Monday, October 10, 2016

Donald Trump : The Lean-Agile Candidate

This article is not an endorsement of Donald J Trump. Instead, this is an analysis of how well the Trump campaign has utilized many of the techniques and strategies of Lean and Agile to run a very successful campaign under some very trying conditions. The campaign, since its beginning, has had a shoestring budget, a mercurial candidate with no prior public office experience, very little core establishment support and lack of a broad, informed policy platform. Despite all these hindrances, Donald Trump, has not only beaten out a crowded Republican field but also remained competitive till late in the election cycle against an established political Titan, Hillary Clinton.

Lean Startup

Donald Trump's candidacy was considered a joke for quite some time. This gave Trump the ability to take risks to make a mark for himself. In the beginning of his campaign, he made many outlandish statements. Many of which would easily have rendered him unelectable if he was being taken seriously. His immediate strategic focus though was to make some noise and gain notoriety. He is a startup in the field of established players. Doing what everyone else does is not going to help him separate himself in a field of 17 contenders for the Republican nomination. The same applies to new products. Yes, the table stakes (In this case having a pulse and enough backers to launch a bid) are necessary, but not enough to be successful. You have to stand out, even if it is in an unorthodox manner to gain market share. Breaking the mold and having a distinctive appeal is critical for any startup.

At this point, it is not just the primary voters that take note of Donald Trump, but his outlandish statements start bringing in a lot of media attention. The amount of free air time that Donald Trump's comments and Trump as a guest himself gets from the various networks greatly exceeds the paid and free airtime for any of his competitors. This goes a long way in cementing the Trump political brand. Trump knows that the voters in the Republican primary are not fans of the media. Hence, while he feeds soundbites to the media, he also chastises them for unfair coverage. This becomes a consistent theme for the remainder of the Trump campaign. As a new product, it is important to establish a brand with your customers. Use all avenues available to remind your customers of your brand and how it stands out.

This beginning and most of the rest of the campaign seems to have been run using Lean Startup principles almost by the book. Trump repeatedly employs the Build-Measure-Learn loop to not just figure out the right things to say, but also to create and adjust policy positions. The campaign guides its steps by observing the customer reaction and understanding them first hand, rather than through pollsters and policy experts.

Limiting WIP

Trump has been, until recently very focused on the immediate strategic direction. During the primaries, Trump campaign had multiple hurdles ahead of them. Instead of tackling all 16 of his opponents at once, Trump goes after them one at a time. While others are not taking him seriously, he starts by discrediting the most lucrative target. The establishment heavyweight Jeb Bush. Trump repeatedly calls him weak and makes sure that Bush is known as the establishment candidate. This is a great strategic direction to take as it is potentially the easiest and most lucrative. Notably, he does not go after the other candidates at this time. He limits his WIP to one strategic direction at a time. Trump does not have the resources to spread his attacks out. This forces him to be lean. repeating the same message about one candidate over and over helps him get the best results against that candidates with his customers.

The Trump campaign in time, shifts focus to Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and eventually Ted Cruz in order to eliminate the competition one at a time. He picks on them one by one and brands them in ways that would hurt them with republican primary voters.  This entire time Trump's focus was one of his Republican opponents and not Hillary Clinton. He made wildly unpopular statements, but these were unpopular overall, not amongst the voters that would show up to vote in the republican primaries. Trump proved that limiting your WIP works at all levels, especially at the strategy level in a lean organization.

Feedback Loops

Most political campaigns thrive on feedback loops. They adjust as they get more information through polls and media feedback. The Trump campaign has taken this to the next level. Trump seems to be deliberately creating these feedback loops using rallies and social media. There are elements of Lean UX, Dev-Ops and Continuous Delivery present in the implementation of these feedback loops.

Lean UX

As opposed to other candidates that spend long hours coming up with sound bites and attack lines, Trump's campaign spends very little time doing such analysis. Trump tries out every new sound bite with audiences, both live and on twitter, till he finds the one that sticks. The campaign is consistently pursuing the "linguistic killshot" as Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) puts it. Lying Ted, Little Marco, Weak and Low Energy Jeb Bush and even Nice Ben Carson were all effective branding of Trump's opponents that hurt their campaigns. These "linguistic killshots" were not a result of hours and days of research. The Trump campaign took multiple ideas straight to the rallies and carried on the ones that gained traction. The users help shape the experience rather than simply being subjected to it.  Instead of spending days analyzing and doing research, Trump was getting ideas out first and getting feedback. When you are trying out new user experiences, the easiest way to validate which ones work is to actually put them in front of your customers. 

Linguistic killshot: An engineered set of words that changes an argument or ends it so decisively, I call it a kill shot. One of the ones Donald Trump used was referring to Bush as a "low energy guy" or Carly Fiorina as a "robot" or Ben Carson as "nice." - Scott Adams

Dev-Ops and CD

Much is made of Trump's late night/early morning tweets. These are often the more "fiery" and controversial tweets that Trump puts out. The Trump campaign has realized the power of social media and utilized in a lot more effectively than the Clinton campaign has.Trump has been running his campaign with a lot less operating cash than his opponents. In May, the Trump staff consisted of 69 staffers as opposed to 685 staffers for Hillary Clinton. This means that Trump has to find new and better strategies for getting the word out. Trump delivers his messages directly to his customers, early and often. Early morning tweets are not just seen by his followers when they wake up, but due to their controversial nature, re-tweeted and replied to by thousands of folks. What is even more important is that the early morning news and talk shows pick these up and talk about them for hours. Trump is not just the engineer of the messages but also does the deployment of it out in the field. He delivers early and often. By doing this, he is able to shape the conversation for the day without making the rounds of the news and talk shows.

According to New York Times, in March, Trump had received almost 2 billion dollars of free media coverage due to his continuous delivery of unique messages.

A common charge leveled against Trump is that he "takes the bait" and cannot resist responding to every charge leveled against him. This might be a valid charge and Trump might have little control over his instincts. The tendency to do this, though, still provides all the same benefits. By using multiple rapid fire responses, the campaign is able to identify which ones resonate with the voters and implement those in detail. Trump being the engineer and the deployer of these cuts down the amount of time it takes to run these responses by the "end-users". The campaign also does not waste time trying to craft the perfect response and allows the "customers" to choose which response the campaign spends time on, in order to perfect it.


The trump campaign, (until very recently) has been the definition of anti-fragility.
Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.
Software developers anticipate volatility and shocks to the system in order to make the system perform better under these forms of stress. A great example of this is Netflix's Chaos Monkey that turns off services randomly to make sure the system is built to handle the stress. Trump is his own campaign's Chaos Monkey. He is unbridled in his speeches, tweets and personal interactions. His team has known this from day one. Every campaign manager and media relations person on his team has become an expert in the art of the spin. This means two things. First, it does not matter what Trump actually says. The media and the political elite might sneer at his remarks, but Trump's team has a lot of practice in handling these situations. They make every remark, that would otherwise sink a campaign, into a positive for the country. Second, it allows Trump to keep running his experiments with words. The media and the establishment up in arms against him is an anticipated stressor. It makes his image as the anti-establishment, outsider more robust with every attack. The Trump campaign is the mythological Hydra, which becomes stronger when it is attacked.

Small Batches

This political cycle has made it hard to concentrate on actual policy matters. While most candidates went into the race with filled out platforms and explicit positions on all the major issues, Donald Trump did no such thing. He went about making his policy explicit in small batches. He first released  his position on immigration in August 2016. Even in this case, most of the plan was kept flexible to account for the feedback from the voters. The Trump campaign has shifted positions based on what seems to work with the public at their rallies, rather than what the experts think. This is the exact opposite of a well thought out, heavily analyzed political platform. Rather than having a set in stone "product roadmap", the Trump Campaign releases information on policy initiatives in small batches so that they can be easily consumed and future initiatives adjusted as needed. 

Trump is executing Build-Measure-Learn, while everyone else is doing large upfront analysis. Trump's campaign is agile while most others are living in the traditional Waterfall world. Trump is able to make repeated policy shifts without people taking much notice because he makes these shifts in small batches by changing little details as opposed to having to stay stuck on a pre-defined and committed to a platform.

The Lean-Agile Candidate

Donald Trump is far from an ideal presidential candidate. He has great flaws that he seems to escape just as they catch up to him. Many times, he comes out stronger than before because these flaws help him show his anti-fragility. The Trump campaign has done a great job of tapping into the voters directly and making an otherwise improbable candidate into a strong presidential contender. The strategies and tactics used by the campaign, whether knowingly or not, bear great resemblance to the Lean and Agile principles that we encourage teams and organizations to adopt. Of late, Trump's old words have come back to haunt him. Such deep-rooted flaws are probably beyond the anti-fragile ability of his campaign. However the race ends, this lean and agile campaign has probably changed the world of political campaigns for years to come. 


  1. Curious take Prateek. I think it ends up giving a bad name to Lean and Agile. One key aspect missing is the core principles. Lean foundation principles are continuous improvement and respect for people. I do not think Trump understands these principles at all. I certainly do not see improvement and I do not need to explain the respect for people part as is obvious Trump does not respect anyone.


    1. I agree, there is a general lack of respect that Trump has shown. Think about it this way though - Why have people who work on his campaign not jumped ship in large numbers? Why do they continue to come out in support of him even hen he says outrageous things? This loyalty has to stem from somewhere. I agree that the product Trump is selling is low quality, but I am sure he is treating the people who work for him with respect. I would find it hard to believe that they will come out in such support of outrageous statements, if they were not being treated with respect.

    2. Also, more than anything, Thanks for reading and replying. Always a pleasure to read comments.

  2. Prateek, I appreciate the analogy and your insights in drawing out parallels. I might add that he understood his customers very well (as I understand from following talk radio). However, I see him is stuck in the build-measure-learn cycle - with no decisions on improving, pivoting or punting - will what got him here get him past a sputtering startup? (I certainly hope not. I wonder how his character and lack of respect for other human beings reflect on his NPS?)
    I have to agree with Rafael, I cringe at the title - Lean-Agile Candidate - partly because of my own bias but mostly because of some core principles of Lean and Agile are clearly missing from the analogy.
    This is a good topic for our Audacious Agile Conversations - over a couple beers of course!

    1. Absolutely Anjali, we should explore this further in the Audacious Agile meetup. I believe there is a lot to learn from someone who was not a professional politician and beat out 16 politicians to get the nomination. He went on to even seem like he could win the presidency. Whether we agree with him or not (obviously, there is more not to agree with than there is to agree with), he has run a very successful campaign on a small budget beating out big players.

    2. Lovely to hear from you on the blog and looking forward to seeing you soon.

  3. Quoting the original Agile manifesto:

    TRUMP used interactions on debate stages to destroy his opponents individually — Clinton just said things about using process theand tools of politics
    TRUMP demonstated working government by running the TRUMP organisation while Clinton just pointed at screeds of policy documentation.
    TRUMP collaborated with voters making “crazy” suggestions and then walking back or doubling down based on the response while Clinton again just pointed at screeds of documentation and didn’t change her positions once the general election campaign began.
    TRUMP responded to change — in fact TRUMP’s tweets drove the change DevOps style, making daily or hourly updates to his strategies, policies, etc. Clinton had a plan, stuck to it, and lost.

    1. Great take on this using the manifesto. I think the last point is the most important one. Responding to change vs Following a plan.