Wednesday, September 10, 2003

The Phillies' Slash-and-Burn Boy
Meets Transcendental Meditation  

One of the toughest lessons managers have to learn about people management is that no one approach to the "wetware" side is "best". The variables that almost bring the discipline to chaos theory fractality are:

  • Each individual is different and is motivated differently in different environments,
  • Each individual is different and is motivated by different managerial behaviors,
  • On a daily basis, the mood of the team member varies in her or his response to the preceding two factors,
  • Over time, the same techniques tend to wear down, eliciting less response with each repetition.

Billy Martin, for example, was famous for his ability to turn around teams. Even in his "rookie" year as a manager, his 1969 Minnesota Twins improved 18 frelling games. He inherited the Tigers in 1971 and they improved a boffo 12 games in his first year. Martin managed mostly by a mix of intimidation and cajoling; players never knew when he would explode or be their helpful uncle. It seems many of the players he managed busted their butts to avoid getting kicked in the butt. This can work for a while if your key players respond well to MBT (Management by Terror). But after a while, it wears off because eventually you will have applied several kicks in the butt to those who were already giving their all. Martin teams regularly came to an ungraceful end when he'd burned out the mojo.

Niceness has its limits for the same reason. Over time, team members see they the manager will be just as nice and nurturing to the sluggards, the lazy, the parasites who are just getting by, as they are to those busting their butts.

No one technique works as a booster to every individual, and no customized technique that works for a whole team full of individuals is something you want to deploy without variation.

Finally, The Phils

Larry Bowa, another manager with an anger management problem had his first total melt-down of the season twelve days ago after a game in Montréal. This particular Krakatoa was in response to a period where the Phils' odds of nailing the wild card were fading and the team wasn't playing its best baseball. On top of it, players' responses to various events weren't driving the team in the direction he wanted. Bowa had dumped the team's best pinch-hitter for dissing him, and the key players on the team hadn't rallied to Bowa's defense.

His melt-down was followed by the Phils winning 10 of their next 12 games. As detailed crisply by Baltimore Sun writer Peter Schmuck, it was slash-and-burn, bringing down what was there and returning the components to the ground to try and get a quicker yield on a new crop.

Like slash-and-burn agriculture (and the slash-and-burn Sunbeam approach to stewarding corporate assets) slash-and-burn management can yield short-term returns but with each iteration, the returns diminish, for the four rules/reasons I cited at the top of this entry. And as Dan Antonellis already described here (Thursday, August 28, 2003) you can only call so many team meetings.

When Bowa was a player, his anger management problem became such an issue for him he ended up learning to meditate to try and control it, applying Transcendental Meditation techniques. He reaped some short-term gains, but eventually melted down and apparently gave up the practice.

If he wants to extend the Phils' hot streak, it's time for him to pull out the meditation manuals or other, different techniques that don't reek of brimstone, because the power of slash and burn, like the power of "nice" or any other single people management approach, always fades. And be careful how far from your norm you experiment with initially...the big surprise (from Joe Stalin to Cal Ripken in one step) is just as likely to blow up in your face as motivate.

TIP: Whatever people-management approach you tend to fall back on as your norm, observe who it works (and doesn't work) well with. And use different approaches over time. Angus' Law of Problem Evolution states that problems change over time to gain immunity from (become unsolvable by) the managerial techniques we use too chronically.

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