Thursday, October 09, 2003

Part III -- 3 Knowns of Innovation:
The Reds' Five-Way Chili Heartburn Special  

Innovation is a process that turns surprises into (generally) unknowable trends.

For the last couple of days, I've discussed the recent Cincy Enquirer story about the Reds' future direction as a response to recently-publicized innovations, and about the three "knowns" of innovation. Today, I'm continuing on the second "known".

Knowable #2: Halfway Innovation Is More Likely to Half-Drown You Than Half Rescue You or
There Are Few Giraffes With 4-Foot Necks.

When a general manager with a strong team-building ideology takes over an organization, it's rare that the team reflects his views very quickly. The Major League club has a roster that usually doesn't reflect the new guy's point of view (because it's unlikely a team would fire a G.M. to pave the way for a soulmate). Even the farm system is stocked with the previous regime's design. Yes, G.M.s do retire and teams will sometimes hire a deputy or ally of the incumbent, but more often than not, the new guy was brought in to invent something different.

The Reds, if you can believe the Enquirer story I linked to above, are planning to draw their new theory from what the A's have done and what the Twins have done, two pretty different strategies both designed to address being competitive with a small budget.

The A's are using a modern sabermetric analysis to identify components of the game that are (a) successful at producing runs on offense or limiting runs on defense, and (b) undervalued in the marketplace of baseball scouting, so they can (c) reap a concentrated harvest of players who don't cost much but reflect the successful aptitude pattern. The A's end up drafting a lot of players other teams' scouts think are funny-looking and more frequently, un-athletic compared to other teams' averages.

The Twins appear to me to operate by drafting athleticism (rewarded in their pinball-machine of a home park), building up the asset value of players by putting them in the majors early, and then trading excess talent for inexpensive resources of others that improve on areas of weakness.

Both theories seem to be working for now (Oakland has made the playoffs four years in a row, Minnesota two in a row). But they're different theories.

Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger, Kills You

The basic theory behind progressive evolution argues giraffes were once horses, but there was a competitive advantage among a breeding population for longer necks so the horse-like organism could eat off higher sources of food, such as tree branches. Over time, the environment rewarded longer and longer necks until voilá, horse-like creatures evolved into giraffes with 12-foot necks. But if that logic were true (this is argued in a book called Neck of the Giraffe), the fossil record would contain the intermediates...horseaffes or something in-between, say, a horse-like pre-giraffe with a four-foot neck. But the fossil record doesn't. Intermediates have no advantage since horses would have a relative advantage eating off the ground (giraffes rarely do this, but it's really fun to watch them when they do...scary, like a giant folding card-table collapsing in slow motion) but they wouldn't be tall enough to reap the fruit of higher branches.

Intermediates suffer in evolutionary competition, in baseball, and in non-baseball organizations. Trying to do both what the Twins do and what the A's do is a blend of two successful systems...that probably won't work. Yes, you can draft for athleticism. Yes, you can draft for the on-base and isolated power potential the As look for. But prospects with both are valued, and more likely to be signed by teams with bigger resources -- they're just not many undervalued prospects with all of those aptitudes simultaneously.

This is less synthesis than it is syncretism, or to make a different analogy, less a solution than an emulsion. The two are not brought together to make a system, but more a Christmas stocking stuffed with goodies.

If the new Reds front-office team is really smart and systemic, they might selectively draw individual traits from the Twins and the A's that fit together (say, the A's identification systems with the Twins' coaching methods), but it would be hard, because over time systems shape their components to complement or match their other components.

This is why so many behemoth enterprise software systems that looked so cute in the box caused such meltdowns when deployed. The ERP software vendor had a whole systemic way to run every aspect of the purchaser's business. The purchaser already had a way to run their enterprise. The software won't work in a pure version of the purchaser's model. The purchaser either had to convert all their business models and social mores to match the software-makers ideal (virtually impossible, because the enterprise would spend virtually all its energy just converting every shard and shred of its behavior to a different context...almost no examples of success with this...the closest being what the Taliban tried to do in Afghanistan). So the end result is syncretism..cobbling together some behaviors, methods and mores from the software's model and some from the purchaser's old model, with the most likely survivors from the purchaser's model being not necessarily the most appropriate but the best-defended political bailiwicks.

Other innovations don't face quite such bloody choices, but if you think about innovations you might have tried or seen tried in just one department, you know the gravitational field pulls that way.

Innovation works best when there's a clear vision that managers get to pursue long enough and in a pure enough way until it works. Cobbling together little Lego pieces of others' success is, more often than not, breeding giraffes with four-foot necks.

I'm hopeful for the Reds and my two dear friends Dave Perkins and Michael Dineen who have both been suffering the Skyline Chili Five-Way heartburn special over their favorite team for too long. But I'm skeptical. Successful synthesis is hard.

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