In Campaigning, Failure is Key to Success
January 13, 2021
Failure, mistake, errors - are a fundamental part of learning to be successful. And while failures can also be emotionally difficult, damaging, or in the worst case deadly - when treated with the right mindset, they usually are the source of that something better. Here in the early part of 2021 we have no shortage of hard times and from a political perspective - and otherwise - failures. Let's be fair - progressives have not been winning much in these past years.
A Bit of a History Lesson
Ask pretty much anyone what George Washington was famous for and most will mention things like, “winning the American Revolution”, “Being the first US president”, “respecting democracy enough to step out of office when his time was done” (*cough, cough*), or “that thing with the cherry tree”. Less strongly associated with his legacy was the bumbling skirmish he led his troops into at 22 years old, which ended having a massive international impact. While some of us fans of the musical Hamilton might know that his first battle was a total massacre, what fewer know is that the small battle led to a global conflict fought for years across four continents. As the story goes, Washington either unknowingly marched his troops and Native-American allies unintentionally into enemy French-held territory or was led there unwittingly by Tanacharison - leader of those allies (what a rookie mistake!). After a messy shootout that led to the killing of the French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, Washington’s troops retreated. Later overwhelmed by the approaching French troops at Fort Necessity, Washington surrendered - signing a wet and poorly translated letter confessing to the ‘assassination’ of the French Ensign and spawning the war that was fought across parts of North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
The point being, if Washington had just packed his bags, went home and vowed to never lead again, things would be a lot different these days for a lot of us. (Sorry for the US-centric story, this past week’s attempt at our democracy has me feeling patriotic in ways I didn’t expect.)
It leads one to wonder: If you want to do great things do you have to massively mess up? Maybe not. But at least we can say for sure that you can massively mess up and still go on to do great things. And at a minimum, we can conclude that making mistakes is a major part of growing the strength to take on the big challenges. And if there is nothing progressive change-makers are short on these days, it’s big challenges ahead.
But how does one keep this all in perspective when it seems the worst has happened? How did young Georgie from Virginia move beyond the shame of such a massive moment and move on? Honestly, to that specific question, maybe we don’t have a historical answer. But what we do know is how failure can play into later success is a matter of mindset. And the rest of this blog post will be about exactly how we as campaigners can approach a fear of failure, assess when to take risks, respond when failure happens, and learn from our errors.
Getting Over Our Instincts - Growth Mindset
Our business of political work tends to be harder on failure than that of the business world. Perhaps the public nature of challenging the status quo to impact change or adversarial nature of advocating itself makes us more conscious of the repercussions when failure happens. Certainly, those failures can be food for our enemies. But from what we have seen over the years with many campaigns, the fear of failure among advocacy efforts and the culture of admonishment in failure that has crept into progressive campaigning circles is one of the greatest hold-ups to success.
We’re certainly not saying that we need to emulate everything 100% from the for-profit business world, but we think there is enough out there already from the education sector studying how to help children learn to the technology and start-up world seeking innovation, that our advocacy community doesn’t need to discover everything on its own, we can take some serious queues from those who have explored the importance failure can play in leading to eventual victory.
The underlying component in almost all of this work: mindset. While we’ll discuss some helpful elements below like planning for electoral campaign losses and using risk assessment tools, the first most important thing is understanding that failure is an essential part of growth and long-term success. This mindset is not only important to heal our wounds as failures happen but to help us feel more comfortable in taking risks and approaching the failures in a way that will maximise the learning opportunities in each one. In all of our work, to have success we have to start from a place of understanding that never having a failure to learn from bears more risk to our movements than failing to take the right amount of risks and accepting that some failure will be inevitable.
This can be a hard pill to swallow. Our basic internal mechanism - our biology of the mind evolved to protect us in this world works great for living in far less complex societies than the ones we currently reside in. And sometimes the core of our assumptions based on our feelings can betray the complexity of strategic decision-making. Shame, ego, the need for the approval of others - none of us lives without these. But to fall victim to their control risks our important movement work and a more fair world.
Since no mindset section is complete without a TED talk, here are a couple on the topic that have some key lessons for us:
Education researcher Carol Dweck offers an introduction to the “growth mindset” field and how the way we think about making mistakes can impact our possibility for success. Through educational examples - such as grading students as “Not Yet” instead of “Failed” she shows how different mindsets can be transformative.
We won’t go too wild here with recommendations of motivational speakers on YouTube, but help yourself (and be careful of anyone telling you the earth is flat). One thing that is implicit and important - especially now following some years of serious progressive setbacks - is that we learn to look for hope when failure happens. As important as the willingness to embrace potential failures as we launch our campaigns, is the importance of not getting defeated to the point of despair after a failure. We must learn from failure to be better. But we also must never assume that another attempt won’t some day lead us to success. Hope is a skill we can consciously develop.
Building Advocacy Movements is Messy Work
For those running advocacy organisations or leading movements, there is a cold hard truth: most campaigns fail. There is some debate as to whether digital issue-based campaigns have a lower rate of success than traditional ones, but most evidence points to their failure rates being higher - despite advantages of efficiency and scale. For those building movements with a backbone of digital organising, it is then perhaps even more important for us to boldly take on failure.
Building movements is much about making noise - an essential element attracting the attention necessary to have a supportive audience to create change. We’ve seen many movements stunted by the urge to be precious and avoid the possibility of failure - rather than taking on the rough and dirty approach that always assumes some things - likely many things - won’t go exactly as ideally planned.
Becky Bond describes in “Rules for Revolutionaries” the 11th Rule for big organising: Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Big. “I suggest doing what we at CREDO when working with volunteers: manage to an 80-20 split. That means 80 percent of what you do has to be good or great. And then be okay with it if the 20 percent turns out to be not so good and maybe once in a while horrible. If you can allow yourself to let mistakes happen (but not too many!) in order to scale up, you’ll end up ahead.”
(A small side note here - many organisations don’t even know if a campaign itself was a success or a failure - and often experience failures assuming they are successes because they failed to set metrics for the campaign. In doing so, you forgot the opportunity to learn and grow. While it might feel more emotionally easy to just not know, all the opportunity to get better is lost.
In each campaign, there needs to be metrics set with realistic objectives tied to a theory of change about what is realistically needed to move the effort to the next step and create the impact sought. Too many campaigns think that actions are winning just because they “got something out there” while ignoring what is actually needed for their cause).
If your team is still hesitant about the power of embracing failure, it might be helpful to think of the fact that we only exist as a species thanks to a series of errors that caused evolution to fail and fail and every now and again succeed taking us from the primordial soup to the creatures we are today. Want to speed up the evolution of your organisation? Likely you will need to metaphorically increase mutation - ie. take more risks and accept more failures.
This might seem counterintuitive to causes that are struggling to make an impact in the moment. But we would encourage campaigns to question assumptions about whether losses are happening because too much risk is being taken or too little.
It helps some organisations to think of each campaign as a small experiment - changing the emphasis from winning every effort to accepting that some will fail and placing the value of running the campaign more on the opportunity to learn from it. (See the section on Maximising Power below for some tips on how to get the most out of each campaign from what went wrong - not just what went right).
It's going to take more than inspirational quotes and TED talks from us to see how to put this into practice. The next section will explore some methods to move beyond the emotion and assess strategically if a risk is one worth taking.
How To Assess Risking Failure: Risk Management Tool
Knowing that making some mistakes along the way is essential to success, we know risks need to be taken into account when planning campaigns. Just how much risk should be taken though? What if something happens that completely destroys the reputation of the organisation, the leadership, the cause, or the candidate in a way that is irreversible? Certainly, failures that are so big that they destroy an organisation or a person’s political future can happen. And this needs to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to take the risk.
The tricky part of deciding if a risk should be taken is that each of us has a different way that risk impacts the ‘gut feeling’. Just going with an emotional feeling about whether the risk is good or not leaves a lot up to our individual personalities and emotional response system and is a sure way to undo good strategic decisions on risk-taking. Perhaps even harder is the reality that most decisions will be taken by a team - and assessing how real a threat is based on the emotional response of others on the team is also a sure-fire way to make bad decisions.
For this reason, we strongly recommend the use of risk management tools, which help proceduralise the assessment of a risk being taken when decisions are being made. Having a tool is also a great way to talk about risk across a team, so that team members are not just weighing in on convincing each other of their emotional responses and fears, but working together to assess how real the chance of failure is, and the impact such could have on the organisation, campaign, and movement. We hope this tool is used to liberate campaigns to take more risks by proceduralising the strategy behind it and making better decisions with less worry.
The specific tool we are sharing in continuation is based on the PM2 (Project Management Methodology) of the European Commission, set as a standard for project management across the European Union. You can find all the resources here: https://joinup.ec.europa.eu/sites/default/files/inline-files/OPM2-Initiative.leaflet.v1.3%2010012018.pdf. The access to this methodology is open and every company or organisation can adapt the different templates to their own needs and specific characteristics.
So what is risk management to begin with? Risk management is a systematic ongoing process for identifying, assessing and managing risks so that they conform to the organisation’s accepted risk attitude. Risk can be an event, circumstance, situation, or condition that might occur with a specific probability and have a potential negative impact on meeting predefined project objectives. Each risk has a cause, as well as a consequence. Analysing the risk factors - causes, consequences and likelihood - is a key to choosing a strategy. Depending on the risk assessment, an organisation can ignore it, employ a strategy to prevent or mitigate it or, on the contrary, embrace it because it is worth taking. You can develop your own google spreadsheet to work through the assessment of the risk, going through the following steps:
1. Risk Identification
The purpose of this step is to determine which risks may affect the project and document their characteristics. Spotting potential risks is an iterative process and all project stakeholders should be involved in it.
2. Carry Out a Risk Assessment
By individually evaluating the likelihood that a specific risk will occur, as well as its severity according to the objectives of the project, you can see how the risk stack against the aim you want to achieve. You can prioritise the risks that could have the biggest negative impact and are most likely to occur, by giving it a value between 1 and 5 to both its likelihood and impact.
PM2 Risk Likelihood/Impact Matrix
3. Develop a Risk Response Strategy
Once the risk is assessed you can choose if to respond to it and how to do so. In most cases, if the risk is not very likely to occur or has a very low impact on the project, the usual strategy would be to ignore it. Instead, resources should be allocated to dealing with risks that are more likely to occur and/or have a very high impact on the project. The strategy can be reactive or proactive.
If the risk is very high, we can either:
- Eliminating the risk probability or impact by avoiding taking it.
- Mitigating it by reducing the risk probability or impact.
- Transferring the risk to a third party.
- Accept the risk and all the impacts, when the gains expected are considerably more significant.
Every campaign, every action an organisation undertakes carries out certain risks. Risk might be viewed as a challenge but also as an opportunity, and it is essential to win over it in order to succeed. Taking risks along the way is part of moving forward. However, that is not to say that risks should be altogether ignored especially if deemed as high, but mitigated as possible while working on prevailing over the obstacles along the way. It is certain that not all risk-taking will pay off but the failures along the way can be seen as opportunities to grow and learn. There is no innovation without taking risks along the way.
4. Risk Control
Last but not least, once the risk is assessed and a strategy is chosen, a revision is needed once the risk occurs. The strategy should be updated when there are any developments or changes in the probability, impact or initial conditions as well as new risks that might occur along the way should be contemplated. As stated earlier risk-management is a systematic ongoing process that should be constantly monitored.
How to Plan for the Possibility of Failure in an Electoral Candidate Campaign
More than advocacy campaigns or those run by political parties, electoral campaigns for candidates can feel a bit more of an ‘all-or-nothing’ kind of case. Certainly, we’ve seen many first time candidates view the campaign as an all-or-nothing kind of affair, which will see their hopes of one day holding office dashed if they can’t hit 50% plus one on election day of their first campaign. It’s certainly harder to see with electoral timetables every two to four years, how a failure at the ballot box is the same as an advocacy campaign, where an organisation picks up and launches the next campaign when they want.
But in our experience, candidates - whether their first time or not - tend to fare better if they think of the long term possibilities beyond just the campaign (“not yet” is not just for grading school children). We encourage everyone to think of movements over moments. Even if you might not run again, close associates might, usually you’ll be representing a party who will stand in the next elections even if you don’t and who can benefit or hurt from the impact of your campaign and perhaps most important: among your supporters and volunteers might be the next great leader. How we run our campaigns, is important as much for whether we win or lose as to the larger change we are trying to make.
One recent example to share is our incredible and inspirational client Kayse Jama. Mr. Jama ran for Oregon State Senate in 2018, an inspirational leader of one Oregon’s most important multicultural organisations. Unfortunately, he did not win the first-time campaign, with another candidate having more history in State politics garnering more votes. Jama had come to the US only a couple decades ago as a Somali Refugee and is no stranger to the need for resilience. He kept his campaign infrastructure in place and when a couple of months ago the winner of the 2018 race was nominated for Secretary of State we worked with Jama to rebrand his site and communications to build the necessary endorsements and support to undergo a Senate vote and nomination for the seat. Today he is the first Somali refugee to hold office in a State Senate.
We find candidates are often surprised in our initial strategic consults when we ask what other objectives should be considered besides winning the campaign. But it is truly important to note that even in failure, there will always be a next thing and you want to consider those when planning a campaign (although you need to balance any cost to the current campaign if there potentially is some). The time to start talking about what will happen if the campaign isn’t won is when the planning for the campaign starts.
Equally important is planning for the day after the campaign - and how to respond. Social media posts, email communications, and an update to the homepage should ideally be prepared ahead of time. It can be hard to remember this detail in the last moments of a campaign and even more so in the ‘sleeping it off’ moments of the next morning following an election. But there is almost nothing more important than thanking your supporters and those that came to back you - even if the campaign itself does not win.
How to Respond to a Big BooBoo
So, it’s going to happen. Mistakes will be made. We work in a world where our challenges are big, our teams under-resourced, and usually everything is moving at what feels like a million miles an hour. The question is not if a mistake will be made, but when. Likely everyone in the campaign organising world has found themselves at some point shaking their heads and kicking themselves for messing up. And now that you’ve done that, what do you do?
This is another case, along with deciding to take risks, where the more procedures that can be used to determine decisions based on strategic factors over simply emotional or intuitive ones, will be key.
This is made all the more difficult by the fact that sometimes the response to errors needs to be made swiftly as the time it takes to respond, apologise, adjust course, etc. will impact the ability to potentially right the wrong and conduct damage control. So it's definitely key to think about these things ahead of time and how you and your team will react when a mistake does happen. And even more important if your team does want to respond, having a good rapid response procedure in place can be key to executing an effective response. This means in part everybody knowing how to operate their part of rapid response in a quick fashion, but it also means having clear roles and responsibilities, and more than anything a clear documentation of who has authority to decide what. When decisions need to be made quickly, a hierarchy that is more clear than normal times, can come in handy to expedite things. We also would recommend from our experience that all campaign teams run rapid response “fire drills” testing how things actually go out when a quick response is needed.
It also should not be assumed that you will want to respond to everything. In fact, in a world where talking space can determine the impact as much as the thing itself, it's a classic case of the wrong strategic decisions to draw more attention and fuel the fire more by overcorrecting a small error. This again, is usually done due to the emotional impact of the error making the one who made it feel stronger about it than anyone else might. Ego is no one’s friend here. Your team should weigh carefully if correcting or acknowledging the error in an apology - and thereby drawing more attention it outweighs the just moving on to the next thing. (Factors weigh whether the error might come back to be an issue in the future whether or not attention is going there in the current moment).
Maximising the Power of Failure
To recap briefly, failure, to a greater or lesser extent, will be an element present in any campaign whether we like it or not. And in the face of this, there are two different approaches that could be followed: try to deny it, hide it, minimise it; or prepare to manage it just like any other component of a campaign. Even better, one could be prepared to benefit from the failure when it happens. The bottom line here in short, “let's prepare to fail better”.
Measuring if you are failing along the way.Consequently, the first step is to define which variables will be measured, what are the metrics, and what intervals of values that could be considered a success. This serves as an essential compass. An effort can’t be driven towards a goal if the progress can’t be measured. Luckily, there are many methods and tools that can help here. Analytics tools, Social listening tools, focus groups, polls, surveys, data tools, etc.
The first and most important thing is knowing when failure is happening, in what aspect, and to try to identify the causes of the problem.
To work with failure and address it, it first needs to be detected. It's necessary to measure what’s happening to be able to decide if things are on track to success. It's important to implement a measurement and analysis system that allows campaigns to monitor each situation through specific metrics.
Preparing ahead to minimise the impact of failure and always have a backup plan to succeed.
You can never plan for exactly what will happen. However, you can plan for the most likely possibilities and map their probability.
Having the key values identified in advance allows a campaign to focus the planning on those related metrics - and most importantly to have a solid backup plan when success is not happening. Variables help you break down the different areas where things could have an impact (for example volunteer recruitment, fundraising, list building, etc) and create your contingencies in each of the areas without impacting the others. It's key to invest in good planning for a campaign - especially in the most key aspects.
Testing and creating a safe place to fail.
Assuming that error and failure are the only path to success, incorporating an effective practice of testing and experimentation is the way to ease this path and make it more safe - reducing the impact on the overall campaign success. Testing is not just the last phase of the production before a launch. It is something that should happen throughout the process.
Experimenting before making big decisions through pilot tests in controlled environments, checking if everything is good with what was done before we pass it to the next team to trace any possible errors is imperative. An action plan must always be accompanied by a test plan.
Experimentation and testing not only boost the quality of what is done, it also helps us see the unexpected.
Processes for maximising positive outcomes of failures and improving future efforts.
While you cannot plan for everything that will happen, with the right processes you can learn from what does happen to take advantage of the unexpected in each campaign by laying a groundwork for the next opportunity.
To be more effective putting knowledge to work, we recommend an iterative loop that looks something like this:
Action / failure > analysis> learning > documented knowledge> improvement / new action / decision.
It is vital to incorporate the practice of analysis at key moments. Leaving any failure unanalysed would be a mistake, and no action is complete without its post-mortem meeting. We highly recommend developing a culture of post-mortems at the end of each campaign - which can serve as a chance for the whole team to discuss, review, analyse and develop better processes.
The opportunity to share across a team helps see the causes of issues that occurred as well as brainstorm solutions. Learning from others in this sense doesn’t just have to be across a team, either. As we’ll explore in the next section we can also learn by observing and analysing mistakes of other campaigns.
We Need to Share More Failures
There is some good news here. We have a great opportunity to learn not only from our mistakes and failures -but from those of others who we witness. In the recent Report on the State of Digital Organising, we found that the top source of learning by those conducting digital organising (47%) was from other progressive campaigns - but we also found that few people were able to name campaigns that inspired them and over-all we aren’t sharing enough between our progressive efforts.
This is perhaps even more so the case with the ability to learn from the failures of other’s campaigns. Campaigns with good reason tend to be guarded about showing their warts publicly - as winning power is often about showing yourself as powerful. Sharing of campaign learnings is usually driven by a combination of pride and sometimes sales for services - consultants, platforms, and agencies showing what they do works so others will use them.
What this leaves for us though is a dearth of knowledge in an area where we could truly be building more power with one another. If watching other campaigns is the primary mode we are learning campaigning, it's as if we only got to review the right answers after being graded on a test. How are we expected to really learn?
Campaign Bootcamp has done a great job of compiling a list of mistakes from campaigns that can be helpful to peruse: https://campaignbootcamp.org/blog/category/mistakes/
We ourselves tried to build a section of case studies of campaign fails/learning, but despite our large networks, were not able to pull together enough yet to make it worth having a whole section here. (Thank you to those that volunteered theirs).
In lieu of that we’d like to ask all of you as a next step to join us in our TON Community (now on slack) to share with one another your campaign failures and the learnings that resulted. If you are not already part of the community you can join here: http://tectonica.co/ton
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