when each warring progressive faction wants some other interest to fall on their sword so that others will survive.)

In the case of the Clinton campaign, HRC and her staff seemed to come from totally different places: in one instance, Penn wanting to go immediately negative (which I'll note later), other key staff resisting, the Leader being conspicuously absent from the final decision. Did HRC really believe that BO was 'un-American'? I seriously doubt that. Yet, what made Penn think she'd be open to that? What values gap existed between them?

(And sharing the same goal does not mean people share the same values.)

My biggest takeaway from the piece is how information flow is crucial to any successful campaign (not just political campaigns, either.) The Clinton campaign memos reveal how information was plugged, or viewed with distrust, at various points, to the detriment of the campaign. Information on budgets, tactics, shifting electoral landscape - all, at some point, went ignored by key people after being floated 'up' or 'across' the organization from people on the frontline. As a result, the leader was left without the necessary tools to do her job; she was at sea.

Does this kind of isolation make a leader trust her team or does this make her assume more random responsibility because she can't trust her team to do what it needs to deliver? And, in return, does a team look at their leader's angry withdrawal and respond positively or do they panic, withholding bad news or difficult conversations - which leads to more distrust?

High performing teams don't have these issues; they see and act (quickly) while wearing the same goggles, acting with flexibility to good and bad environmental factors; ideas are evaluated on their value-addedness (is this idea going to enhance our mission and vision, stretch it or take us outside of it?); high performing teams act with autonomy but there's always an honest touchstone with leadership, marked by free flowing communication.

If only someone on Clinton's staff had read a few issues of the Harvard Business Review.
Reading the Atlantic piece, I was riveted.

Penn's memos where he suggested highlighting Obama's Otherness and 'un-American-ness,' made me think, 'Wow, he actually said it!' If we take his suggestion and pair it with his note that the campaign was trying to 'neutralize' race as a major demographic factor, then we get a picture of a man with his head very far up his ass.

You want to take 'race' out of the picture but you don't mind telling a whole bunch of black and brown people (in addition to the rest of the country) that a man of color is un-American. Nice message.

Talk about problematic - and talk about an opportunity for the Dems to ask themselves if that kind of strategic thinking reflects the core values of their party.

This piece also makes me hope the Obama camp will be careful of future values/strategy misalignment, mission and vision creep, or perceptions thereof. (In other words, no more FISA or offshore drilling shit!)

But I'm almost positive Obama reads the HBR. Right?

[crossposted at Screed]

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