Friday, September 26, 2003

Prior Art:
The Person is Not the Job  

A frequent trap busy managers in big organizations fall into (even the most skilled ones) is forgetting that the person is not the job. What I mean by that is sometimes we forget that a person has a skill set that transcends their current job description, and when we need that skill, we can tap into it episodically (or permanently).

In a recent Baseball Prospectus team analysis of the Chicago Cubs, the anonymous author was teasing Cubbie manager Dusty Baker by pointing out he was overusing a couple of light-hitting outfielders.

Tony Womack .245 .260 .327 
Doug Glanville  .234 .260 .298
Mark Prior .243 .264 .343 

OK, the Cubs have had Prior all season, but they might consider
using him to pinch-hit whenever Womack or Glanville are due up.

Mark Prior, in case you don't know him, is an absolute bulldog of a pitcher, and, violating conventional baseball wisdom, he hits as well as below-average field players. He also violates a tenet of the unconventional baseball learning popular at places like Baseball Prospectus (and one that's generally true), which is a high pitch count (say, over 120 throws in a game) will undermine a starter's performance next time out. Prior consistently throws over 120 pitches, and while his arm may fall off someday, pitch-count mavens keep waiting for that moment and Prior keeps cooking up high cheese. He does have this elegant motion that may make him less prone to failure, or it may just take longer to catch up with him. But in this case, while the conventional baseball guys create a problem by allowing too many starters to throw too many pitches, the unconventional guys create a different management problem by failing to recognize that what is truth for the average of a sample may or may not be truth for any particular individual that is part of that sample (an important lesson outside of baseball as well).

Anyway, there are very few baseball managers who will use a pitcher as a pinch-hitter for a non-pitcher, no matter how anemic the non-pitcher's batting skills are. Why? Because pitchers don't do that; it's not in their job description, because we all know pitchers don't hit. In the 19th century, when the rules and equipment and the athleticism of players were all very different from contemporary baseball, some pitchers did hit (and some hitters pitched sometimes).

In the 1950s, the Dodgers had a couple of pitchers they sometimes used as pinch-hitters (though in my memory, more for other pitchers than fielders): Don Newcombe and Don Drysdale, but the systemic Dodger minor league instruction devised by Branch Rickey always included some hitting fundamentals for pitchers. Today, we have Brooks "The Robstown Rhino" Kieschnick, a Milwaukee Brewer who is a low-man in the bullpen and pinch-hitter (he was an outfielder who wasn't quite good enough to stick around on his glove or bat, and had a good enough arm that he could pitch a little). This year he's hitting .300/.355/.614 in 76 plate appearances, way better than the league and his own past performances. But the Brewers are desperate and nowhere near to playing in make-or-break games, so their manager can afford to indulge his creative urges without being second-guessed as much. No matter how much the incremental benefit of using a better hitter-who-happens-to-be-a-pitcher is, managers either hesitate to be that "smart", or, as I believe is actually the case, they forget about that potential offensive weapon because his job title says "Pitcher".

Squid Pro Quo

Our workplaces are rarely better. Managers are under pressure all the time to get more out of their resources, and with their own time-per-decision usually compressed, it's easier to think of Rodney as "mail clerk" rather than a cornucopia of diverse experiences and aptitudes that would make him a great loan to a sales research function or back-up customer service rep. Easier, but a lost opportunity.

I was lucky to shown the light on this in one of my first jobs out of college. During the days, I worked as a legislative researcher for a U.S. Senator's staff. They were a super smart, hyperactive team, but limited by their ability to get quick facts or custom analytic studies. Most Senate offices used the Congressional Research Service, a very deep and talented group that was burdened with the weight of such requests from every House and Senate office and committee. Requests would go in, and no matter how hard CRS' staff worked, you'd never know when you might get a response. So I acted as a mini-CRS, getting up to speed on an issue, doing computer-based searches, building quick briefing reports, finding skeletons in nominees' closets, running numbers and all that. I was very fast, very accurate, very flexible. I was lucky in that I had been given a job at which I was great. Not Barry Bonds great, because there were over 110 years of baseball tradition and expectations he's shredded. I was great more like Sliding Billy Hamilton great...I was very good but actually looked incredibly better than that because no one had ever done that set of things as effectively before.

Eventually, though, I was promoted up to working as a legislative aide, and my research services were shunted off to others. But the boss, Ray Calamaro, was a very creative manager, so when things would get gummed up, he would switch me off my duties to pinch-hit as a researcher. Just because I didn't have the title any more didn't mean I couldn't add value that way.

I had worked at least 20 different jobs by then, and this was the first time any manager had ever viewed me as an individual-with-aptitudes instead of a job title. His innovation was remembering and applying past jobs in the same organization, but once he turned me on to that idea, it was logical for me to extend it to application of more general experiences. The Calamaro Approach is a winner you should think about when you have more work to do than you have available expertise or experience to do.

TIP: Find out what arts and sciences and jobs and skills people know that's not in their job description. Keep track of it, apply it.. Use it to make your organization more effective. It'll make you look like a miracle worker.

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