FEATURED IN CAMPAIGNS & ELECTIONS MAGAZINE: WHY ‘OPERATIONS’ IS THE MOST UNDERRATED POSITION ON CAMPAIGNS

Originally published in Campaigns & Elections Magazine

As the 2020 presidential hopefuls hire staff and set up shop in early voting states, young operatives will notice their friend’s Twitter bios updated with new titles like State Director, Communications, or Political Director. Presidential-level budgets often produce a greater variety and specialization of staff roles, so don’t be surprised when you see new “Operations” staffers sprouting up alongside the more traditional campaign counterparts. 

In the private sector and startup community, the role of operations manager is among the most in-demand jobs in 2019. In political organizations, however, hiring a dedicated operations focused staff member is luxury that only exceptionally well-funded or well-established national organizations can afford. 

Operations is a catch-all term, and the responsibilities associated with the role vary depending on the circumstances. Generally speaking, operations, or ops, describes the nuts and bolts of the organization. A dedicated ops professional’s true value is their ability to not simply execute, but also monitor, evaluate, and improve the team’s systems and processes over time. A full-time ops staffer, one whose primary responsibilities include ensuring efficiency and identify opportunities for iteration, can be a tremendous asset for a campaign team. 

While most campaigns and political organizations are not able—or not willing—to allocate precious resources towards additional personnel, tight budgets shouldn’t prevent any organization from investing in its operations. Operations is about efficiency. Campaigns that properly prioritize the nuts and bolts are optimized for growth and prepared to scale. 

Think of your “pre-launch” campaign as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

Every political organization is faced with the challenge, and the opportunity to develop their own individual business plan sometimes referred to as a “pathway to victory” or the “roadmap.” This strategy document usually focuses on high-level concepts like budget, message, and targets.

This is often sufficient information to satisfy potential donor questions, and it can be helpful in putting the campaign’s objectives into perspective. As an organizational document, however, this big-picture strategic “roadmap” approach is severely lacking in the important tactical details like systems, processes, and procedures. As a result of this early-stage emphasis on the overarching “vision,” many candidates and consultants fail to properly develop the campaign growth model and plans for execution. 

The methods used today in product development and the startup space can serve as a helpful heuristic when structuring your political organization. The Lean Canvas, for example, developed by Ash Maurya for startup founders, provides a functional framework for mapping out your overall strategy as well as the critically important infrastructure and operations components of the campaign. 

Think of operations as a mindset.

Campaign staff often (read: always) wear multiple hats and end up getting pulled in every direction. This is especially true during the early days following the campaign kickoff. The campaign infrastructure and operations are then cobbled together ad hoc and piece by piece over the course of the cycle. This isn’t ideal. 

A successful business development team would never push a product to market without having first set up effective systems to deliver value to customers (distribution) and then derive value from customers (revenue streams). Political organizations of all sizes should approach their own product launch with the same mindset. 

Every single task associated with the campaign requires an expenditure of resources, and resource allocation is a zero-sum game. Most managers and consultants are acutely aware of the fact that every dollar spent on tools and software is a dollar not spent on paid media.

But time is also a finite resource and ought to be managed accordingly. Think about the staff and candidates time in aggregate, and as a commodity. Left unmanaged, campaign teams can inadvertently squander countless precious hours struggling with sub-optimal systems, tools, and processes over the cycle. Campaigners who prioritize operations know that wasted time is a resource that you can never get back.

Dante Vitagliano is a partner a co-founder at Pinnacle Campaign Strategies