Friday, October 10, 2003

Part IV (and last)- 3 Knowns of Innovation:
Fighting for Control of Foul Territory  

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

This is the final part of my discussion of the recent Cincy Enquirer story about the Reds' future direction as a response to recently-publicized innovations, and the Three Knowns of Innovation. Today, I'm finishing up with the third "known".

Knowable #3: Attempts to Innovate in a Large Organization Almost Inevitably Triggers the Most Intense Politicking.

The Enquirer writers start their interesting story like this:

When Reds chief operating officer John Allen said this week that one of the main criteria for hiring the next Reds general manager would be to find the person who can find "baseball players," he was speaking in code.

And the "code" can be broken by anybody who has read the best-selling book Moneyball about the Oakland A's methodology for winning games with a comparatively small payroll. Allen is looking for a general manager capable of applying the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins models of being able to do more (i.e. win) with less (i.e. a bottom-quartile payroll).

Both teams have moderate payrolls, in line with the Reds' 2003 payroll when the season started. And both have been successful, though using slightly different strategies. The question: What can the Reds take from those organizations and apply in Cincinnati?

Allen didn't return a call for the portion of this story about Oakland, but conversations between the Enquirer and Reds insiders Johnny Almaraz and Brad Kullman indicate the Reds already had begun guiding themselves toward being a leaner, smarter organization before general manager Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired in July.

When the writers of a daily newspaper article start a story with the key actor (in this case, Allen) but soon tell you he didn't talk to them for this story, they're speaking in code. Anyone who's worked for a newspaper for a while can break this code for you. Either Allen used the writers to float a case to try and convince his superiors (building enthusiasm from season-ticket buyers and other influencers, all while maintaining deniability), or the real informants (in this case, Almaraz and Kullman, who did speak to the writers on the record) are floating their case to the same audience in an attempt to point Allen in the right direction because they haven't been able yet to persuade him through the traditional internal means.

The Reds are one of the noteworthy disappointments of the National League. They opened their new ballpark but got no apparent kick out of it...they are still struggling as a medium-bad team. They've blended a lot of young talent with a couple of veterans and a former superstar and basically have drifted sideways for several years. Personally, I think their biggest cause of failure isn't something that was their "fault". Their former superstar, Ken Griffey Junior, has deliquesced since they traded for him. He was always a more-fragile than average player, but since he's come to the Queen City, he's put up fewer games every year (from 145, to 111, to 70, to 53 this season). As Junior tries harder to make up for lost time, he's pushing his body harder than it can take and breaking it again and again. When he plays, he's pretty good (no longer superstar calibre). When he goes down, a big hunk of their payroll is sitting on the disabled list, and that's often.

It looks like people in the Redlegs' organization are looking for a system to get them out of their difficulties and are campaigning in the Enquirer to overcome internal resistance. Pitching to influencers is a typical, and frequently successful, part of a political campaign for or against an innovation. It's particularly fertile right now because the Reds fired both their manager and general manager in July and are likely to replace both interim solutions in place now. Whatever theory wins the day is likely to get a good set of roots down, so the stakes are high, both for the innovators and the defenders of more traditional methods.

Attempts to Innovate Trigger Defense of the Status Quo

Whether in or out of baseball, any attempts to seriously rework existing systems trigger an immune response from three sets of steak-holders...(a) those who benefit from the status quo, and (b) those who fear change, and (c) those who don't understand the proposed innovation value their personal comfort with the status quo more than the health of the organization suffering from the status quo's ineffectiveness. The more success a big organization has, the higher the resistance, but even organizations that are imploding and know it can have a very difficult time getting everyone in line. In very competitive organizations, there are some players who would rather have the whole place go down in flames than allow a rival to succeed, although that's not the norm.

The big-organization politics around innovation will exceed the total of the all the following combined: the dire nature of the current situation + the virtue or weakness of the proposed innovation + the demand from customers and suppliers for the innovation or its products.

The Reds, ultimately, will be making changes in the way they do business. Their ballpark didn't prove the windfall ownership believed it would be, and their main owner is a competitive person who wants results. The Junior situation is ugly enough that it's likely the organization will do something to change the situation. They do have a large cadre of promising young talent.

The question is, can counter-innovation forces hold off change for a season or three more? As interesting as it will be to see what particular system the Reds try to adopt, the public war for the hearts and minds of the influencers will be as interesting to those who like to study the sociology of organizational innovation. If you are interested and don't currently make a habit of reading the Cincy sports pages, it could be a real feast as it unfolds for the next few weeks or even months like a game of Risk or Diplomacy. Would it be any different in your organization?

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