Trust Your Operations Team

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research


Walt Dickie

I’ve been living in a sort of fugue state since the presidential election. I keep drifting into extended musing over the ways that the campaigns were acting out lessons for marketing researchers. I’m hoping that this will come to an end fairly soon; in fact, I think I can feel the effect beginning to wear off.

In the early stages of the rush, all of the lessons seemed to highlight weaknesses in either qualitative or quantitative MR. But now I’m getting more positive messages.

If you know where to look and how to spot them, you can see the influence of Operations in the Election Day stories. There seems to have been an Operations disaster, but I think I also see one of the rare cases, in my experience, where someone listened to Ops early on, took their advice, and nailed the project.

In the case of the ill-fated “Republican Party’s newest, unprecedented, and most technologically advanced plan to win the 2012 presidential election,” Project ORCA, the Ops guys apparently lost to the PR guys. I’m absolutely sure the campaign’s Operations guys insisted upon holding serious training sessions for the volunteers that would use the system because I know there had to have been Ops geeks around and I know how Ops geeks think. But, according to a volunteer who blogged his experience (and disappointment), volunteers “were invited to take part in nightly conference calls. The calls were more of the slick marketing speech type than helpful training sessions.”

In the words of Zac Moffatt, the campaigns digital director, the system “kind of buckled under the strain (of) the amount of information incoming.” The lack of training left the people out in the field un-prepared and unable to communicate. Even with “800 Romney workers…staffing phones…the surge in traffic was so great that the system didn’t work for 90 minutes,” leaving the field workers scrambling and headquarters without field input.

I have to say that I felt awful reading this. I know that somewhere an Operations Director was crying, and that his or her advice had gone unheeded. I’m dead sure of it.

But the most interesting story about Ops guys and an election didn’t even happen in 2012; -it happened in the Democratic camp in 2008.

Amazingly enough, in 2008 the Democrats had built a system called Houdini, that, like ORCA in 2012, was designed to “make the names of those who had already voted disappear from the Get Out The Vote lists” that were being maintained by volunteers in the field, who could then not waste time on people who had already voted and concentrate on the people who hadn’t.

Like ORCA, Houdini failed. Spectacularly. “On Election Day, the call volume was even more than anticipated and took out the entire phone system for the Obama campaign. It didn’t just effect the reporting of vote totals but effected anything that involve a central campaign phone line.”

But here’s where the Ops guys come in. After Houdini’s failure the developers did a post mortem and scaled back the functionality of their 2012 system, Narwhal.

“It was basically determined that it wasn’t worth the risk or the amount of work for every precinct in the country. The creators of Houdini came in from Google and decided that it wasn’t possible to build a system that would scale that big.”

This is amazing – somebody decided to build a system with reduced functionality in order to get improved reliability. Do you suppose the political team or the marketing guys wanted less information on Election Day? Hell, no! I’m guessing they fought like cornered Tasmanian Devils not only to expand the scope, also but to add new features. I wasn’t there, of course, but I’ve been in enough discussions between MR analysts, developers, and Operations people to be pretty sure who fought for what. The guys from Google were Ops savvy.

Operations people are under-appreciated. Their job is to execute somebody else’s brainchild, and we rely on them to make it a success. Like the hedgehog in the fable, they know one big thing: failure is not an option. Projects have to get done. On time. Within the budget. The data has to be right. There will not be a second chance. They’ll move mountains to get things done. Sometimes they go home at night wondering why no one sought or followed their advice and sailed right into the big rock they saw so clearly ahead.

But apparently as the developers proceeded from 2008’s Houdini to 2012’s Narwhal the Ops guys won one. I hope they got the credit they deserved because too often they don’t.

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