Obama's Drucker-Style Win

Both Democratic candidates began with the management-guru's first basic question, but where they went from there determined the winner

As Barack Obama claimed the Democratic nomination for President last week, pundits were quick to credit any number of factors in his vanquishing of the once-vaunted Clinton political machine: Obama's rock-star charisma, his scintillating speechmaking, what he himself has described as his "almost spooky good fortune."

But I chalk it up, in large measure, to one thing: his superior ability—or at least his advisers' superior ability—at management, Peter Drucker-style.

In fact, it was almost as if the Obama camp had methodically worked through the five questions with which Drucker believed every organization—whether a business, public agency, or nonprofit—should grapple. (And I mean grapple—though these questions may seem exceedingly simple on their face, answering them invariably turns into an exigent exercise, as I know from experience within my own shop.)

Naturally, Obama and Hillary Clinton began with a similar answer to Drucker's first question: What is our mission? For both, ascending to the top of their party's ticket—or, to put it more generously, earning the right to try to lead the nation to a better future—has been their driving passion for the past 16 months. But once you get past that, the dueling senators, in effect, answered Drucker's next four questions very differently.

Focusing on All the Groups

Consider No. 2: Who is our customer? Getting this right, Drucker said, "puts your priorities in order and gives you a reference point for critical decisions on the organization's values."

In a sense, both Obama and Clinton approached this question the same way, broadly defining the customer as the American public. Any politician's goal, after all, is to appeal to as many voters as possible. But on another level, Obama tailored his answer this way: Our customers live in smaller caucus states. Our customers include Republicans, independents, and even high school students.

By focusing time and resources on these folks, Obama built a lead that became insurmountable. Clinton, following a more conventional campaign blueprint that all but ignored or wrote off these groups, foundered.

Drucker has said his third question—What does the customer value?—"may be the most important" of them all. Certainly it proved crucial in the Democratic race. Obama nailed it, while Clinton flubbed it.

Value from the Perspective of the Voter

He discerned from the outset, and she did not, that the customer—in this case, the voter of 2008—was looking for one thing above all: the prospect of change. So that's the theme on which Obama and his team pounded away. Clinton, by contrast, stressed her experience as a Washington insider.

"Many organizations are very clear about the value they would like to deliver," Drucker wrote, "but they don't often understand that value from the perspective of their customers. They make assumptions based on their own interpretation." For Clinton, this was fatal.

Of course, any well-run operation—political or otherwise—must be able to adjust along the way, which is precisely why Drucker's fourth question is so important: What are our results? Clinton did attempt a mid-course correction or two when it became apparent she wasn't faring so well, including ousting her campaign manager in February. But she never reacted swiftly or decisively enough. She also chose all along—and this is revealing—to use a single pollster, Mark Penn. Obama, more open to hearing varying viewpoints about how he was doing on the trail, reportedly used as many as four.

Crafting the Ideal Message

And then there's Drucker's fifth question—the one that flows from all the others: What is our plan? "Planning is not an event," Drucker explained. "It is the continuous process of strengthening what works and abandoning what does not, of making risk-taking decisions with the greatest knowledge of their potential effect, of setting objectives, appraising performance and results through systematic feedback, and making ongoing adjustments as conditions change."

Obama has not been flawless in his planning, as evidenced by the difficulties he has had in winning over blue-collar Democrats. But by and large, he has excelled in this area. He crafted the ideal message and had the aplomb never to stray from it. He harnessed the power of the Internet like no politician before, creating an online community that energized volunteers and fueled a $265 million war chest. By all accounts, his staff analyzed the polls and reams of voter data—and applied the findings—with tremendous discipline.

As Obama is keenly aware, the contest for the White House is far from over; in many respects it has just begun. The presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, has evidently concluded the same thing as Obama in terms of what the customer values, pledging that he'll be the one "to bring real change to Washington."

Still, an historic chapter has closed. From a field that started with more than a dozen major candidates, the run for the Presidency is now down to two contenders—and five lingering questions.