When Strategy Fails: What business can learn from 2016’s political shocks

Neither of this year’s big political shocks needed to happen. Both were failures of strategy in which there are clear lessons for business communication.

I’ve done a bit of number crunching in my time and I must admit I didn’t see the election of Donald Trump coming. It seemed a more secure prospect that Hilary Clinton would make it into the White House than the UK voting to Remain but, as one of the best of the number crunching sites, Nate Silver’s 538, pointed out to those who cared to listen, though the election of Trump was improbable it was never impossible. In 2012 Silver, despite polls at times closer than this years, placed the probability of Mitt Romney ousting President Obama at less than 10% throughout the campaign. Trump went into election day at 23% – a long shot, but far from out of the question.

Ominously, Silver, who’s other great passion is sports statistics, wrote after the third game of the baseball World Series that the Chicago Cubs (then 1-3 down in a best of seven) had less chance of winning than Trump had of making it to the White House. The Cubs won the next three games and took the title 4-3.

However, it wasn’t probabilities or polls that cost Hilary Clinton and Remain, these votes, the full significance will remain unclear for some time, were lost because of fundamental failures in the strategy adopted by the campaigns.

To stay with Trump and Clinton first, it was clear for many months that the election was Hilary Clinton’s to lose. The Clintons had rescued the Democratic Party from situation where its only electoral victory since Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights legislation turned the southern states to the Republicans was Jimmy Carter’s in the aftermath of Watergate. Bill Clinton’s campaign explicitly rejected the notions of ‘rainbow coalition’ in favour of a return to the mainstream Democrat approach of looking to working Americans, the aspiring middle class and campaigning across rather than within the lines of social division. Barak Obama, though harnessing the African American and minority votes effectively, again did so with his focus firmly on majority issues of economic wellbeing.

Despite this clear evidence of success Hilary Clinton’s campaign returned to the notion of the rainbow coalition – either by choice or by default. They did this because they perceived Trump as deeply unpopular among these groups – the problem is people don’t necessarily see themselves as part of a ‘group’. By taking the approach it did the Democrat campaign neglected the ‘economic mainstream’ issues that played heavily in the key states Trump won in the northern mid-west. Democrat messages were confused and fragmented, Trump’s were unconventional yet clear and his ‘inexperience’ in office was a positive for enough people to take a punt on a ‘businessman’ rather than a ‘politician’.

Remain had similar problems. Faced by a Leave campaign with a series of simple assertive messages presented by eccentric but largely untested messengers, the Remain campaign sought to project expert opinion and, indeed, succeeded in demolishing the Leave case. Three weeks out from the vote (as with Trump) the Leave ship was sunk – their economic narrative had fallen apart and their vision of what might follow a Leave decision was shown to be non-existent, however there were still three weeks to go and Remain took the campaign onto migration. The Remain campaign, who’s messengers had no credibility on the issue, failed to engage and lost.

The strategic failures were many, but firing all of your guns and running out of ammunition before the battle is over is never a good move and, while fighting on the ground of your choosing is an important thing to attempt in any strategy, having no battle plan for fighting on opponents ground is simply unrealistic. Remain knew two years before the referendum that migration would inevitably be part of the campaign but utterly failed to come up with a sustainable line of counter-attack.

So what are the lessons for businesses in these two historic engagements?

First and foremost, have a strategy, test that strategy and challenge that strategy. This involves three principle actions:

  • Ask ‘what if?’ – explore the possibilities and think about the unexpected.
  • Play to your strengths but address weaknesses and prepare defence – because they WILL attack you.
  • Understand the audience before you think about the messages

One way or other the two campaign that lost from winning positions failed on all three.

Challenging assumptions is essential in forming strategy. It is also difficult, particularly for owner managers. The owner manager has, usually, come up with the idea, put in the money, worked long hours and put huge quantities of themselves into their businesses. Essentially, winning owner managers do positive thinking and they do it well. It is hard for employees to challenge effectively – particularly where there is a sole owner. This is where it gets dangerous because lack of challenge leads to lack of thinking leads to taking the field ill prepared.

One of the most valuable aspects of Public Impact’s work on strategy is challenging internal assumptions as a critical friend. We tell you what you need to hear rather than what you want to hear.


To find out more about Public Impact’s strategy development services click here to get in touch.