Negative Flake Rates and Leading Change

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Campaign planners expect a flake rate among those who promise to volunteer. In other words, they expect a certain percentage of people to flake out and not show up. This past weekend, the Obama campaign experienced the opposite: they got a negative flake rate. They got more volunteers showing up than they had planned for.

That is amazing. Imagine if leaders in organizations could tap the energy of employees at all levels so that people would volunteer to do whatever it took to make major changes a success.

I’m only going to talk about one aspect of the campaign, and that’s how I believe the Obama team was able to earn a negative flake rate. And, as a volunteer myself, I can tell you what my experience was like.

People felt strongly about the message. They believed in what Obama stands for, and what he says he will do. And the candidate himself contributed to that by sticking to a to a single message “Change We Can Believe In.” the slogan may have changed a word here or there, but he seldom wavered from the message. Whether it was a focus on the wars or the economy or questions about his own integrity, he was able to speak to those issues under the theme of Change We Can Believe In. Of course, Senator McCain had a strong base of supporters as well, but the media started reporting that his message and even his public persona kept changing. Late night comics joked about these shifts. Whether this is a fair allegation or not doesn’t matter, but the perception that he was shifting course mattered quite a bit.

The Obama campaign seemed to love its volunteers. A precinct coordinator who lives near us was thrilled to tell us that she was on a conference call with Barack Obama last Saturday night. Even though this call included some 20,000 other coordinators, she was on a live call with Barack Obama.

On Monday, I received what is now referred to as a robo-call (a recorded message) from Obama that went to people who had already volunteered thanking them for their support and urging them to keep working through the election. And then he said something like, “And I’ll be there working as well.”

Good friends of mine in Colorado worked hard for Obama and other Democratic candidates. When he spoke in their state a couple of weeks ago, they were invited to meet him personally. It was a quick meeting in a group of about fifteen people, but nevertheless, they met the man who they had spent countless hours working for. The son of a friend was Obama’s driver for a day. The Senator went out of his way to make sure that he thanked the young man personally. And those are just two stories. News of those moments of personal contact spread.

And finally, the people who run the offices (mostly volunteers themselves) made you feel like you were making a difference. It didn’t matter if you were making calls or delivering food to poll workers (like I did for awhile yesterday), they made you feel like that work was important. Yesterday, election day, they asked me to be at a staging area at 5 AM. When I walked in, the place was already packed with volunteers. In fact, there were more volunteers than tasks to be done. I was reassigned three times before 6:30, because they kept finding out that job after job had already been covered.

And two of the volunteer coordinators who seemed to work round the clock, made sure that people were acknowledged for what they were doing.

Keeping on message and showing appreciation to the workers seems like small stuff. On one level it is, and on another it is what’s missing from so many change projects. I hope you see the connection between these two things and leading change in organizations. I wish you well.