Monday, December 29, 2003

Management by (Taking) Exception:
An Actually-Smart Tom Lasorda Trick  

It's easy to think of Los Angeles Dodger ex-manager Tommy Lasorda as sort of a buffoon, with his tacky weight-loss product endorsements, his radically-wacky vocal stance on U.S. relations with Cuba, his unsubtle politicking inside Dodger front-office moves.

I'll argue he was a quite acceptable field manager during most of his tenure (1976-96) and that his reputation is below his performance because of his off-field tackiness. There's one quick management lesson: You almost always pay a performance price for prejudice/bigotry in a competitive environment. If an organization refuses to hire/promote more-qualified women or ethnically-different people, or even just tacky guys like Lasorda because they eat with their mouth open, or wear checked shirts with striped ties and a double-knit-polyester suit, or they are loud, they are restricting their options, and will (probabalistically) be doomed to lower quality. Prejudice comes in many flavors, and almost all of them exact a toll; it's like a hole in your swing, a pitch you won't swing at that will be called a strike when you let it go, not insurmountable, but something your competitors can take advantage of.

But back to the main Lasorda lesson: Management By Taking Exception.

A lot of management lessons are positive, that is, do this. But there are easy and many times quick advantages in just not doing what you have observed actions a predecessor or other manager you have worked for has done.

Management By Taking Exception can be valuable in giving individuals a chance to do things your predecessor wouldn’t. Sometimes, though, you can MBTE work to the group’s advantage by changing the clubhouse atmosphere. Tom Lasorda, the bubbly, irrepressible manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from the end of 1976 through 1996 used MBTE to create his management persona.

The manager Lasorda played for in the minors who had the deepest impression on him was Clay Bryant. According to Leonard Koppett, Bryant was “a tyrant who used the fear weapon to the utmost, without trying to teach or encourage anyone. He would be a model for Lasorda’s idea of how to manage: NOT THAT WAY"

It's easy to do. Here's a tool I encourage my new-manager clients to use.

Lasorda On A Stick in Six Steps

1. Make a list of every boss you ever had long enough to understand at least a little.

2. For each, write every weakness they had that was important and affected the work.

3. Now consolidate the weaknesses together in one master list of shortcomings, blind spots, omissions (some of the things on here could be opposites – a manager who was “too harsh” and another who was “too nice” or one who was “too impulsive” and another who was “too passive”).

4. Walk through the master list and for each attitude or conduct shortcoming, think about what it would be like to not be that way, and what it would be like to be the opposite. The opposite is, of course, the easiest way to be different, but before you latch onto that as a course of action, think about the opposite. Could it be an equally flawed approach? For each decision-pattern shortcoming come up with a couple of alternatives. For example, alternatives to impulsive decision-making might be "always require a group discussion for observations and potential improvements to the approach" meeting, or requiring yourself to do at least an hour of focused research and exploration.

5. Put a check-mark next to the ones that had the highest impact, and an 'X' next to the ones that are likely to come up in your work. Transcribe those ones with Xes and checks onto a list you can keep handy.

6. Pick a handful of things you think will be most appropriate in this group’s environment now. Start implementing. If you have some success, pick a few more and implement them, too.

MBTE is a cool trick because it doesn't require a lot of creativity. It's also super because you can start on it even if you're not a manager. Paul Richards, the White Sox and Orioles manager I've discussed before, kept index cards for years before he ever got a management position, and he kept a stack of them for things he wouldn't do if he ever got a position of power. It was like an encyclopedia of things to avoid, of conduct or decision-patterns to reverse.

One can take this approach too far, but it's a great jump-start in new management work when you find out what your predecessor failed at or didn't do well, and just do those things correctly.

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