Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Mastering Change Using
Giants Attitude: I & II  

p>The San Francisco Giants have been a remarkably successful franchise, making more different kinds of radical transitions over the last decade than any other team. They've moved from one of the worst, most homogenously life-threatening places to play baseball (I once saw Willie McCovey almost drown in a puddle by first base) to a modern mallpark with quirky park conditions and fences. They bucked the Bud Zelig Welfare Queen Gravy Train, and spent an unusual amount of their own money to achieve that. They changed ownership. They traded away their most loved star. They acquired the best position player in the game, and one of the most expensive, forcing them to cobble together complements everywhere else on a very tight budget. Most teams with a superstar and a host of solid, unexceptional players have a hard time being very competitive, but the Giants have won three division titles and been in a World Series during the decade 1993-2002 with that recipe. This season, again, they've had to aggressively purge and acquire to try to build a winner around this formula.

As of today, they are looking to win their division again (91-57 .615, and 11 games ahead of the second place Dodgers).

Giants attitude stretches from the owners to the field, but Jonah Keri's fine Baseball Prospectus two-part interview with their assistant general manager Ned Colletti shows how Giants attitude operates in the front office with ideas you can apply to your management outside baseball. I recommend both parts if you have time (there's a link to Part I from the Part II I linked to). There are many chunky bits 'o wisdom in the way the Giants manage, but here are two.

I. Never Cope With Change By Using Fear As a Filter

Colletti explains in the interview how the team acquired at the "trade deadline" (a somewhat permeable barrier that's more a psychological limit for players and fans) yet another tough young-veteran starting pitcher for the stretch. This year it was Sir Sidney Ponson from the Orioles, but this is something the regime does most recent years. At the deadline, the situation is very fluid. Contending teams are trying to acquire all kinds of players and acquiring teams have to compete with each other. The environment changes several times a minute, and a deal going down can create a domino effect as panic drives front offices to try to close a deal or they shut down emotionally and freeze up without making a deal they need to.

The Giants were able to get Ponson, a young-vet but they had to give up a very promising rookie, Kurt Ainsworth, to close the deal. Here's part of the exchange between Keri and Colletti:

BP: You mentioned the Ponson deal. We've heard that there were several teams talking to the Orioles about Ponson, that there was talk of Javier Vazquez and a couple of other pitchers clouding the picture for a while. How were you able to get the deal done in the end? What made you decide to part with Ainsworth especially, and also Moss and Hannaman, while hanging onto other young pitchers like Foppert and Williams?

Colletti: It was one of toughest trades we've made. You talk about Kurt, but without any one of those pitchers, Baltimore wouldn't have done the deal. They weren't going to move Ponson without acquiring who they wanted. I talked to Kurt five days after the deal, and I told him it wasn't what he hadn't done that got him traded, it was what he had done that attracted Baltimore. From our perspective, with him being injured, we weren't sure if he'd be able to pitch the rest of season in a pennant situation. We've been around long enough to know that opportunities to win can be fleeting. So whenever we have an opportunity to win at the time of the trading deadline, we go for it. We're not afraid--you can't be afraid to make a mistake. You can't be afraid to trade a certain player if your scouts are sure about players you're acquiring.

That last statement is the key to facing a change decision. If you have scouting (some solid, if speculative, knowledge), you can't afford to let fear be a key part of the decision. Too many organizations try to advance on the future with the risks and fears being the dominant ingredients in the decision. The Giants don't, and that makes them winners. When you decide from fear or the risk side, you end up taking more time than you can afford....it pushes you too close to deadlines or crashes them. I believe about a half of all the time overruns on projects and initiatives are caused primarily by the effects of using fear as a primary filter in decisions. Organizations need some naturally fearful people in the right slots, but they have to be the right slots. NASA, for example, would have greatly benefited if fear-driven individuals had had decisionmaking power in either of the Space Shuttle explosions when NASA had placed more business-oriented decisionmakers at the helm. But widespread placement of those who view change's risks as being greater than change's potential rewards need to be shunted aside in any organization that is not a monopoly but wishes to succeed.

II. Don't Micromanage Those on Who Your Success Depends

The front office turned over field management to Felipe Alou this year. There were tons of applicants both because the Giants are chronically competitive, but also because a team constructed the way the Giants are (a superstar and cobbled pieces) is an exciting challenge to manage. There are fewer automatic, obvious moves to make, and you have to make use of the whole roster. Exciting work in a competitive organization. Cool.

But think how many of those kinds of positions you see people beat their brains out to get, only to be micromanaged by executives up the chain. There are several reasons for this outside of baseball. One is the fear I addressed in the first part -- some people can't yield control out of anxiety. Another is the extreme asymmetry of executive pay in most American organizations gives executives either the sense they have to do it all or a Napoleon Complex where they feel they must really be worth all the pelf they're collecting. Another is that sometimes the person micromanaging held that position before and feels she knows best how to do it. Yet another is the micromamager has a dull job himself and sees how fun this group of tasks is, what my father used to call "peeing in the orange juice".

I've worked as both a consultant and victim with higher managers and executives who micromanage for all these reasons. The most laughable, head-banging one was a Harvard Business School grad with the personality and aptitude set of an assistant bookkeeper who was named president of a networking company I was directing a big chunk of the marketing functions for. He inserted himself into every creative decision, not in an advisory role, but as a brick wall. He didn't know jack cheese about our customers (he'd never worked technical support or customer service), about the scientific parts of marketing, about the rules of positioning or advertising or market research. But, darn it, he was the president and he was going to monkey with these decisions he considered fun and foolishly considered easy.

The Giants front office doesn't micromanage Alou.

Colletti: We have great conversations with Felipe. He's seen so many different things in the game. Even when we have a short conversation to say hello, you can learn so much. There's really no 'play this guy', 'or hit this guy' going on though. Once in a while, if we want to make a suggestion, we might say something like, 'what would you think about...'? But there are no mandates. We trust the manager to do his job. It goes back to Brian's style: he delegates and he doesn't micromanage other people's positions.

The Giants are having one of their best years for winning games. Alou's having his best year as a manager, whether because he's never been better, or because he's staying out of his players' way. It barely matters why.

A) The Giants don't micromanage the talent they hire to make decisions.
B) The Giants are the 90th percentile on team winning record.

'Nuff said.

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