Listening to the Obama campaign’s digital team: Four ways to strengthen organizational culture

Last week I was fortunate to be part of two discussions in one day about digital teams in big organizations. Instead of talking about the latest big win (and one had a huge win) or cutting edge campaign, both conversations veered towards organizational culture issues. One team addressed culture concerns head on, knowing it makes a difference in digital success. The other sees problems but is stuck, unable to steer, even a bit, the culture issues that weigh down the team.

One conversation was with a key member of the digital team at a national nonprofit advocacy group. The digital team has struggled for a while as the group has tried to figure out where digital fits in the organization. As we talked – and as I reflected on the next conversation – it became obvious that structure (and continual “restructuring”) wasn’t the whole story.

The second discussion happened at an event that included a panel of four key members of the Obama campaign’s digital team, including CTO Harper Reed.

Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.
Obama digital team leaders speak at Galvanize in Denver. March 7, 2013.

I expected this panel to focus on how they pulled the products and technology together. The event was organized by a start-up incubator so it would probably touch on the lessons that iterative design, open source development, and relying on a cloud application servers might offer entrepreneurs.

The Obama team covered all this but the discussion quickly moved to organizational culture – and stayed there for a while. Sure, people wanted to know how the team managed to keep its apps online when Amazon Web Services crashed (Dylan Richard’s answer: if Netflix goes down, you’ll go down; if Netflix is up and you’re down then it’s your fault). But entrepreneurs and tech startup vets know that culture can make or break a venture – perhaps they know this better than many nonprofits.

Seemingly doomed

If any team was set up to bump against colleagues not familiar with how they worked or who knew that campaigns didn’t do things this way it was the Obama digital team. They got big and grew rapidly (reaching over 150 members in the end). Its members were not campaign pros. They came from startups, big companies, consulting firms, and their own freelance shops. They were “coders” and “nerds” not expected to be communicators and persuaders.

Historically, campaigns (and nonprofits, for that matter) have been reluctant to bring tech expertise in house. Why? In part, because it’s hard to manage the cultural differences that techies bring to the table.

Build trust, be human

The digital team knew that building trust with other parts of the campaign – and amongst themselves – was critical. The team was pushed hard and they knew that key to trust was to deliver results. Harper Reed talked about building trust by shipping products. He called it “fixing by shipping.” Few things build confidence and trust among new colleagues like delivering results.

The campaign’s digital team also made a point of grabbing coffee or just sitting down with new members and people from other teams. These were one on one chats. They weren’t project meeting or weekly check-ins. Doing this wasn’t an order issued from on high from the org culture department.

These chats were a chance for people to get to know each other, to understand where the other person was coming from and what they had done before. Maybe it was simply Midwestern friendliness but it was also mature human interaction.

It also seems that different parts of the campaign – field organizers and digital staff, for instance – understood that they didn’t fully get the needs and perspective of one another. Digital was building tools meant to help organizers do their work but few of the developers and designers on the digital team had field experience. Likewise, not many organizers knew much about software development or iterative design.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever worked in an organization where different departments and teams don’t know what other parts of the organization do, how they work, or where they’re coming from. Go ahead. Raise your hand. Nobody’s watching. Good.

It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In fact, it cuts to the core of culture issues in many organizations, particularly as they affect digital staff. Many places get the need to deliver products. You’re there to build sites, apps, testing tools, designs. Don’t produce? Culture doesn’t matter.

But, perhaps more than anyone else in the organization, digital team members have valuable understanding of how people use technology and interact online. Digital staff, through experience with code and design, often bring strong project management, testing, and creative backgrounds to an organization. Depending on their age and work experience, digital staff may have worked in bootstrapped startup ventures that thrive on innovation, quick problem solving, and often give leadership opportunities to young members.

In other words, digital staff can (and should) bring value to an organization that far exceeds their ability to build websites, apps and databases. Plus, digital staff are creative, work under pressure, and are comfortable with innovation. (I’m generalizing to make a point but these are fair brushstrokes to draw.)

Culture makes or breaks digital

This brings me back to my first conversation of the day – with a digital team member in a nonprofit organization. In that talk, issues were raised about lack of opportunity to innovate, collaborate strategically on projects, or gain access to leadership roles. People with digital experience are on the digital team (and only there) and online experience isn’t a key element in the job description or recruitment of others.

This is an organizational culture that needs some digital products, of course, but maybe doesn’t understand or value digital. Part of the solution could involve structure – maybe moving digital staff into other teams would help. But structural change without culture to support it is a failure in the end. Embedding digital staff into other departments when the culture doesn’t foster partnerships just further isolates digital, stifling innovation and almost certainly killing production.

Perhaps no other sector of nonprofit staffing is as much affected today by culture issues as digital. That every organization is trying to figure out how to best structure digital is a sure indicator that nonprofit cultures don’t “get it.”

Four takeaways

The experience of the Obama digital team in the 2012 is probably not a model for most organizations (after all, everyone was fired on November 7th) but here are some elements worth considering for a strong culture:

Build trust by shipping

People love deliverables that are delivered on time, on budget, and with maximum possible attention to the needs of users. For nonprofit digital teams this probably means long hours, doing more, and bending over backwards. It means being the hardest working part of the organization. (If you’re part of a digital team reading this and thinking WTF? hold on. There’s something here for you besides more work.)

Be human

Make time (I know this can be hard) to sit down and talk with everyone at least once. Everyone. In person if possible. By phone or Skype if needed. Don’t talk about what you need from each other but what you’ve worked on before, why you’re here, what you hope to accomplish, your backyard chicken coop, your favorite hiking trail. You don’t have to like everyone but take an half hour to talk honestly and chances are you’ll work better together. If this doesn’t fit your org culture – we’re just here to work or we can’t talk to those guys – that’s a warning sign. Try to do it anyway. If you can’t use empathy to understand your colleagues across the organization you won’t begin to understand your constituents and donors.

Don’t isolate digital

Your digital staff, however structured, is not an assembly line for production of technical widgets. Everything digital does is about people – how real people interact with websites, share information on Facebook, click links emails, fill out donation forms, use apps (or sheets of paper) to organize friends and neighbors to support a bill.

You don’t (we hope) keep your organizers and fundraisers in back offices, away from staff, members, donors, your board, activists. This goes back to “Be Human” (see above) but if you want people to create experiences and tools that move people to act, give, share they need the empathy to see the world through the user’s eyes. Mix it up. Get your digital staff out of their offices, into the wilds of other offices and teams. Leave more time for user testing. Include other teams (and even members or other external parties) in project debriefs.

Give digital the power to lead

A cynic may rephrase this as “give digital enough rope to hang itself.” The Obama campaign’s digital team wasn’t given a list of 20 products to create, a deadline and sent off to a cave from which they wouldn’t appear until done. There were, of course, preconceived notions about what the website would do or the need to test donation forms. But it was left to the digital team to find the best solution. They were given the power to lead, to control the destiny of their products and work. Sure, they could have effed it all up but professionals have no intention of screwing around.

Build trust, create a simply personable culture, push people out of the usual box in which they work, and give digital staff the power to develop leadership. These are a few of the approaches that helped the Obama campaign make great use of its investment in digital.

These aren’t the sort of complex, deeply strategic principles that come from extensive analysis by high paid human resources consultants. Maybe, though, they’re worth a shot.

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