Saturday, December 27, 2003

The 70's Braves Curse, or Why
Team Owners Shouldn't Design Trades  

"We don't know who discovered water,
but we can be confident it wasn't a fish" -- Fr. John Culkin

A couple of National League teams were afflicted back in the 1970s and 1980s with a destructive trend that has not appeared as strongly since: team owners who, having been very successful in other endeavours, decide they can micro-manage team decisions without first gaining sufficient background to do it well.

Ted Turner's early experiences as owner of the Atlanta Braves made him behave as though he was nuts. One of the most successful business-folk of the 20th century, he was used to making things happen. And very quickly. Turning around the team was something he cared passionately about, but his impatience led him deeper and deeper into making decisions himself, decisions about personnel and even on-field in-game choices. He finally appointed himself manager (though the commissioner's office nuked that idea pretty quickly). His increasing frustration about the team's lack of what he considered visible progress made him say and do things that, insufficiently informed with craft knowledge, led him to make really bone-headed moves that outweighed the benefit of the decent and good ones he made.


"Baseball men" (gender-specific back then) would have told you Turner would fail, because he wasn't one of them. That's not really why he failed. An outsider with a strong background in a parallel discipline can even be at an advantage, questioning assumptions both tacit and explicit that may have been true in the environment in which they were made and cast in concrete. Even as imposing and seemingly permanent set of decision-making rules as the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments need a little tuning to meaningfully adapt to the current environment: In most North American neighborhoods, coveting a neighbor's ox or man-servants probably would be more appropriate as a neighbor's professional licenses or cable TV service.

So Turner was within his rights to second-guess his baseball men and make decisions on his own. But. But not without sufficient knowledge. He needed to acquire more baseball domain-specific knowledge, and if he was going to throw away "the Ten Commandments" of what his baseball men were operating under, he needed to first experiment in small ways and find the elements of the process that needed to be kept, at least while he formulated something new.

To a breaktakingly alarming degree, contemporary executives, when they're not too afraid to innovate, tend to take the binary opposite extreme and fall right into the Bad 1970's Ted Turner Zone.


My insightful peers at The Vision Thing blog (I referred to them in the last entry and Effern has contacted me and given me the go-ahead to point to them) point out the primary reason contemporary executives fall into the Bad 1970's Ted Turner Zone. It's the same reason Turner did: lack of sufficient domain knowledge to be qualified to make the decisions. As the Vision Thing's Effern said in a message yesterday:

I have noted that the further up the hierarchy one goes in, say, presenting
a business case for something, the less words you get to use.

It dawned on me one day that our Senior Director wants everything pretty
much boiled down to one word. "Good", "Bad", "Profitable", "Loss Leader", etc.

Once, someone on a project call told me that she had to condense a 50-page
report on a prospective product offering into one page of salient bullet points.
For the executives. Not that condensing huge documents is all bad,
heck, we do it all the time.

But it was made clear to me that there was a lot of "meat" in those 50 pages,
and trimming it down to one page, double-spaced, as bullet points
was not exactly optimal.

There are two reasons this oversimplification happens, one is good and the other, more frequent one is a negative. The good reason is that the higher up one is thrust in a big organization, the less total time one has to spend mastering any one thing. Executives are always going to know less about the details of a workgroup than the line managers of the workgroup. A good executive would study enough to get the detail she needed and ask line managers what additional details might be worth knowing in making a decision. That would be acquiring enough mastery to do an acceptable job.

Too often though, executive work has an element of domain-laziness, a belief that "leadership" can replace knowledge. That's a bad reason and it's pretty widespread in big American decisions. Which is why they want bullet points and the dreaded slide decks.

There are a tiny minority of exceptions, execs who are so accomplished in a domain at a high level, they can read the tea leaves (the handful of bullet points) and know almost everything they need to know.


My first white-collar job out of college was as an aide to U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was one of that tiny minority of executives who had both domain knowledge and an excellent aptitude for pattern recognition. To snare a tiny morsel of his time, you needed to schedule a week in advance. You'd put together a legislative idea or a backgrounder for him, and you'd schedule 15 minutes and get about six, at the most. You had about 30 seconds to tell him the idea and if you didn't come to a conclusion quickly enough, he'd stop you. Nelson would ask questions, always very tough ones, and if you didn't have the answers, you'd have to go away for a month and do the research (some of which was impossible to do). His great executive survival skill was to deflect you, to deflect having to do the legislative work. Amazingly, he was considered by his peers an activist, because relative to the rest of them, he really was. Earth Day, Wild & Scenic Rivers, a curtailment of wiretaps without warrants, governmental energy conservation work were among the dozens of accomplishments he led on. But to prevent burn-out, he had perfected this deflection skill. But Senator Nelson was a very rare exception who knew what he needed to know to ask a tough question.

Occasionally, you'll hear about a baseball team owner who's meddling in personnel or decisions he's not qualified to make. Usually it's a guy who has had great apparent success in another domain (Like Cincinnati's Carl Lindner) and who feels like it's his right, his droit de seigneur.

If he doesn't have sufficient domain knowledge (and he usually won't), like all these American big organization executives drowning in their own mediocre and bad decisions they made armed only with a handful of bullet points, he's like to underperform or even fail.

It's potentially high-yield for a relative outsider to propose or experiment with a new pattern borrowed from a different endeavor. But start small and start with a lot more knowledge than you can fit on one set of bullet-points.

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