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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Strategy, Creativity and Discipline

      - Sun-tzu

They say all is fair in love, war and politics, yet in each field there are certain rules that apply, almost like social gravity.  The history of military (or political) strategy is the attempt to determine and understand these rules.  Students of strategy study the lessons of successful predecessors; they also seek to learn from the failures of others. 

A good recent example of this is Rob Ford’s winning mayoralty campaign; it has been reverse-engineered by governments across the country, looking to capitalize on Ford Nation’s best practices and avoid his pitfalls.  This isn’t a stand-alone process; Ford’s success at the polls has not translated into broader political success with council.  Why is that?  The answer to this question is relevant to strategists, too. 

A standard weakness in strategic development, particularly in light of success, is a singular focus on control.  You want to duplicate what worked previously, which means managing all the variables as closely as possible to ensure repeatable outcomes.  In politics in particular, message control is key; campaign communications are worked out far in advance, with one message-of-the-day building on the next, all timed to inflict maximum damage on one’s opponent and draw maximum focus to your own platform, vision, leader, etc.

The problem is, realities change; what worked previously isn’t guaranteed to work the next time around.  Tight control leaves little room for innovation or seizing-the-moment; look at Tim Hudak’s messaging-fatigue during the recent Ontario election as evidence of this.

On another previous Ontario campaign – the by-election that saw Rick Johnson defeat John Tory in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock – a great campaign slogan (vote local) was the product of an innovative staffer who, seeing a “buy local” sign at a grocery store, put two-and-two together and created a winner.  It wasn’t part of the plan, but that bit of proactive creativity made a difference.

For campaign strategists, then, a rewording of Sun-tzu’s famous advice might read like this:

What’s worse:

-          To have members of your team who are unpredictable

-          To be unable to predict the actions of your opponents

-          To be predictable to your opponents

Conversely, what’s better:

-          To have members of your team be entirely scripted

-          To understand the actions and motivations of your opponents

-          To be unpredictable to your opponents

The best deployment provides troops (be they soldiers or campaign teams and candidates) with defined parameters, a definition of success and as many resources as possible.  The best resource in any campaign is creativity; how to do more with less, out-of-the-box solutions, etc. 

Every campaign I have ever been involved with, someone somewhere has said “be creative” when faced with some dilemma or opportunity.  Good campaign managers will seek out creative individuals for their teams; generally these are known or referenced commodities, though, people you can count on to be quick to respond and capable of independent idea generation, but not to the point of risking the general trajectory of the campaign.

If creativity is desired, how do you nurture it?  If self-discipline is beneficial (allowing for creativity to happen within comfortable parameters), how do you foster it?

The answer isn’t as complicated as we might think.

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