Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Learning from Obama: maneuver warfare on the campaign trail

I had the privilege of volunteering for the Obama campaign in swing states for a few weekends during the final push towards victory. I'm quite confident I got more out of the experience than the campaign got from me. Zillions of stories are being written about why Barack Obama won, and I will try and avoid repeating the obvious. But nothing I've read so far really does justice to what I witnessed in Colorado and Nevada.

I believe that part of the reason for Barack Obama's victory was his superior understanding of how to build an organization that could learn, discover and execute and at speed so fast that it looked like a blur to the McCain camp. In other words, he better applied the principles of maneuver warfare to his campaign. Startups and larger companies alike can learn a lot from the organization I observed.

Here's some of what I learned from the experience. Obama understood the two concepts that are essential for building a high-performance, highly adaptable, agile organization: 1) rapid iteration and 2) clear values-based objectives.

Following this approach, an organization can act with incredible speed, constantly updating its strategy before an opponent can even figure out what's happening. But instead of looking erratic, the many units of your organization act in concert to produce a coherent whole. In other words: you look like a blur to your enemies. Boyd called this concept the OODA loop, for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. He believed that the speed at which you can move through the loop determines victory. I believe John Boyd would have been impressed by Barack Obama's campaign.

Speed of iteration
I was impressed by the speed at which the campaign executed its OODA loop, at many levels of the organization. In the small field office that I volunteered at in Colorado, here was the rhythm of our daily existence.

At the end of each day, we'd laboriously enter data, updating the campaign's voter database with information about every voter contact we accomplished that day. That voter database was accessible to staff at every level of the campaign.

And then the voter data would be crunched, by someone at statewide HQ, and each night we'd start the process of creating new packets of instructions for the next day. The packets were created from targeted lists of voters, based on all the data the campaign was able to gather from its multi-pronged collection efforts.

Each day we'd be directed to use specific lists with specific scripts, all created by the campaign. We'd also learn what our overall goals were, and we'd report on how well we'd accomplished those goals at the end of each day.

Each morning, volunteers would arrive and be handed packets with instructions. We'd train them on-demand as they came in, and send them into the world (or onto the phones) with written instructions and voter contact data. Over the course of the day, we'd take their feedback about how it was going into account, revising the script occasionally (back to the Orient step) to try and maximize the goal for that day (voter contacts, persuasion, get out the vote, signing up new volunteers, etc).

The whole loop took only one day.

I have to assume that this structure allowed the campaign to experiment freely and rapidly on their data mining and script-building techniques. It also must have allowed them to assess the effectiveness of each field organizer, team leader, and even each volunteer day-by-day. I didn't witness this first-hand, but they must have been able to diagnose problems pretty quickly and take corrective action whenever necessary. This allowed them very wide discretion when it came to decentralizing the whole organization. The risk of incorporating a bunch of brand-new volunteers is much lower if you have good analytics about their performance.

Mission synchronization
If an organization is changing on a daily basis how is it that it doesn't look "erratic" yet feels "agile." The key is mission synchronization. Every day, up and down the organization we all shared consistent values and sense of common purpose. I want to quote a little bit from the "Organizing Principles" section of the briefing packet I was issued by the Colorado Border States Team when I agreed to come volunteer:
"Respect. Empower. Include" guides everything we do. [it] is the mantra for our campaign and our organizing. Our army of volunteers has been our core advantage on the ground. This army will serve as the foudnation of our general election organization. Our campaign must maximize this strength.

To do so, we must live this mantra on a daily basis. We must be respectful of our coworkers and our supporters; of our own daily projects; of the voters in the state we work; of our opponent and his supporters. We must go beyond engaging volunteers with tasks. Respecting, empowering, and including supporters in our campaign in a meaningful way requires a committment to volunteer leadership, development, training, and accountability. ...

In exchange for that ownership, we will hold them, each otehr, and ourselves accountable to shared goals and expectations.
Now, I had never volunteered in a campaign before. In fact, my political philosophy is considered pretty conservative by many of my friends, and I'd never engaged with the Democratic Party in any way before. So I was pretty nervous about how I'd be treated, and pretty skeptical of the words written in that briefing packet. My experience totally blew me away. Every worker - volunteer and paid staffer alike - that I interacted with from the campaign lived these values every day. Everyone understood the campaign's values, as well as its high-level strategy. And I was always given the opportunity to do meaningful work for the campaign, as long as I was willing to be held accountable for accomplishing its goals.

I think modern companies have a lot they can learn from that experience. In today's world, knowledge workers (and especially those who thrive in startups!) are basically volunteers. They don't have to work for you - they can always get another job. They aren't primarily motivated by money, anyway. Instead, they seek meaningful work where their abilities can make a difference. If you give them that opportunity, and hold them accountable for the results of their efforts, they will move mountains for you. But if you make the mistake of telling them what to do, you'll probably be disappointed.

The benefit to the campaign of having everyone understand its mission and its strategy was immense. As the days wound down to election day, the polls showed Obama with a clear and decisive lead. It would have been pretty easy for the volunteers and supporters to slow down, confident in victory. But everyone understood that the campaign's goal was not just to win an election, but to build a movement. We were building a community, open to anyone who shared its values, and that mission inspired volunteers and staff to try and reach out to as many people as possible. And so the organization ran full-force across the finish line, delivering a healthy mandate for the President-Elect.

Putting it together: maneuver warfare
Let me try and show how all that theory came together in a concrete example. It was three days before the election, and we got word that the McCain campaign was about to unleash its vaunted 72 hour strategy in our county, making it the centerpiece of their get-out-the-vote efforts. We got that news on a conference call at midnight the night before. The statewide office had crunched the numbers and realized we'd be well short of McCain's total in the final days. So we were instructed to rip up the packets for the next day, and create an entirely new set, focused on the objective of signing up new volunteers. Although it was late, we had no problem accomplishing this goal. We knew that as long as we showed up at 9AM the next day with new instructions, scripts, and voter lists, our volunteers would be able to execute. The next day, the campaign used our new data to figure out how many additional volunteers and staff it still needed to send. The whole loop took less than 24 hours. And the volunteers took up the call that morning with the kind of passion and zeal that comes with truly understanding the situation and what the mission requires.

Our opponents seemed to be fighting and old style of ground war, while we were engaged in maneuver warfare. Their strategy was static, and there was no opportunity, as far as I could tell, for them to react to what we were doing. On the other hand, we could match them strength-for-strength as soon as we knew where to go.

What I found particularly interesting, looking back, is that the McCain campaign had superior technology, voter lists, and numbers on their side. Our campaign's software tools were pretty poor (don't let the fancy website fool you, the volunteers are working from an antiquated system). Democrats didn't have a great voter database to start with, because Colorado had only recently become part of their electoral strategy. And the "72 hour strategy" had previously proven decisive in many key counties, blitzkrieg style. Yet, I believe it was Obama's superior agility that led to a decisive 12-point margin in Arapahoe County, CO:

I want to say thanks to everyone on the campaign, from the candidate on down to the paid staff and volunteers that I got to work with. Not only did they create a superb organization and win a decisive victory in a critical election, they also taught many of us some incredible lessons. I'm truly grateful.

The Marine Corps adopted Boyd's ideas as the basis of their maneuver warfare doctrine. The irony is that McCain, a true war hero, might have been undone by the first pristine execution of maneuver warfare in a political campaign.

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  1. Fantastic post. I'm also a big fan of John Boyd's work, and your story "from the inside" is a really insightful way of matching maneuver warfare to the political arena. I'd never thought of it that way, but it seems very appropriate.

    Oh, and thanks for volunteering!

  2. That was really insightful, Eric. The Obama campaign was also very impressive on the online marketing front - their ads were everywhere. About a year ago, they were aggressively recruiting the top online marketing folks. I don't know anyone in this space who was contacted by the Republicans, however...

  3. Hey Eric, I read this with interest as I had been thinking about a number of the campaign moves (on both sides) in maneuver warfare terms. In particular, "surfaces and gaps" thinking that defines which issues to push on the trail. It would be easy to look at Obama's focus during the campaign on McCain's voting record with Bush, or the McCain camp's focus on "terrorist associations", as driving into gaps.

    The one thing I'm really curious about is whether or not the Obama camp explicitly discussed what they were doing in maneuver warfare / OODA loop terms. Is this your own "The Obama campaign through the lens of OODA loops" piece, or did the campaign explicitly use this language and approach? Thanks.

  4. The irony, of course, is that there were a whole lot of pundits saying that McCain was the master of OODA, and that with unexpected moves like the selection of Palin as VP, was "getting inside Obama's decision loop."

    On another point, Eric, I just LOVE what you are writing on this site. I would love to talk to you about writing a book (and various other things.) Can't find an email on your site but please contact me: tim at (as you might expect) oreilly dot com

  5. Thanks for the comments and kind words!

    To answer Jim's question: no, I never heard anyone on the campaign talk about OODA loops. To be fair, though, I wasn't involved in any strategy meetings. What impressed me most was how evident the strategy was, even from my fairly "low" perspective.