Friday, September 12, 2003

Project Management Lesson from Baseball:
Late Season Call-ups  

The Majors have a management technique that non-baseball organizations with would do well to (sometimes) emulate: Late season call-ups.

Like most organizations, major league teams have players not quite ready for prime time but whom they want to hold onto because their potential value is fairly high or just because they're unproven but very cheap. In baseball, this is institutionalized; the big team carries a roster of 25, but they maintain a conceptual 40-man roster, with the extras being key players in their minor league system they have reserved (locked up so other teams can't snare them easily).

From September 1, the rules allow teams to expand their 25-man roster. Through the end of the season the entire 40-man roster is eligible to play for at the Major League level, so most teams bring up the second-line talent to give the young pups some chances to play (they get high-level experience, the team gets to do a little evaluation) and to give the big team a little added flexibility (pinch runners, defensive replacements, platooning for guys who only hit right-handed pitching, et.al.).

The teams that get the most use out of this are teams that had fairly high hopes at the beginning of the season but none any more, like the Texas Rangers and New York Mets. Teams that can get a little out of this are this year's Atlanta Braves, who have a virtual lock on the playoffs and can play for exercise more than having the absolute need to win every game. Teams like this year's Tigers already have this contingent playing all the time -- it's a rare 2003 Tiger that's old enough to get into a movie rated PG without a parent, so the additional value of late-season call-ups is limited to the Bengals. Teams like this year's Chicago White Sox, locked in a life-and-death struggle for a playoff spot after a goodly time away from playoff competition, might get a little added oomph from pinch-running flexibility, but they aren't going to bench proven major leaguers to test out unproven toddlers (even if there are a couple guys for whom they should consider it). The CYA factor is just too intense to risk it.

Heavy Metal Training

Organizations beyond baseball should think about the September Call-Up Strategy on projects that are in the home stretch in which the quality of the outcome is basically close to determined, and unlikely at this point to be significantly changed. Too often I've had clients with an absolute black-hole of a project that's 80% done pretending if they just beat their brains out and drive the talent harder they can pull it out. That's close to impossible to deliver on. If you used the September Call-Up Strategy, you'd integrate the young, less-experienced, less-expensive talent into the project. Let them participate in the de-briefings, the routine, quotidian experiences. And let them get mentored and see what happens when projects went wrong (and why). It's a very very cheap (and easy) way to build up institutional memory.

The other side (unusually successful projects) is also a good way to start to integrate young potential talent, and for a parallel reason -- to try to better understand why things went right. Many projects go right when the project management staff can't exactly put their finger on "why" this particular project succeeded and not others. Frankly, there is an element of luck in successful projects. But that doesn't undermine the value of prepping your less-experienced staff with lessons in the trenches.

I'm not saying you should pimp your failing projects -- you always want to do the best you can given the circumstances -- what I'm telling you is sometimes the small loss of quality on an already-failed project is tiny compared to the repeated benefits the minor-league talent gets out of the experiences and that you get out of building up institutional memory on the cheap.

TIP: Take a lesson from baseball and consider using late-cycle projects with determined outcomes (bad and good) as September Call-Up opportunities for less-experienced staffers. Your risk will just about never be lower, and the chances for high returns will just about never be higher.

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