Friday, November 28, 2003
As the momentum for sabermetric and other field-fact-based analyses is becoming more widespread in the front offices of major league teams and publicized through work like Michael Lewis' Moneyball, the movement is gathering enough power to attract what I call an "immune response" from the dominant status quo types. This happens just as frequently outside of baseball, but isn't always as clear when it's happening because an observer can confuse the root cause of it for many other things that are going on at the same time.
The front offices that have adopted a more scientific approach to manage personnel decisions and in-game strategies know you can't make an innovation operative with just intentions or saying "Make it so!". That's as true in baseball as it is anywhere. They have to get buy-in from the field manager or, as apparently happened in Oakland last off-season, they have to move him out. And it seems (I'm not totally confident of this assertion, but it looks to be true), that the number of sabermetrically-sensitive field managers is lower than the number of franchises that are moving in that direction and are looking for one. So what is becomes likely to happen in those situations is the front office hires a guy who is not dealing from a position of negotiating strength (a proven, recent winner) but more likely those who don't (never managed in the majors, managed in the majors without apparent success).
Having hired such a person, the front office doesn't want the manager to have much range of choice beyond the objectives the front office is aiming at. But the new field manager, if he has a cadre of loyal coaches, might have the gumption to resist. A lot of the success in change management is getting people with positions of influence to either buy into the change, or at least see it as inevitable (so they end up working to make it as positive as possible, in contrast to opposing it). If you have a cadre of loyal deputies, you are less likely to feel the change is inevitable.
So the new, creeping trend is for front-offices to choose most coaches, stealing that deicsion away from the manager. And that in turn creates antibodies -- a counter-reformation from the status-quo.
One fine symptom of this is Ken Rosenthal's piece last month in The Sporting News, a plea for the Bitgod (back in the good old days) approach to coach recruitment -- when managers got all the open slots with one exception. There are good reasons for the old approach, especially in more treacherous organizations (see Constructive Cronyism, 11/24 entry). But Rosenthal is arguing against the very point that's the good reason for it -- that the scientific front-offices will then effect more change if this is allowed to happen. It's an argument akin to the telemarketers arguing agasint the "do not call" list by saying that if they couldn't call people who didn't want to be called, the economy would tank because people whouldn't be buying as much stuff they didn't want from people they didn't want to buy from.
Rosenthal here is being the conduit for the opinion of many of the key contacts he counts on for his reporting. Disingenuous, but understandable.
Beyond baseball, though, this tendency to lock newly-hired managers into a tight set of decision constraints is usually caused by pure politics, and not change management/innovation management practice.
Have you ever noticed how often it happens that staff are hired around the time HR is interviewing for a new manager in that hire's department? Or how often the new manager gets to come in right after the budget is finalised? Or worse, just as the budget process is in motion? The last seems less egregious, but is truly more sinister. Not only is the new manager seen as raw (people are likely to discount her thoughts), she's being asked to make decisions she doesn't really have the background for. She's liable (she can't say "this budget was wrapped up before I got here"), subject to predation (the manager in the adjacent department who wants to get rid of a tar-baby project and rationalizes it into the new manager's group), and loses the magic first three weeks of a new managerial position, the most high-impact chance she'll have during her whole time in the position, to a mildly-relevant process she shouldn't be involved with.
These kinds of decisions and constraints around them are the stuff of the games of "Risk" or Diplomacy" many people played in high school or college. It's going to continue, at least for a few years, to be an obvious trigger point in the reformation of baseball management, and the counter-reformation movement of the Bitgods. You can watch it unfold, follow it in the papers, which is more than you can do in most of your own organizations. But it's happening there, too.
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