Lessons From the Obama Campaign: Overcoming Skepticism and Winning People Over

Barack Obama?s historic win provides us with some great examples of how true innovators are successful. If you dissect the strategies to which his campaign credits its victory, you will see several patterns of innovation at work.


Creativity is generating a novel idea while innovation is transforming that idea into reality. Being creative does not make someone an innovator. To achieve innovator status, one must use the creative mind but also possess an uncommon social intelligence, political acuity, and skill at persuasion.


Barack Obama’s historic win provides us with some great examples of how true innovators are successful. If you dissect the strategies to which his campaign credits its victory, you will see several patterns of innovation at work. These same patterns can be identified in the success of breakthrough companies, new technologies, and society transformation.

Like all great innovators, Obama’s campaign aspirations first met broad skepticism. Valuable lessons can be learned from how they overcame cynicism and shifted the public’s view.

Create new customers out of nothing

Most people look at pieces on the board and ask themselves, “How can I move what is already there into a new position?” Outthinkers are free of such false restraints. Instead, they know that we can add new pieces to the board. We can create new things out of nothing.

The Obama campaign focused on “enlarging the playing field.” This meant bringing new voters into play and encouraging disconnected voters to participate again. By focusing on these groups, the Obama campaign was able to turn traditionally Republican states into Democratic ones.

If you analyzed only existing voters in states like North Carolina or Indiana, one would conclude there were little changes for a Democrat to win. A traditional approach might say Democrats should ignore those states, but instead, the Obama campaign launched an effective effort to bring new voters into the pool. They signed on hundreds of thousands of new voters in critical states. They used detailed data to identify which voters had voted early and which needed extra help – a reminder, a ride – to get to the polls.


This campaign changed the playing field entirely by bringing in new voters, voters who had never been part of the historical analyses. Innovations are often born when someone sees the market not for what it is today, but for what it could become. Where else have we seen this before?

In the golf industry, Callaway Golf made a name for itself. Callaway studied the U.S. golf market’s history as carefully as its competitors did. Its competitors’ seemed to believe that tomorrow’s golfers would look a lot like today’s and therefore that growth must come from stealing customers from the competition. In contrast, Callaway decided to focus on non-golfers instead.

It explored the underlying feelings and motivations that might convince non-golfers to become interested in the sport. It also studied how to get novices to play more often. Their research led them to develop a radical new golf club design, the Big Bertha. This converted would-be golfers into the game at unexpectedly high rates, thereby expanding the entire golf market. The club became the best seller among almost all categories of golfers.

The lesson: when the competition starts believing that tomorrow’s customer base will look similar to yesterday’s, there may be an opportunity to think differently. Have you considered creating new customers out of nothing?

Tomorrow I will continue to dissect the patterns that contributed to Obama’s success. But today, look at your industry and see if there is a chance to create new customers. Ask yourself the following questions:

1.What potential customers are out there?


2.How can I create new customers out of nothing?

3.How can I expand the playing field to get a competitive edge?

Update: Read the next part of this post here.

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society