Saturday, August 30, 2003

Part Three -- The Seductions
(& Giant Sucking Sounds) of Metrics  

In Which Mad-Dog Pulls a Rodney

In a previous Seductions (& Giant Sucking Sounds) of Metrics piece (August 13), I was talking about the pandemic big-institutional metrics problem: measuring the most-easily measured things, then using those things to unintentionally reward non-productive behaviors. In that drift, the organization is actually pushing contributors the wrong way.

More insidious drifts happen when contributors mine the metrics to find a way to get points for dodging real work or effort. There are people at all levels of an organization that will invest energy in trying to play whatever system is set up, to maximize their personal return. I call these people Rodneys, after a bright, ambitious guy who used to work for me. Many organizations' incentive systems are set up to try to slipstream Rodneys' behavior. But what if there are seams in the system and they are rewarding in ways that don't give incentives for the behaviors that push the organization towards the intended goals?

Take Bill "Mad Dog" Madlock, a four-time batting champion in his prime from 1975 - 83. There's a seam in baseball understanding, even within baseball, that leads fans and still a minority of team office management types to overvalue batting average as a measure of a player's value. So if you were a baseball player, having a good batting average would be marginally more important than other, less well-internalized offensive stats that actually rewarded the team's offense. And winning a batting average title would be even more brownie points. More painful, if you accept his argument, Bill Deane argues in a recent Oneonta Daily Star piece that Mad Dog would sit out an extraordinary number of games towards the end of seasons with apparent injuries if he was leading his league in batting average. Deane asserts:

One man who was successful at winning batting titles was Bill Madlock. In fact, he is the only player to win four of them and not be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Madlock and his proponents often complained that he was under-appreciated when it came to discussion of the game's best hitters.

Madlock certainly had a gift for putting the bat on the ball, but other facets of his game were lacking. He had sub-standard power, little patience at the plate, was an atrocious fielder at third base, and was regarded as a negative clubhouse influence. But what about those Silver Bats? Well, Madlock had a curious habit of sitting out much of September whenever he was in contention (and had enough plate appearances) for the batting title. The bat crown is one of the few prestigious titles which can be won despite missing a lot of action.

This would juice his chances to win the title, even though he was one of the better hitters on the teams he played for, so if he was sitting out extra games, he was undermining his team's offensive capacity when he sat -- he was pulling a Rodney. I'm not sure he was really dogging it (or Mad Dogging it) as Deane argues; the numbers are suggestive, but not unarguable. But even if Deane's argument on sitting out isn't true, the scribe had already pointed out the real metric mayhem here. Because batting average is so highly valued, Mad Dog didn't work on the pieces of his game that were weak. The reward system gave him enough incentive just to do what he already did really well even though the organization would have benefited more if he traded 30 points of batting average for 60 points of extra slugging percentage (as his contemporary George Breet did when asked by his team), and took more walks in tactically appropriate situations, and spent more time taking fielding practice so his glove wasn't quite as much a detriment.

Mad Dogs and Rodneys can be powerful assets for their organizations if the metric you manage them by are well thought-out. Rodneys are passionate about trying to understand the metrics you measure them by, so they can figure out a way to get paid more to do less. The original Rodney wasn't lazy -- far from it...he just got a kick out of playing the system and spent ergs looking for seams. He worked on an environmental consulting project I wrote about August 14, where we had built a system to reward a combination of quality and quantity, complex work and simple work. It was balanced so people who worked effectively would get rewards for their work whether they were faster/less accurate or plodding/precise, or chose to work on the complex problems or the simple ones. But Rodney kept coming back to try and find a seam, for example, simple work. He'd walk across the room with a pile of folders and announce to me, "here, I'm taking all the simple ones," then scrutinize me to see if I looked approving or disapproving or laughing at him secretly. He just knew (not) that there had to be a seam.

TIP: Baseball's Mad Dogs have a lot to teach you about how to manage your own internal Rodneys. Tune your incentive systems to reward truly advantageous behavior.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter