I was in northwest Ohio this summer where Trump yard signs were everywhere and Clinton signs were practically nowhere.
What changed? The increasing role of data.
Most Clinton staffers apparently believed that targeted election canvassing and social media produce greater results than yard signs, campaign buttons and bumper stickers. And the data suggests that physical signs have only a slight impact on campaigns.
The lack of Ohio yard signs was a shock in that I covered presidential campaigns in Ohio during my early career as a reporter for WTOL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Toledo. Yard signs always dominated the landscape during election season. For voters looking around for clues of which way the wind is blowing among friends and neighbors, yard signs matter.
Yard signs illustrate how data and common sense can diverge. Common sense suggests that campaign signs, particularly those on residential lawns, have a significant impact. Many people vote for the candidate their friends and neighbors support. And regardless of ads and chatter on social media, there’s nothing quite like the real-world visual reinforcement of a candidate’s signs dominating one’s street or neighborhood.
And Ohio is by no means the only state that lacked Clinton yard signs. Published reports indicate that Trump signs dominated rural Pennsylvania. Last January, Wired profiled Edward Kimmel, a part-time campaign photographer and Clinton supporter, who noticed the visual shift from previous presidential campaigns in Iowa. Kimmel voiced concerns about the impact a lack of signs might have on voter turnout. Kimmel was prescient.
A tyranny of data short circuited the Hillary Clinton campaign and contributed to Donald Trump’s victory. From the bubble of its Brooklyn Heights headquarters, the Hillary Clinton campaign apparently viewed yard signs as obsolete in the age of targeted digital canvassing and social media.
The Clinton campaign is just one example of how relying exclusively on data can compromise value. Wells Fargo emphasized measurement over common sense, and its reward system encouraged team members to cut corners and open unauthorized accounts for customers as I detailed in my September 13, 2016 post. The company is now paying the price in fines, lost business and compromised reputation.
Measurement mania and the tyranny of data are nothing new. In my most recent book The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration , I write about the myopic approach dubbed “management by measurement” which dates back to the so-called Whiz Kids. In the 1940s, the Whiz Kids were junior faculty from Harvard Business School recruited by Charles “Tex” Thornton to run the Statistical Control unit of the Unites States Army. The group included Robert McNamara, who would later become president of Ford Motor Company, secretary of defense and president of the World Bank.
The Whiz Kids applied statistical rigor in running the army, and later Henry Ford II hired the team to bring a similar data-driven focus to Ford. The Whiz Kids also introduced bureaucracy and hierarchy and developed rules requiring that, among other things, memos from vice presidents must appear on blue paper to highlight their importance.
The Whiz Kids sacrificed long-term value for short-term targets by limiting investment in new equipment and R&D. Plus Ford’s products suffered when plant leaders failed to prove through numbers the necessity for new equipment. Ultimately, this myopic focus on data led to foreign competition from companies that focused as much on engineering and production as on finance.
The Clinton campaign is by no means the only organization blinded by data. Organizations in every sector and industry suffer from measurement mania that impedes collaboration and value creation. In The Bounty Effect, I detail Five Measurement Counter-Measures to prevent data from short circuiting collaboration and compromising value. One of them is “perform a common sense reality check.”
Had the Clinton campaign used common sense to check its data, yard signs might have sprouted in the industrial Midwest and, more broadly, the campaign might have adopted a message that would have resonated with swing-state voters.
Regardless of level, role, region, organization or sector…never rely on data without a common sense reality check.