Hillary 2016 as a Failed Agile Transformation – Part 1

Most Americans will agree that this past Presidential Election was riveting theater. The drama, the stories, the punditry, it’s safe to say that our country has never seen an election like the one we just went through (survived?). Even though I am not politically-minded I was fascinated by the story behind the election of Donald Trump as America’s 45th President.

I recently finished reading Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. This is a behind-the-scenes book narrating the happenings inside the Clinton camp. The timeline goes from the announcement of her candidacy to her first public speech post-election. The book is full of insider anecdotes and observations and gives an interesting peek into the machine that was working to get her elected.

As I was working my way through the book I noticed something:

Many of the issues that contributed to the failure of the Clinton campaign are identical to issues that contribute to a failed agile transformation!

Sounds crazy, right?

I thought the same thing…as someone who’s been part of multiple agile transformations (some successful, some not) it seems completely surreal that what we as practitioners experience as pain points are the EXACT SAME THINGS that prevented Hillary Clinton from winning the election. Who would’ve thought that the application of agile concepts might have helped Hillary win? What follows are my observations (using Shattered as my reference) around what the Clinton Campaign experienced and how their failure could have been avoided.

1.       Lack of Clear Vision

The beginning of the book covers the run-up to Clinton announcing her candidacy. The proto-campaign was staffed with holdovers from Hillary’s time at the State Department, many familiar faces from her failed 2008 campaign, and some new resources as well. One of the first issues the campaign encounters is coming up with Hillary’s “vision”: her reason for running for President.

This conversation repeats itself throughout the campaign, up to and including the night before the Democratic National Convention; Hillary’s staffers struggled mightily with her speech because they did not have a unifying statement to guide them/latch on to. The comparisons are made to Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, and regardless of your personal opinion it sums up his entire candidacy in one line. Hillary’s eventual motto “I’m with Her” did not give any insight into her motivations for wanting to sit in the Oval office.

Simon Sinek in his TED talk teaches us to “Start with Why”; the best way to inspire people is not tell them WHAT to do, or HOW to do it, tell them WHY you want them to do what you want. If the message is effective people will then figure out for themselves WHAT they need to do and HOW to do it. Hillary never had a good reason WHY, and that led to problems connecting with the electorate.

Now let’s compare this to an agile transformation. I have lost count of the times I have heard “We’ve been told we have to go agile but apparently every step we take to get there is wrong.” This statement is a result of the leadership coming up with the WHAT and HOW but never explaining the WHY. If the executives explain WHY this decision was made it lends insight to the rank-and-file as to the motivation and will help them plan WHAT is included in the HOW.

If you can’t clearly state WHY you want to change can you blame your employees for not embracing the idea?

2.      No empowerment

News pundits made multiple observations about the size of Hillary’s campaign operation. In the book the comparison is made between hers and Trump’s camp: whereas Hillary had 800+ people on staff Trump’s campaign had a comparably Spartan 150+. Readers familiar with the concept of the Dunbar Number could see how an organization this size could struggle, from communication to direction.

Clinton’s campaign was made up of multiple smaller “divisions” (much like a corporate structure): there was a group from her time as Secretary of State (Mills, Abedin, etc.), holdovers from her 2008 campaign (Grunwald, Sullivan, etc.), trusted advisers (Harris, Podesta, etc.), and staff new to the 2016 effort (Mook, Palmieri, etc.). That is A LOT of moving parts and pieces. Organizations of this size need clear direction (the WHY from the previous section) but also need to be empowered.

The lack of a unifying reason de etre  is bad enough, but then these groups were not empowered to make any decisions. Every idea had to go through multiple review steps from other groups and up the chain of command for approval. This command & control structure blunts both the timeliness and the effectiveness of the initiative.

One of the most difficult battles in an agile transformation is helping an organization leave the command & control structure behind. Leadership needs to get comfortable with letting go of the reigns and letting the teams figure out their individual paths to success. Many practitioners have seen agile transformations go off-course as teams are not given the breathing room to experiment and learn. If Hillary had empowered her multiple teams to self-solve the problems they were encountering maybe the Election result would have been different.

Coming soon…Part II!


*NOTE*-the opinions expressed above are solely those of the author, and do not represent those of the the organization, Board, or members.