What political campaigns can teach us about strategy

I had a chat to the campaign manager for the winners of the recent NZ election. I asked her about the campaign strategy.

The campaign team started with a clear campaign strategy and a clearly defined end state (winning the election). At the start of the campaign they had a set of processes and operating procedures that allow them to make decisions and move quickly.


In an election the strategy focuses on building and managing the narrative in the public domain. Political opponents and detractors will try and undermine the narrative and will offer an alternative that can be ugly and damaging. Intense media scrutiny and the availability of polling information give the campaign manager granular, disintermediated and real-time feedback, whether they like it or not. A good political campaign isn't one that starts with a "winning strategy". It is one where the political party can spot the emergence of narrative that supports or detracts from the strategic intent and can act quickly to amplify the positive and mitigate the effect of the negative.

For example, one of the major television networks wanted three days lead time for political advertisements. The campaign manager, understanding that at the sharp end of a political campaign the narrative can change within hours, negotiated a 12 hour lead time. She gave herself the chance to modify the political message based on the most current feedback from the market. This is strategic agility.

Businesses can learn a lot from this approach. An annual business plan is similar to the initial political campaign strategy. You can spend a lot of time on analysis and research but once you start interacting with the market you will get direct feedback and much of this will challenge your initial assumptions. Unless you have systems processes and the required leadership in place to allow yourself to learn from these interactions your plan will always be outdated.

Organisations that rely on periodic survey or analysis of macro data to make strategic decisions are effectively blind to the narrative that is circulating in the market. Many organisations put barriers in place to filter and interpret market information to the point where it becomes meaningless statistics. Many organisations have decision-making processes and resource allocation rules that create structural inertia. This prevents them from being able to amplify success and mitigate failure.

Unlike a political campaign, in business there is no start and there is no end. Third party polling organisations and media are not scrambling to gather the statistics and report the narrative. You must commit resourses to this task. You must continually revise your strategy, continually seek granular, dis-intermediated and real-time information and continually challenge assumptions.

Success is a mode of operation not a winning strategy.