What Can Innovators Learn From Obama?
Or at least his presidential campaign
by Jeffrey Phillips
Whether you like the Obama administration or not, one thing you have to give them credit for: during their campaign they sought out and identified people who were ready, willing and eager to help. In fact, many of the people who drove the success of Obama’s presidential race weren’t the establishment figures – they lined up behind the Clintons until the primaries were over. No, many of the people who drove the Obama campaign were just regular folks who were energized for perhaps the first time. This passionate, engaged volunteerism can’t be faked, it can’t be manipulated and it can’t be replaced, as evidenced by recent polling numbers.
This isn’t a political post – it’s a post that seeks to compare what went right with Obama’s presidential campaign and what we as innovators can learn about building a successful innovation effort in a business. Obama ran as something of an outsider – with new ideas, a fresh approach and as a radical change from the figures of the recent past (Bush, Clinton, Bush, etc). He based his campaign on grassroots volunteers, many of whom were not establishment figures but who had a lot of passion and energy to donate to the campaign. These folks, as well as Obama’s team, leveraged new social media tools and new methods to meet and interact to sustain their energy and passion and to reach and invite new people. We innovators would be smart to consider what was done well in that campaign and emulate it.
In most businesses today, if an executive decides that innovation is necessary or important, he or she assigns a (usually) poorly defined task to another subordinate executive to create some innovative product or service. That individual assigns the task to several people who:
- Weren’t involved in the decision
- Already have other responsibilities
- Aren’t passionate about change or innovation
So, we get a team of the uninterested led by the unwilling focused on the abstract. There’s no passion, no energy, little enthusiasm. Additionally, there’s often little time allotted and no introduction of new tools or techniques. So we ask people who aren’t involved and aren’t passionate to create something interesting and new, using existing tools and processes.
This is exactly the opposite of what happened in the Obama presidential campaign. Obama created a clear change vision and attracted passionate, engaged people to that vision. Then, he and his team introduced a range of new tools to get people who might not normally have been involved actively involved in the campaign – reaching out and including others and building a grass roots program. Passion and energy are contagious, and having a vision to focus that passion and energy simply adds fuel to the fire. Imagine, however, if the campaign team had recruited all of these new people to support the race, but had forced them to use older, more traditional tools and techniques rather than social media and meetups. They’d have lost their enthusiasm and energy. Now, think about what we do when we build innovation teams in most businesses.
- Create a clear, compelling vision?
- Invite anyone who is energized by that vision?
- Build on their passion and engagement?
- Give them the new tools necessary to succeed?
Umm, no. In most cases we:
- Have a poorly defined goal with weak commitments
- Assign people who are available and already overworked
- Ignore people who might have passion about the topic because they aren’t the “right” people or are from a different group or aren’t senior/junior enough
- Passion? Engagement? Really? Not during office hours!
- Ask them to use existing tools and techniques to create something new
Everyone tells me that they can’t afford to invest in their people and their innovation teams. Yet the Obama campaign is an example of a group of people who volunteered their time, crafted tools with little investment, using what was available to them, because they were passionate and engaged. I think that given the right goals, clarity and opportunity, innovation doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive. People will rush to the right vision and opportunity, and will work far beyond an “8-5” given the chance to do something powerful and meaningful – for a political campaign, or for their employer.
Too many firms have forgotten that their people are motivated by more than the job and the paycheck. People want to create new things and seek to express their passion. Too often we ask them to leave that at home, or exercise it outside of the office. Political campaigns are just one beneficiary of the fact that large firms often can’t excite and motivate employees to bigger, greater things.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.
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