Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Giants' Problem-Solving Technique:
Neither The Alamo, Nor Alan Greenspan  

Brian Sabean, he of the November 13th entry on his 2003 Baseball Executive of the Year award, this week executed the only trade at an annual teams' meeting. The press made a lot out of the fact that it was the only trade, but ignored (that's a euphemism for "had no frelling idea about") how it affected every other action Sabean has to make this offseason (and he has to make many).

I'll use Sabean's action to explain a problem-solving technique that can be very valuable, especially to managers beleaguered with tons of interrelated decisions and finite resources. If you know a manager who isn't very good in this area (A Tom Foley: one who freezes up and lets most things just take their own organic course; the binary opposite, An Alamo Defender: one who believes all target problems are equal and frantically tries to attack all things simultaneously because it's easier than evaluation, An Alan Greenspan: no matter how complex or multivariate the problem is, always attack it with one tool/one solution, even when that tool/solution hasn't worked in over a decade), I'm going to share with you a technique you use to help him or her and I'll use Sabean's trade as a boffo example thereof.

For the moment, let's call this the Sabean Tool: Focus your energy on high-variance areas. Use lowest-variance areas as anchors (that is, either resolve them quickly if you can, or leave them for later if they're not easy right now because they probably won't get much worse because they're low variance). If you look at your host of challenges to solve with this filter, you simplify the problem, creating a set of priorities to evaluate.

Managerial problem-solving technique itself has always been an area of high variance between various individuals. As a consultant, the areas of highest variance and the areas of very lowest variance are things to observe and use.

You start with high variance, because it's easier to make significant progress by improving a currently-15th percentile skill than someone with a currently-50th percentile skill. This is The Preston Principle, named after former Seattle School Board member and National School Boards Association officeholder Michael Preston. He realized that if you wanted to really improve a pattern of success, you worked on getting the lowest-performers to average first,, because it most rapidly changes the composite performance of the whole, and moreover, has beneficial "soft" side-effects on morale, because these changes are highly observable and give the team a clear sense of progress.

Managers' problem-solving skills are hard to fix in most cases (it's just about impossible for the big cookie-cutter consulting houses, because they always come to the table with a fat three-ring binder that has up to two possible solutions, Model T and Model A, if you know what I mean and I think you do). The challenge is most managers don't think systemically and then they get overwhelmed with many simultaneous problems.

According to Baseball Prospectus' PTP for November 13:

Since the target 2004 payroll is $75 million, that leaves the Sabean only around $7 million to fill the holes at first base, shortstop, right field, catcher, and the starting rotation.

A perfect Alamo or Tom Foley situation. Sabean's got low resources, at at least five significant holes to fill, each different. Let's take a simplified look at each position/decision-making challenge.

First base: Tons of guys who can hit because every good hitter who's cruddy in the field is pulled gravitationally there where it's conventional wisdom to believe their bad fielding is somewhat less exposed..

Shortstop: Many guys who can field but not hit, a few who can do both.

Right field: A hitting position, interchangeable with left field in many instances, although specifically here the Giants with their "big" challenging outfield really need someone with some range and an arm.

Catcher: The most diverse-skill position (Game calling, chronic negotiation with umpires who rotate out every day, chronic negotiations with a pitching staff, crisis management, head-on collision fu, arm strength, much more). To find a guy with enough brains to play this position winnows the field greatly by about AAA. So if you can find a guy who passes that test and he can either field adequately or hit adequately, he can play, and if you can find a guy who does one adequately and the other decently, it's not exciting, but you can put him in your roster.

Starting rotation: A fertile area with tons of choices (your own farm system, guys who are currently relievers not in key spots, the many free agents and other easily-available arms in a big pool) that conventional wisdom believes is hard to judge as accurately as other positions.

Okay, the set is staged, the stage is set. In my next entry, I'll dissect what Sabean did as an example of this problem-solving technique.

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