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From Campaigns to Corporations, Empower Your Staff to Avoid Major Headaches

Zak Paget, Account Director, Public Affairs

President Obama delivered his final official address as Commander-in-Chief last week and many have turned their minds to this Friday’s inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.  The impulse to focus on what’s to come is understandable. Countless articles have been posted reflecting on lessons learned from both campaigns, and November 8th seems in many ways a distant memory.

I get that. And I don’t intend to re-litigate the past. But I was struck by a particular criticism that emerged from the Clinton campaign in the days following the outcome, and it’s one that I’ve been grappling with since.

A Huffington Post article published a mere week after the election rightly noted that several theories had been offered to explain what might have gone wrong for a campaign that so many had expected would win. But, the article continued, “lost in the discussion is a simple explanation, one that was re-emphasized to HuffPost in interviews with several high-ranking officials and state-based organizers: The Clinton campaign was harmed by its own neglect.”

This theory was drawn out in a Politico exposé that focused on major challenges in key battleground states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where operatives lamented “a one-size-fits all approach drawn entirely from pre-selected data.” While frustrated district organizations, activists and local campaign organizers observed a major on-the-ground enthusiasm gap and a campaign headed in the wrong direction, their pleas for additional resources went unheeded. The lack of urgency and support from the central campaign in Brooklyn was hugely concerning to operatives in those states. But their appeals were stubbornly dismissed by the Clinton campaign, which had its own sophisticated data that pointed to a sure win in those ‘safe’ states.

This serves as a cautionary tale not only for future political campaigns, but for any organization that is working to prevent major issues that could prove fatal to their reputation and to their bottom line. It exemplifies the pitfalls of big data if it isn’t accompanied by real-time measurement that allows you to make necessary adjustments, but I want to focus on another lesson:

‘Bottom-Up’ over ‘Top-Down’

In his book “Smarter, Better, Faster,” author Charles Duhigg tells the story of a Toyota plant where leaders gave assembly line workers the power to stop the assembly line if they noticed an issue or made a mistake. This was hugely surprising to a new employee who had previously worked for a rival auto manufacturer that would never have allowed for the assembly line to stop, or subordinates to challenge a superior if something wasn’t right.

The Toyota Production System, however – which, as Duhigg explains, became known in the U.S. as ‘lean manufacturing’ – “relied on pushing decision making to the lowest possible level.” Since assembly line workers saw the problems first and were the top experts in their specific role in the process, it made sense to give them the authority to find the solution. Or, put another way, “the system was built to exploit everyone’s expertise.”

This isn’t to say that employees should be given carte blanche and there should not be a clearly defined system in place to structure relationships within the company. But building a clear line of communication and trust with employees who are closest to your day-to-day work is a critically important part of good issues management, and it is integral to addressing a potential issue in the ‘Initial Tremors’ stage outlined in the graph below.

issues-management-graphAs we often counsel clients, the best issues management is a well-planned and executed strategy with early identification, streamlined action and a quick approval process. This work can mitigate potential issues before they reach the point of attracting media interest that causes severe reputational damage. But it requires developing a good relationship with those on your staff who best understand the community dynamics, stakeholders, and processes in the communities where you operate.

The Clinton campaign had a clear overall strategy but did not empower its local voices in key states to provide feedback that, coupled with some flexibility and a willingness to adapt, could have led to a critical re-deployment of resources and a change in tactics. Some have characterized the issue as one of arrogance, with an over-reliance on a ‘top-down’ approach. While there are many facets to a political campaign and this shortfall was just one important part, it was still a major factor between the issues being managed and the triggering of events that lead to catastrophic results. The Clinton campaign lost Michigan by less than 10,000 votes. Listen to your local network, and never stop the conversation with them.