What businesses can learn from the Iowa Democratic Caucus debacle

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on February 17, 2020.

The objective of any critical process where the stakes are high is to ensure the credibility of the result. A crucial step in the implementation of a critical process is to operationalize and test it to ensure the process works as intended and at a minimum, meets the expectations of the user.

Testing should be conducted not only by the designer of the process, but also by a focus group of individuals who will actually use it. All possible paths through the system need to be tested to see how it performs, so that weaknesses and errors can be identified and addressed before launch.

The Iowa Caucus debacle

The Iowa Democratic Party failed to ensure the credibility of the results of the Iowa Caucus when they put in place a new process that was not sufficiently operationalized and tested before its use.

On Feb. 3, the Iowa Democratic Party stated that it was unable to announce the results of the caucus due to smartphone app issues. On Feb. 6, Tom Perez, Chairman of the Democratic National committee said on Twitter, “Enough is enough. In light of the problems that have emerged in the implementation of the delegate selection plan and in order to assure public confidence in the results, I am calling on the Iowa Democratic Party to immediately begin a recanvass.”

A Feb. 7 article in The New York Times headlined, “Iowa Caucus results riddled with errors and inconsistencies,” not only outlined the myriad of procedural and system software issues that delayed the announcement of the caucus winner, but also the complexity in the caucus system itself. Quoting the Times article, “More than 100 precincts reported results that were internally inconsistent, that were missing data or that were not possible under the complex rules of the Iowa caucuses.”

A Times article dated Feb. 11 headlined, “How the Iowa Caucuses Became an Epic Fiasco for Democrats” calls into question the legitimacy of the Iowa Caucus system. Quoting the article, “As disastrous as the 2020 Iowa caucuses have appeared to the public, the failure runs deeper and wider than has previously been known, according to dozens of interviews with those involved. It was a total system breakdown that casts doubt on how a critical contest on the American political calendar has been managed for years.”

Why wasn’t the entire caucus system properly designed and sufficiently tested so that the results could be trusted? Given the high stakes involved in choosing delegates who will select the Democratic nominee for the office of president of the United States, these questions should have been thoroughly addressed beforehand.

There is a problem-solving principle called Occam’s razor, attributed to English philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347) that can be simply stated, “The simplest explanation is usually the correct one.” Extending that logic, the simplest solution that achieves the correct result is the solution that should be adopted. Iowa could select their delegates via a much simpler system, and reduce the chance that errors caused by the complexity of the current caucus system would undermine its credibility.

Due to the political nature of selecting delegates who will choose the Democratic candidate for president, the last thing Iowa Democrats want is to appear inept. It provides fodder for the Republicans to exploit. Unfortunately, this is exactly how the Iowa Democratic Party appears – inept.

On Feb. 12, Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, resigned. In his resignation letter, Price wrote, “The fact is that Democrats deserved better than what happened on caucus night. As chair of this party, I am deeply sorry for what happened and bear the responsibility for any failures on behalf of the Iowa Democratic Party,”

Lesson for business leaders

Every new business process needs to be operationalized to identify issues and corrected before the process is fully implemented. Developers need to put themselves in the place of the individuals who will use the process and ask themselves, “How would I like to see this process operate?” Focus groups of users should test the process to ensure it works properly.

Business processes that are too complex run the risk of being error-prone, which undermines the credibility of the system. Adopt the simplest process that gets the job done, and operationalize every aspect of it before it goes live.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at

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