Tuesday, December 30, 2003

George Stallings' Epiphany:
Team-Strengthening through Platooning  

This entry is a re-issue from back in late August I'm running because of a strong, parallel theme in much of the e-mail I've been getting from new readers. The notes are asking about baseball lessons for the people management side (Second Base in the MBB Model), but specifically not the "soft" side of people management (morale, conflict resolution, etc.). The requests were for "harder" techniques, more like getting more productivity out of the people one still has, or being able to cover all the required work after a recent or upcoming layoff (December and January 'tis the season, afterall). To those of you who wrote, if this isn't quite the kind of method you were looking for, let me know, but be explicit.

Something dull and undermining happens to organizations when they get big enough to use job descriptions....they frequently use them by misusing them.

When managers build a department or project team, too often they pull people off piles as though it was simply a big construction project: "I need 17 carpenters, two finishers and a roach coach driver". That presumes every person is roughly identical, a commodity, and therefore interchangeable.

Non-baseball managers could get much higher performance out of their groups and project teams if they followed the lead Baseball has supplied. Consider job descriptions, but monitor all the individuals you manage to measure their strengths and weaknesses. Whenever you apply a person to a job, consider what they don't do excellently that they could use help with.

Finding someone to complement a team member is something managers outside of baseball should do more often than not. It’s not done normally, but it’s an easy innovation that requires only applying the knowledge of the team’s individuals, and keeping in mind which tasks are the most critical (so you can pull someone briefly from a less important task to temporarily partner her with the team member on a more critical task who needs a complement). Seem complicated? Consider how (and why) they do it in baseball, and how it started.

That finding a complementary partner in baseball is most frequently “platooning”: pairing two players who bat from different sides of the plate at a position. The first noteworthy success with this approach was made by manager Gentleman George Stallings of the 1914 Boston Braves, one of the things that led them to their name “The Miracle Braves”.

Stallings signed on to manage the Braves for the 1913 campaign. They were 69-82, and finished in 5th place. His best hitting outfielder, the aging and talkative Silent John Titus, retired at the end of the season, undermining an already below-average offense. Going nowhere fast, and without resources to simply acquire stars, it was the perfect environment to experiment. Stallings must have been carrying the mass-platooning idea in his breast pocket for a long time, but in 1914 he decided to platoon at each of his three outfield positions, according to Bill James. Most games, this meant resting a man against the pitcher who threw from his side (for example, resting a lefty hitter against a lefty pitcher, on the average avoiding a tougher match-up for his batter). It appears a couple of the early platoon partners (one, a 36 year old retread brought in apparently just for the experiment) didn’t work out well, but instead of giving up on the experiment, the team traded for a couple more potential platoon outfielders.

The 1914 Braves finished in 1st (94-59) as a result of several things, including improved offensive contribution from their outfield. They then tore through the dominant franchise of the time, the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series, taking four straight games.

According to James, the eccentric experiment combined with the out-of-the-blue (actually out of the blue and red, the Braves’ colors that year) miracle season almost revolutionized roster construction for the next 25 years – every manager had platooning with successful end results shoved in his face. Basically, James said, it became a given that teams platoon at one or more positions.

Eventually, there was push-back from two factors, one that would affect your ability to do this in non-baseball organizations, and the other, I believe, won’t.

First, there was the natural law of supply. Stallings had no competition for marginal players with one or two very positive aptitudes; competitors were looking for all-around talent. So Gentleman George was free to browse at his leisure through he remainder pile, looking for players who had specific skills that complemented the skills the players already on his roster had. But once others noted the utility of platooning, it was more like Filene’s basement — a lot of stock, most of it useless, but a surprising number of valuable things and a horde of aggressive people competing to get them. That’s a natural law of evolution, and there’s a discussion in depth on this topic in Chapter 14.

That’s not going to be a problem for non-baseball organizations.

Second, and this will be a problem, is resentment and personal insecurities. Platooned players want to play all the time. Early on when you do this, your staff, especially the ones getting help, will want to go it alone. They won’t want to be looked-upon as flawed or weak, and most won’t want to admit they need help at anything. Most organizations punish people for not being Barry Bonds, so you’ll have to overcome this with some politically-sensitive pilot projects and make a big fuss when they’re over to show publicly you respect the efforts of both the helper and the helped. One more thing; plan things whenever possible so the helped person is the helper next time — it eases ego problems and helps everyone on the team recognize that everyone is a contributor.

And when you platoon, keep in mind Earl Weaver’s approach. You don’t remove all challenges from a person, try to denude them of anything they haven’t had experience with or failed with once. You expose them to things they might learn to do well. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy’s use of star catcher Bill Dickey is a good example. Dickey hit left-handed, and like most lefties, hit right-handed pitchers better than left-handed ones. Bill James looked into the scoresheets and found Dickey started 82% of the games where the opponent’s starter was right-handed, but only 42% when the starter was left-handed. Dickey still got to see lefties, but his team (and his own stats) benefited from sitting out against many lefties.

Applying the complementary talents of your team players is a powerful competitive advantage. Baseball is quicker than most organizations to grab tricks like this, but if you choose to learn from Gentleman George, Earl Weaver or Joe McCarthy, you’ll have an edge because your competitors won’t have the good sense (or, let''s face it, the guts) to follow you.

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.

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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Earl Weaver & Stochastic Evolution:
Using Metrics Wisely  

Last week I was writing entries about oversimplifying metrics, the seduction in organizations that don't have a natural appreciation of numbers being lured too heavily to a single metric (a TOGN) that can overimplify reality enough to distort it.

I was not as clear as I needed to be. Some readers of mine who have a lovely internal corporate or government blog that I think they're keeping sub-rosa wrote about those posts. Their expressions made me realize I needed to clarify what I was getting at. What's below looks like a quote, but I'm paraphrasing their exact words to protect their identity (aloha-there...write me and tell me it's okay to put a pointer to you and I'll use your exact words and link to you).

I see the dangers of One Big Number thinking, but I see that to the same degree there are dangers in us not using productivity metrics. It's mandatory for the manager tracking performance to take into consideration the pattern the data paints, both for entire teams and for individual employees. My data, for example, indicated conclusively I wasn't delegating enough. I was operating with the impression I was succeeding at that. And then I saw the metric. Doh.

I think I gave the impression I was opposed to metrics or expected them to be highly elaborate. Let me try to be clear about management metrics and my experience with them.

A TOGN (The One Great Number) that attempts to boil down a baseball player or an employee into a single, apparently one-dimensional (though perhaps highly-inclusive) stat is a noble effort. But it has a couple of severe shortcomings, even if the observer can escape the seduction of simplifying one life into a single column of numbers doesn't shut off the mind to more nuanced realities.


For one thing, a TOGN is foreordained to bleed out the shading, depth and context of individual performance. The recent Oakland A's, for example, pursued a TOGN strategy with pretty good results, but they ended up with a team that, while it pretty much accomplished what the TOGN was designed to do, was so limited in subtle respects such as fielding and fundamental baserunning that they found themselves losing some games they felt they couldn't afford to. They didn't dump the pursuit of players who fit their TOGN, they just started pursuing variations on the theme, knitting in some other skills at the cost of some incremental excellence as measured by their TOGN.

And for another thing, any TOGN, even researched to an extreme degree, is designed for a specific environment in which it was formulated. Evolution is inevitable, and it moves "the optimum" stochastically, that is, unpredicatably and an unpredictable rate in an unpredictable direction, though usually not re-making every factor totally, overnight. An acute observer using performance measurement systems built on several numbers is more likely to catch the trend early than one glued to a TOGN hyperoptimized to the "now" it was designed for.


That was a key part of the uncommon brilliance of Earl Weaver, manager in a couple of stints for the Baltimore Orioles. He was the original quoteable guy who pushed the theory of a single and walk and a 3-run homer, a big-inning offensive theory which provided great results because a) it worked and b) other teams were still futzing around with little-ball. But baseball evolved during Weaver's career, with ownership changing the rules and the ball in ways that changed the benefit/cost ratio of various strategies. Weaver was able to tune his biases and metrics to be in harmony with the reality of what was going on in his work environment on the field. [One of the most remarkable accomplishments of Weaver's transcendance as a manager, something so few beyond baseball every achieve, is that the lessons of his first years of managing were turned around radically right afterwards, and yet he adapted cleanly enough to lead his team to 109 wins the next year in a radically different environment. His first year was 1968, with rules changes that amplified pitching and devastated hitting -- league batting was .230/.295/.340 and league ERA was 2.98. In 1969 changes induced walks up 44%, and the lessons that made you effective the year before just weren't applicable. It's nearly universal that outside of baseball, managers who learn an early lesson are lashed to it, for better and worse, like Ahab to the whale, like stock-brokers who came into the market in the middle 90s, like French cavalrymen who learned tactics fighting in third-world colonies and then had to fight in Europe in W.W. I, like American strategists who developed their skills in W.W. II and then faced third-world guerillas in Vietnam. Not Weaver. Weaver never stopped using metrics, observing his team members, observing the larger environment. And he never complained about change; he simply used it as an advantage by seeing it more quickly and adapting to it more quickly].

Bill James, the best known of the sabermetricians, both craves a TOGN measure and fully understands the nature of time/change being the enemy of a TOGN to deliver "truth". One of his early creations was a stat called Runs Created (RC), a valuable measure still widely used that took basic components of offense (hits, walks, total bases and at bats) in a formula that projected the run value of a player or team stat line. He came up with an original formula, but soon realized while it held for the year he developed it, the components' value changed over time, so he ended up developing 14 different versions of the number that tweaked the component values for various seasons.

If you have enough different numbers, you're more likely to adapt to changing conditions than if you have just one. That's because within a set of diverse measures, one is more likely to pick up the change in the environment than the others. And seeing a pattern in them that constitutes real success (not just a high score on paper) means you're more likely to be able to use regression studies to redefine a metric for success in an evolving environment.

All that said, a TOGN is better than nothing. Too many big organizations fall prey to binary thinking. I worked for a supervisor at Microsoft who believed that because you couldn't find a single number that delivered absolute 100% Truth, that no numbers told you anything of value. I'm not exaggerating. He wouldn't use project management tools because "in the end it'll never come out (exactly) the way the timelines tell you they will". Because it could never score 100, he believed it was a 0. True, he was extraordinarily cognitively underqualified to be a manager, but big organizations harbor lots of men and women who operate this way, and also tend to reward them with promotions. Give these metrics-rejectors an executive mandate to measure, though, and they'll have you measuring a thousand trivial factors every millisecond. Bang, Boom, Barf they go, from one binary extreme to another, never finding an effective, homeostatic point in the continuum from zero to infinity.


So, process-mavens, let me summarize my attempted clarification. Almost every kind of work that requires a deliverable .and. needs to be effective .and. is being managed should have some performance metrics developed to observe it. One can develop a time-specific TOGN as a centrepiece, but develop other numbers to give it texture and context and shading, but don't present the TOGN as a stand-alone number lazy-minded execs can focus on and miss the point.

A great example of a textured metric is the fairly complex display Don Malcolm uses to describe starting pitcher performances, his Qmax tables. Here's an example of one for Greg Maddux, and here's a glossary to describe its components. It's not so complex it's crippling, but it's complex enough to slow down the rush to judgement types up the hierarchy who would misuse performance data out of laziness.

If the constituents of success started evolving because of rules changes, or because ownership started draining some of the Kickapoo Joy Juice out of the ball, or a new informal standard strike zone, that is, if what a starting pitcher did to help his team achieve wins, it would be obvious from a system like Qmax that the sweet spots in the matrix were shifting subtly, that the relative advantage of any given cell or group of cells was "worth" more or less.

That's a performance measurement system that is designed with texture, and evolution, built right in.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Either Flunking Negotiation 201
Or Failing the New Guy  

"There are two times in a man's life when he should not speculate;
when he can't afford it, and when he can." -- Mark Twain

There are some drop-dead simple rules of negotiation. This is not going to be about one of those. There are some rules of negotation that anyone who has been in a position of responsibility for a few months should never mess up. This is about one of those. I don't know who is actually responsible for the little implosion here, but someone really messed up badly, and, unless there was an unusually self-destructive lie involved, it's the kind of flub that's unforgiveable because it's totally avoidable.

Last week, the New York Mets & the Seattle Mariners appeared to have a deal I call a "toxic waste swap". The Mets were going to dump their overpaid, never-was outfield disappointment, Roger Cedeño, to the Mariners for Seattle's overpaid, once-was-decent-but-no-longer third baseman disappointment, Jeff Cirillo.

Both sides made the pre-official announcement, but then it didn't go through. Apparently, Cirillo exercised his no-trade contract right to prevent his being shipped to New York. His reason: he wanted to be a starter, not a bench-player, and since both the Mariners and Mets had made clear he'd be used only as a bench player, he chose to stay where he was instead of move across the country to be in a role he didn't want to be in. Rather than uproot his family, or live separately from them, he chose to be miserable at home insead of in New York.

Logical, given the lose-lose nature of his "choices". But here's the unnerving note, quoted from today's New York Daily News piece from John Harper:

On Friday the Mets reached an agreement with the Mariners to trade Cedeño for Jeff Cirillo, but the Mariners third baseman invoked a limited no-trade clause in his contract and vetoed the deal. A source with knowledge of the deal said Bill Bavasi, the Mariners' new GM, was caught by surprise, unaware that Cirillo could nix the deal.

Perhaps it was Bavasi's fault for not knowing Cirillo's contract. I have, sadly, seen many managers outside of baseball make similar mistakes, speaking for some underling in a director's meeting only to discover the underling wouldn't go along willingly. The foundation of that mistake in the cases I've seen as a consultant is usually what I call the "General Haig Syndrome". It's an overpoweringly delusional, self-aggrandizing belief that since someone reports to you, you can make them walk happily on hot coals or into enemy machine guns just because you told them to.


I don't believe that's what happened in this Cirillo case. The language of the Daily News piece makes it look like no Mariner front-office person re-read & understood Cirillo's contract before they negotiated, because if they had, they wouldn't have been surprised. Bavasi, as the chief figure on the Mariner side will ultimately be "responsible", but someone on his staff should have told the New Guy (who wasn't in the Mariner front office when the deal was negotiated) that Cirillo had a limited no-trade right in his contract.

There are two darker possibilities, one highly unlikely, and one I've found to be somewhat common in competitive management environments.

1) Cirillo was informed of the deal and was asked if he would approve, and agreed verbally to the trade and then said "no". He might do that to anger the Mariners enough to grant him an unconditional release so he could negotiate another deal without another team needing to compensate the Ms, which would give Cirillo more latitude and choice in making a deal (since the acquiring team would have one fewer party to please and probably would have to yield less overall to make a deal).

While possible, this is actually highly unlikely. Cirillo is not a construction worker who can just move to another city and have his behavior "disappear". Baseball is a closed system, so the hypothetical other front office would find out Cirillo had lied to his management. That would add a layer of mistrust and overhead to negotiating with him. This is a cost they might go to for a great player, but not one who for five years was nicely above average, for two years was average, and for two years has been just hanging on by his fingernails and fielding skill. Also, it doesn't seem like anything else he's done or fit his other behaviors.

2) Someone or some group of people in the Seattle front office decided to humiliate the New Guy (Bavasi) by hanging him out to dry in some kind of white-collar hazing ritual involving public humiliation.

This is more common than you'd think, especially in competitive environments where the number of available job seekers is way more than the number of available positions. I consulted to an investment group where they appointed one of a staff of six to be acting group leader with the thought that he might make a good permanent, but all the former-peers actively worked to undermine him so that when he failed, each would have a better chance to replace him. The cure for the investment group was to anoint the acting leader permanent (because you can always unmake it later, but for now, it makes intentional undermining a lower-yield strategy) and link the whole group's financial compensation to the leader's success (because investment people are most often most-motivated by money; this wouldn't work as well for teachers or social workers or scientists).

I don't know if someone intentionally undermined Bavasi, if Bavasi himself messed up or if Cirillo lied. But if it's not the last possibility, someone just flunked Negotiation 201: Don't speak for an employee without enlisting her to your plan first.

Saturday, December 20, 2003

The Mariners' New Xmas Toy Syndrome:
A Classic Management Wipe-Out  

In the past, I've written about the imaginary "first 100 days" the U.S. president gets to establish his term's tone and successes, and how for real managers, that period is about three weeks. I counselled how important it is you make things happen in all the MBB bases (operations, people, self-management and change) in those precious, few moments. But some take it too far, and fall into what I call the New Christmas Toy Syndrome.

They get a new gig and immediately re-org, do layoffs, purge vendors, and change the decor, the flow of work, the brand of coffee. Sometimes (rarely) all this is necessary. Usually, it's one of two things: 1) The new manager doesn't have a systemic or clear vision but wants to establish herself as being "in charge", or 2) the new manager is merely carrying out the agenda of someone who hired him.

It looks to many observers that Bill Bavasi, the new general manager of the Seattle Mariners, is on this particular track. He's been hyperactive in the trade and signing area since he was hired six weeks ago. Not a single one of the deals seem to make sense, and the pattern clearly follows none of the old or new team development models observers recognize, including:

  • Sign a bunch of recognizeable names,
  • Use sabermetric theories
  • Build for power
  • Build for pitching and defense
  • Use succession planning to bring in two very young players per season & let the veterans break them in
  • Replace your lowest/most disappointing performers with those who have a chance to be your highest
  • anything else recognizeable.

These moves consistently change the team little, with one partial exception, address no obvious team weakness (the exception, the Ibanez signing, appears to be a measure designed to halfway address the team's complete previous lack of left-handed home-run hitting; Ibanez could be swell, but he's not a guy opposing teams will change their tactics to try to neutralize) upgrade the fade-prone team at no position, and in all cases seem to spend above-market money to achieve it.

Possible Explanations

I'm not saying there's no theory behind the Bavasi moves. There well could be an innovation we haven't recognized yet and that he's not spilling because if he did (like the Oakland As g.m. did in Moneyball) it would immediately undermine any advantage inherent in the approach. But it certainly looks like there's no method, and that it's madness. I'm determined not to judge Bavasi yet, but I am feeling queasy; the shipping of cash to the Diamondbacks to sweeten their take on the McCracken-Colbrunn deal when we were already taking the lesser player at a position we didn't need another starter and we were taking his over-twice-as-high salary. [insert Jon Stewart pulling his collar out with a forefinger while twisting his head 80 degrees to the right and making a gulping sound here].

Art Thiel of the Seattle P-I suggested near the end of his column yesterday that the unifying principle was warm-fuzzies, the possibility that it is an attempt to assemble a likeable team. This certainly would go far in explaining the proposed Carlos Guillen for Omar Vizquel trade that fell through. Vizquel was beloved when he played in Seattle years ago, and Guillen has the reckless SUV driving scar on his record as well as having contracted tuberculosis (a disease that still carries a Neo-Victorian social stigma associated with homeless alcoholics and heroines of 19th century French novels), a deal that had no other observable advantage to Bavasi's team in price or performance or future value.

The overall ethos has the appearance of the New Christmas Toy Syndrome.

Venture Capitalists & Vroom-Vroom Noises

Outside of baseball, it's fairly common, especially among new managers who either have never before had a management gig at the level of the new job, or who owe their job to an executive that has an agenda they hired the manager to carry out. Because most American managers are given little field-training the way European managers are, while they need to take advantage their first three weeks, they don't really know what to do. Like a three-year old behind the wheel of his mommy's car, he's playing with all the controls, twisting the wheel back and forth and making vroom-vroom noises. Except too frequently, the vehicle is moving down the road in traffic.

I worked for a company that fell into the clutches of venture capital types. They brought in a president who had never had much latitude in his previous executive roles. He had the skills and world view of a bookkeeper/accountant. He took over marketing because he had always wanted to. He did a round of unnecessary layoffs because the other guys at the Young Presidents Club were hot on the fad. He spun off one of the sinking-margin company's high-margin products because...he never actually could articulate why, but I suspect it was because it showed he could do that kind of deal. Vroom-vroom.

Bill Bavasi has been a g.m. before and the team he helped build went on after his tenure, the Angels, went on to win a World Series. Maybe he's just doing the bidding of the team's many owners and trying to carry out their diverse views of what should be done.

My pattern-recognition skill just can't help but hear the distant sound of a three-year old making vroom-vroom noises in the distance.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

The Average is Not the Guy
Malcolm un-Gilds the Lilly  

In the last entry, I explained about the average not being the guy and how seductive it is, especially for time-constrained managers to jump on a TOGN (that may be completely valid and useful in its way), and mis-apply it by using it as a stand-alone Truth. That is, if you fall in love with the average, you're at risk of missing key details that provide context and that may lead to to mis-appraise performance.

A baseball case in point looks to be the Toronto Blue Jays' trade of outfielder Bobby Kielty to the Oakland A's for their #4 starting pitcher, Ted Lilly. Kielty disappointed in Toronto last year, and had what many term a "sophomore slump", a performance downturn in the second year that follows a strong first year. (Some commentators like to point this out as the common case, the norm, and it happens a lot, but it's overhyped because once the pattern is placed in the mind and given a name, whenever it pops up, its more noticeable. The words "sophomore slump" then take the place of analysis; they just use that and don't have to try to understand why).

The Jays and As are both run by general managers who are adherents of sabermetric analysis (the Jays' G.M., J.P. Ricciardi worked for Billy Beane and the A's), so this is a real inside deal.

On the surface, you have Kielty coming off a year that surprised many with how ordinary it was, and Lilly coming off a year that was quite good for a #4/#5 starter, a good stretch performance, and a top-10 performance in strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. On the surface, you'd have to say the Jays got the benefit of probably-good, and the As look like they're taking a chance.

According to Dave's swell Baseball Graphs site where he presents Win Share numbers for 2003 players, Lilly is a 10 Win Shares guy and Kielty a 12 Win Shares man. If you use Win Shares (a TOGN with lots of intelligent research behind it) as a measure, the deal looks pretty balanced

Unless you read Don Malcolm.

Don, co-headman of the (formerly published in book form) Big Bad Baseball Annual, is a natural skeptic and contrarian. In analysis, that means he always tries to look at things from an angle others overlook, and his natural thinking/analysis pattern is to dispute what others believe, especially if he suspects they've just latched on to an idea without examining & questioning it seriously. His writing is as punchy as any on the web, his analysis systems and observations interesting and context-sensitive. As I've mentioned before, he's the only analyst outside of Flordia who suggested before the season the Florida Marlins (now we can say World Champion Florida Marlins) would be a very competitive team this year.

One of his latest entries (you have to be dedicated to read his blog...sometimes entries are frequent, sometimes sparse) is on the Kielty-Lilly deal, and his analysis, again, goes to a zone others haven't. It's a beautiful illustration of how the average is not the guy.

He parses 2003 data for each player between stats accumulated against "good" teams (.500+ records) and "bad" teams (below .500).

He first looks at Kielty's performance:

When we do that for 2003, we receive what is certainly a curious finding:

Opp    AB   R   H   D  T  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG
.500+ 210  40  56  15  0   8   36  45  46 .267  .396  .452
.500- 217  31  48  11  1   5   21  26  46 .221  .305  .350

In 2003, Bobby Kielty suffered most of what Brock Hanke would call his “sophomore slump” due to the fact that, for whatever reason, he couldn’t hit against pitchers on sub-.500 teams.

This is an unusual split, of course, because hitters as a whole hit worse against good teams than they do against bad ones. That trend can be seen in Kielty’s GvB splits for 2002:

Opp    AB   R   H   D  T  HR  RBI  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG
.500+  71   8  19   3  0   0    4   7  17 .268  .333  .310
.500- 218  41  65  11  3  12   42  45  49 .298  .418  .541

<snip>We focus on major league performance and introduce something missing from all other stat splits: quality of opposition.

Perhaps the risk is not so high. If you look at his record against only the better teams and suggested he would hit close to that against the poorer ones, you could believe his postential is higher than his 2003 stats. If it's common for batters to hit as well against below-average competition as they do against good competition, then it wouldn't be far-fetched for Beane to think Kielty might recover normal performance again lesser teams, which would raise his performance to something more like the .267/.396/.452 he put up against the better teams. It isn't a guarantee, but nothing is guaranteed with human performance in dynamic systems.

How about Lilly, though? Wasn't he really useful last year? Back to Malcolm:

Following the current conventional wisdom for evaluating pitchers, (Rob) Neyer focused only on Lilly’s walks, strikeouts and ERA and suggested that he will be a good #3 pitcher for the Blue Jays.

Of course, we have more tools at our disposal for analyzing starting pitcher performance, and this is as good a time as any to use ‘em on Lilly. The most interesting breakout is, again, one that shows his GvB splits:

Opp   IP    H   R HR BB SO  ERA    S    C  W  L 
.500+ 90  110  66 16 38 85 6.28  4.8  3.6  3  9 
.500- 87   68  26  8 20 61 2.38  3.0  2.6  9  1

There are some Big Bad Baseball-specific measures in here I won't explain. If you're interested, go to his site where he explains them. I find them perceptive and stimulating. But to give you the nickel tour, Lilly pitched 90 innings against teams that played .500 or better ball, and 87 against teams that didn't. He gave up almost twice as many homers per inning to the better teams, with an ERA over twice as high. His record was a scary 3-9 against good teams, 9-1 against the lesser teams.

This doesn't mean Lilly is trash; you have to beat the bad teams as well as the good. A creative manager could optimize Lilly's value in the regular season by lengthening him a day here, shorting him rest a day once in a while, so he could face a higher proportion of weak teams. Of course, once you get to the playoffs, he's not going to be very useful, since, by definition, playoff teams are almost certainly .500+ teams. And since Toronto is in the AL East with both the Yankees and Red Sox, that means they're going to see a higher-than-average proportion of good teams they really need to beat to make the playoffs.

A little more Malcolm on Lilly and the As:

In Lilly’s case, we are clearly looking at what Sandy Koufax called “the Jekyll-and-Hyde” syndrome. The term he used in his autobiography, in fact, was the “.500 pitcher.” This pitcher always seems better than he really is, because his good games are so good. In Lilly’s case, all of his really good games—and this includes all of the games he pitched last September—occurred against sub-.500 teams.

For some additional context, let’s take a look at the GvB performance records of the starters for the Oakland A’s in 2003:

Pitcher  Opp   IP    H    R  HR   BB  SO   ERA   W   L  TW  TL
Harden .500+   19   22   17   4   12  20  8.20   0   3   1   3
Hudson .500+  135  107   47   7   30  85  2.40   9   4  15   4
Lilly  .500+   90  110   66  16   38  85  6.28   3   9   6  11
Mulder .500+  118  123   46   7   30  80  3.43   9   6  10   7
Zito   .500+  114   98   60  13   47  78  4.20   7   7   8  10
Others .500+   52   82   47   9   20  38  7.31   2   7   4   8
OAK    .500+  527  542  283  56  177 386  4.37  30  36  44  43

As you can see, Tim Hudson had a fabulous record against good teams in 2003, and as a result was even more important to the A’s ability to overtake Seattle than what has already been recognized. Overall, however, the A’s starters were sub-.500 against good teams (30-36); their bullpen (14-7) is what got them over the .500 mark against them. And much of that was due to their ability to win all of Hudson’s non-decisions: the A’s were 6-0 against good teams in those games, and just 8-7 in all of the others.

Lilly was not hit quite as hard as the various pitchers used to populate the #5 slot in the rotation (John Halama, Rich Harden, et al), but he is far off the performance level of the A’s big three.

Pitchers who consistently pitch this poorly against good teams rarely develop into anything other than back-end rotation fillers. The Blue Jays found this out last year with another ex-Oakland pitcher (Cory Lidle), and they’ll almost certainly find out the same thing in 2004 with Lilly.

<snip>Lilly was so good against bad teams that it tends to color the overall perception of his performance, especially those crafted by limited (and, frankly, downright evasive) analysis such as the one provided by Neyer in his recent column.

It may not happen that Lilly folds up like a cheap card table against better teams in 2004. He has a better defense behind him in the outfield now. And predicting how a player will adapt to a new park (Toronto's generally an offense-promoting park) is an inexact art. But the deal looks more balanced than many analysts have given Beane credit for.

How can you slice and dice your team players' performance to uncover useful insights about them? Does Malcolm give you some ideas?

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Part Four of The Seductions
(& Giant Sucking Sounds) of Metrics:
The Average is Not the Territory  

In baseball, we use a lot of measures/metrics to evaluate players. One of the seductions I've writen about before is a widespread lust for The One Great Number (TOGN). TOGN ranges from Bill James' Win Shares to Baseball Prospectus' EqA to Tom Boswell's Total Average.

The seduction is the idea that performance can, for the sake of simplicity, be boiled down into a single number so that value (in creating rankings, or setting value during negotiation, or in assessing trades, or in granting awards, virtuous reasons all) is easily described. The giant sucking sound, though, is that while this method might make sense to a stockbroker in buying or selling equities, or a property developer in sorting out possible projects -- inanimate objects -- it's a very flawed approach for evaluating human performance in any job that hasn't been fully Taylorized (stripped down to the most simple, uniform, repetitive task).

I'm not criticizing any of these baseball metric methods. Their math seems to work very well in the general case. They deliver many results that quickly add a small bit of knowledge to our understanding of the overall value of a player's season or, sometimes, career. But just as the map is not the territory, the average is not the value.

Hiding the Truth

The single number can hide many more values than it illustrates, because individuals who aren't in a Taylor-ized job have many attributes. Mariner first baseman John Olerud's career hitting is .297/.400/.470. This makes him a high-on-base guy with some, but not very good power. That's his average career performance. And it's the average of his averages. If you boil him down to single number, you'd think he was pretty good.

The average ignores him as a hitter. The challenge is, at any given point in his career, he's never his career average. The average is not the guy.

The average ignores his context as an individual on a team. Last season, he hit .270/.370/.390, not terrible, but awful for a first baseman (a position at which teams usually hide guys without a lot of mobility but who can add a lot of juice to a team's offense). He brings a very effective glove to his position, and this isn't reflected in his average (which is another reason TOGN strategies hold attraction to people who like metrics).

The average ignores him as an individual with an evolving context in each moment. But if you break down his performances facing left-handed and right-handed pitchers, he's not near his averages against either. He's a completely different guy against righties than he is against lefties.

Rather than his overall average .270/.370/.390, against righties he's .280/.390/.420. Now he's so-so for a first baseman. Against lefties, he's .240/.320/.310, no so-so or even awful, but sub-big-leaguer. Barbara Bush. With a Wiffle Bat. In Elton John Sunglasses.

Makes one wonder why a professional organization with big bucks on the line and some chance of making the playoffs would roll him out there for 170+ plate appearances against left-handed pitchers and (it appears after 20 minutes looking though boxscores) never once pinch-hitting for him against a lefty. It's not like he a has a recent history of hitting left-handed pitching. His 2001-2003 consolidated numbers against lefties are .250/.350/.360, essentially sub-mediocre offense from a first baseman on a team that plans on winning its way to the playoffs. (Against right-handers during that time, he's a sweet .305/.410/.485)

The average ignores him in his specific role on his team. If Olerud was a shortstop or center fielder with a great glove and those averages, he might be a positive factor for a team. But again, it would depend on the context of his team. Even if we pretend the average embodies the person, its meaning changes radically based on context. What might be an acceptable level of performance for a re-building team that's conserving resources, would be wholly lacking for a team whose plan is to try to squeak into the playoffs.

It seems his team thinks of Olerud as his career average (not even his recent-performance consolidated average), and overlooks the facts that (1) he is a usually-solid batter against righties, and (2) consistently -- with a few exceptions -- hits like a minor-league back-up catcher against left-handers. The average seems to overwhelm the person it refers to. As a result, they misuse him and it undermines the team.

SMALL NOTE, WITH IRRITATION: The M's had one, lone guy on their roster who hit left-handed pitching and played first base, and therefore, would have held some hope as a platoon-partner so Olerud could sit against lefties instead of being regularly humiliated and dragging down the team. The M's traded that guy this week for a back-up outfielder whose salary is twice as high, and they shipped money to the other team for the privilege of acquiring this dude. So right now, there's no obvious option to help Olerud out.

Outside of baseball, this happens all the time.

Sales groups will develop metrics to evaluate sales-folk, TOGN schemes used to set commissions. Customer service phone bank sweat shops trying to ratchet up their miserable service to hanging-on-by-their-fingernails-acceptable service will devise a TOGN metric based on calls-processed (speed) and lack of complaints. Big military equipment manufacturers will create TOGN ranking systems for bonuses and layoff stacking.

And they all fail in assessing quality, because they look at averages only and they ignore context against the environment in which the performances that made up the average were played in.

Look, if a saleswoman bribes a purchasing agent at one single big company, and closes a giant deal, while failing on every other big company, her average sale number is going to be high. She's not achieving anywhere as much as her co-worker who sells one-eighth as much to each of eight different companies.

The phone service agent who rushes nine people off the phone politely, providing no actual service but not earning a complaint from anyone is going to look better than the agent who does that with seven people but actually takes the time to helps two of them that were easy to help, earning some repeat-business potential brownie points.

The weapons manufacturer will not be able to differentiate a steady performer who produces slightly above average every day from the burst-mode performer who has some great, some terrible days, and in manufacturing you need a blend of both to optimize production in varying demand profiles.

In general: The bigger the organization, the more diseconomy of scale, so the less efficient; the less efficient, the greater the impetus for simpler, stripped-down systems to try to redistribute energy away from qualitative tasks towards the evaporating bottom line, and the more power the seduction of the seemingly simple TOGN. The trend is has powerful allure to big organization execs, from CFOs at free-trade advocating multinationals to V.I. Lenin to Mussolini, all of whom are/were big advocates of Taylorism and the application of simple metrics, rigidly-enforced as a management technique.

Tip # 44: Don't be fooled. The seduction of a TOGN is understandable. And TOGN schemes have some value. But the TOGN is not the person; ignore that at your own risk.

In the next entry, I'll discuss a new example of the average-is-the-person fallacy, as exposed by one of baseball research's best de-bunkers and dialogue stimulators, Don "Il Postino del Destino" Malcolm.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

PART III: Approaches for Coping
with Sociopathic Bosses  

In the last pair of entries I discussed in general organizations run by a head-man who behaves like a sociopath, and the Yankees in particular.

It's not a very common model, although a surprising number of them move to the top of their field, and some even endure. The Yankees have a wonderful record of success, and if you're a stockholder, you probably think General Electric has a fair track record (though if you're a buyer of any of their consumer products, you almost certainly don't). Others, Like Sunbeam, fail.

But what do you do if you are in an organization run like this; how do you cope? I promised some partially-effective approaches. There's nothing in my tool kit that's assuredly successful. Here are my suggestions, in decending order of effectiveness.

1. Don't ever hire on under any circumstances. If you're up for a job in an organization you don't work for, and the job is one someone just got fired from, nose around. The head-man in a sociopathic organization will be very seductive (and his henchfolk will, too). He may have a good cop, a very empathetic co-dependent whose main purpose is to bring in fresh meat to get chewed up. The good cop will tell you the incumbent was incompetent, and they really need you to bring some class to the organization. Some additional warning signs: much higher than market scale pay; a sense of urgency; reports oozing from the head-man and his good cop about this and that incompetent who had to be let go; a level of pursuit that's almost like flirting. The good cop will always be able to convince herself that The Boss is about to turn a corner, and if not, he'll at least have a toy to toy with who isn't her. If you think there's even the vaguest chance the organization is sociopathic, insist on getting evrything promised to you in writing. To most sociopathic-acting bosses, signed contracts, like any kind of accountability, are like garlic to a vampire...not fatal but very repulsive, and you can out them with the polite request for one. The ones who are true sociopaths, btw, will go ahead and sign one anyway, not caring about the consequences, so it's not a perfect strategy.

2. Get the heck out as soon as you can do it on your own terms. It appears the Yanks G.M. Brian Cashman is doing just that. Having come up from a lowly office job to G.M. of a most successful franchise, Cashman is now in a position to shop his services elsewhere. There's not much more he can do in New York -- they've won the Series with him in the position. Steinbrenner has worn out Cashman's loyalty, if you can believe the story linked to here. He has a good reputation, although some probably believe anyone of reasonable skill could succeed given the Yankees' resources. It makes sense for Cashman to move on and see if he can prove himself with a franchise that doesn't behave as though it has unlimited funds. Sadly, once a functionally-sociopathic boss no longer has the power to fire you, he will almost invariably try to mess with you in other ways...tarnish your reputation, try to undermine other job opportunities, withhold agreed-upon exit wages or threaten to go back on other agreements. In the Yankees case, it looks like Cashman has to be released to go elsewhere because Steinbrenner has an option on him for another year after this one, and it's pretty common for the functionally-sociopathic boss to resent an employee he likes to terrorize escaping from his clutches, exposing his impotence.

3. Build a plan to overthrow the head-man and save the organization. This has been my pattern. I don't recommend it. Too much trouble and likely to fall on deaf ears. I did succeed in helping to bring down one such boss who behaved as though he was a sociopath, by making a point of contacting every one of his serial victims and getting them to write letters to the C-level guy the head-man reported to. There were other factors, but because some of the victims had been treated in a way many courts would consider sexual harassment and because this man carried a concealed weapon sometimes, there were enough cautionary indications that when the company had a thin business excuse, they let him go, though it was after I was already gone. The problem with this kind of rescue behavior is an organization that deserved it would rarely have allowed a person like this to run the lives of 100 people in the first place.

4. Don't be a "Tall Poppy", and keep your exit plan current and polished. The Australians have an expression, "Don't be a tall poppy". It means don't attract attention. In the sociopathic organization, acting fearless, refusing to respond to the head-man's routines, makes you a tall poppy. Being entertainingly fearful (in response to the head-man's initiatives), like asking for reviews or asking how you can please him more by being better or by cowering or hiding when he's in one of his (frequently staged) rages or scolds also makes you a tall poppy. The model is to act fearful, but in a moderate, boring way that doesn't attract his attention. Don't run out of the room and hide, but don't be conveniently near, either. And always have an exit plan ready, evolving week to week. Plan on not being able to have a reference from this company. Do good (not great) work; you don't want to be recognized as an achiever, because the boss who behaves like a sociopath will frequently sacrifice or simply serially humiliate an achiever to terorize other employees. This avoidance is a strategy I don't care for at all; I think it makes people lose their edge, because once most people get used to dogging it, it's harder to excel, to ratchet it back up. In the Permafrost Economy, some people have so few choices that this one becomes viable, though. It's conceivable you may outlast a functionally-sociopathic boss without doing anyhting intentional designed to shorten his tenure. This seems to have been the survival model of choice for middle-class Iraqi people from the late 1980s right up to today.

Brian Cashman probably has more options than you do, and it seems to make him both more able and more willing to take abuse from his boss. What would you do if you had his job?

Monday, December 15, 2003

PART II: Sociopathic Leadership,

In the first part I wrote about one strong indicator of sociopathic leadership in the Yankee organization: the intentionally insulting treatment of a long-time employee regarded by his peers and observers as a key component of the organization's success.

There's another clear indicator worth noting:

  • The extraordinary and public disdain for the social norms the organization is expected to follow, both internally and externally. According to the NY Times piece by Jack Curry I referred to yesterday,

The Yankees, the alone-on-an-island Yankees, did not send any of their top executives to the winter meetings. George Steinbrenner revoked General Manager Brian Cashman's ticket on Thursday and he advised Damon Oppenheimer, a vice president, to stop packing on Wednesday. Somehow, Gene Monahan and Steve Donohue, the two trainers, managed to sneak here and perhaps study the latest innovations in treating strained hamstrings.

"George doesn't want us to go there because we would give away our secrets," one club official said. "There are a lot of teams out there who don't really care about our secrets."

That is not what the increasingly obsessive Steinbrenner, the team's principal owner, thinks. According to officials from the Yankees, other teams and agents, what he thinks, feels and does is what the Yankees think, feel and do these days. More than ever, Steinbrenner, who is perturbed about three straight seasons without a World Series title, is dominating how the Yankees will take shape in what should be a hectic 2004 in the Bronx.

This is about the external norms. Teams go to the winter meetings. By refusing to have what many observers think of as the flagship franchise (highest income, highest expenditures, best record of success in its league over the last decade) participate, it sends a powerful message to all the other teams: your puny formalities don't matter to us. It's an aggressive assertion of difference, of superiority, of a lack of need to engage on any terms but one's own. Perhaps on the surface it looks somewhat narcissistic, and perhaps there are elements of that in the recipe, but more than anything else, its a snub, an intention to intimidate the rest of the league the way it intimidates staff, done as a prelude to ultimate victory, like a pitcher doing the fist pump on strike one.

Internally, if you believe the Curry story, Steinbrenner is sending the same message. All GMs go to winter meetings. Except Cashman.

As the World Series loss to the Marlins unfolded, Steinbrenner criticized Cashman for whatever went wrong on the field, according to a Yankees official.

Steinbrenner's criticism of Cashman has shifted to indifference in the off-season; Steinbrenner has made player decisions without consulting him. Cashman did not attend the winter meetings in 1999, either, and after fighting Steinbrenner for permission to go each winter, he did not fight him this year.

Like Torre, Cashman is in the final year of his contract, and speculation about being fired by Steinbrenner will surely follow both from spring training.

This approach is a variant of the Management By Terror (MBT) discussed in the previous entry, that is, keep everyone on edge so each believes they could be fired at any moment. Steinbrenner could just fire Cashman, or could just let Cashman go to the winter meetings, but a head-man who is behaving like a sociopath many times likes to toy with his minions so he can get the orgone charge from watching the other staffers cringe, the press report on it, the fans look on in amazement. The "public" part of the public spectacle in most sociopathic organizations is pretty limited beyond the staff & Board, but a high-profile sports franchise just has so many tantalizing possibilities.

One other indicator worth noting. The current GM, Brian Cashman, started in the organization at the lowest level, and was pushed up via Steinbrenner Ex Machina. The Boss isn't stupid; he's been promoting out of nothing a guy who is capable at this point. Cashman is a smart cookie by every apparent measure. But Cashman also owes everything to his mentor/tormentor, the tormentor knows it. I've never spoken to Cashman, but I strongly suspect he's basically loyal, a man of his word. I suggest that because bosses who behave like sociopaths most frequently pick on that type. It means the head-man can carry on the game farther while the underling will hang on, loyal while being tormented.

There are four strong indicators in this case (the humiliating purge of the popular contributor, the internal public displays of disrespect and the external public displays of disrespect). There are other indicators common to American organizations that feature this form of leadership beyond these.

In the next entry, I'll discuss what (limited) options you can take if you're in an organization run like this.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

PART I: Yankee Leadership,
Sociopathic Leadership  

The Yankees, as predicted by everyone who writes about or analyses the team, have shot off the starting line this off-season like a nitro-fueled funny car: bucking, fast, lots of smoke, maximum sturm und drang. This accompanies the typically controlling behavior by the head-man, behavior that looks to trained observers (and should feel to his front office staff) exactly like sociopathy. To sportswriters, it looks typical of the indicted felon, but it looks mysterious, as in this interesting NY Times piece by Jack Curry.

In big American (and Russian, too, by the way) organizations, this is a significant, though not majority, style of what's called "leadership". I rarely write about leadership, because while it can be significant in some large organizations' trajectory, it's overhyped, a small subset of the management toolkit, it's not something that can be taught or trained into someone, and generally ephemeral (that is, in a rapidly-mutating environment, a specific leadership style tends to be effective only in specific, short-lived conditions, and few effective leaders have, or are able to learn, multiple styles).

It's worth understanding. Some of you may work in organizations run on the sociopathic style. Most of the head-men in these organizations (there are some women leaders who behave this way, too, but it's more a male style in American organizational behavior) are not actually sociopaths; most are people who behave that way because they learned it as a style, frequently from a dominant family member, sometimes from an early work or school experience. A code word, politically-correct, you'll sometimes hear from the functionally-sociopathic leader is "Machiavellian," but that's merely intellectual packaging of sociopathy with a classical reference meant to justify it. The Yankees right now are a clear road map of the style, why it works, why it doesn't, and some of the indicators you can use to recognize it.

Team head-man George Steinbrenner has a powerful need to win (good for business) and a powerful need for attention (great for business). He knows the attention works well as part of a business model, keeping the team in the news during the season-ticket deposit period. These two drives help keep the team competitive, keep feeding income, the fuel for success, into the Yankee organization. After three consecutive years without a World Series trophy (NOTE: there are some other teams that have gone three consecutive years without one), Steinbrenner is priapic for publicity (now) and a trophy (late next year).

The Yankees currently have almost every indicator of an organization run by a sociopathic leader. Here's the first of a few of the most obvious ones:

  • An intentional, public snubbing of long-time Yankee and beloved (especially by women) pitcher Andy Pettitte. The sociopathic leadership style requires MBF (Management By Fear); part of the sociopathic leadership style is to instill fear in everyone in the organization. MBF can make some underperformers who are slacking achieve at a higher level or leave (most of the underperformers just hunker down until the rage period is over, doing less -- to attract less attention -- so the organization slows in its work). Of course, it makes some high-performers lose some portion of their focus (undermining performance) and it de-motivates some high-performers. The net of MBF in almost every organization (but not all) is very negative.

The sociopathic leader can smoke whole groups of people to make a point (for example, Joe Stalin, Jack Welch), or can take a more surgical approach, isolating out a very-popular team member, viewed by all staff as an key contributor and a positive influence, and squash him flat as a bug in a public way, "showing" everyone that no rational force is at work, and everyone better get cracking, and they could be next anyway.

A leader like this will also use high-intensity praise and bonuses and apparently heartfelt intimacy to amplify the employee level of emotional investment in work and the organization, and this investment, once made, is a fulcrum the sociopathic leader can use to lever his manipulation more effectively. For that reason, people in these kinds of organizations are subject to an emotional roller-coaster, highs and lows, terror, followed by a bit of praise or money or other recognition that gives hope things have changed. The person who stays willingly in a sociopathic organization is very much like a chronically-abused spouse, filled with hope for a better future that will almost certainly never come (exception: someone who's a sociopath himself or someone who makes a life-changing amount of money out the deal, like a Major League salary, they can choose to overlook the effects).

Letting Pettitte go, by the way, was not necessarily destructive for the Yankees' prospects, statistically. His spot in the rotation is occupied by Javier Vazquez, a better, younger pitcher. Yes, there are arguments for the superior utility of left-handed pitchers whose home field is Yankee Stadium (Pettitte is a lefty, Vazquez a righty), but Steven Goldman's piece is a most clear-headed and perceptive argument both about the baseball and human truth of the Pettitte snub, and he makes pretty clear the net of the change works in the team's favor. (BTW: If you're not reading Goldman regularly, you should; his perceptions are broad as well as deep and transcend just the on-field details -- into which he has unusually good insight). It is a little destructive of morale and commitment, but that's only the personal workplace comfort of Yankee employees (players, front-office staff, etc.) and may not, in the end weigh more than the on-the-field edge the change makes.

It looks from the Berkshire Eagle piece I linked to earlier in this entry that Pettitte took this piece of organizational manipulation personally. Always a mistake -- when you work for an organization as calculating as a functionally-sociopathic one, it's best to buffer the emotional content of your work.

Have you ever worked in a organization that behaved this way, or do you perhaps work in one now? In the next entry, I'll point out more Yankee examples of the indicators of an organization headed by a sociopathic leader, and what people do to try to cope with being in one.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

PART III - Where The Flubber Meets
the Mode  

In this entry I'm going to ante up the tool I promised so you can actually do something with this knowledge. It'll be familiar to any experienced baseball G.M.s (real, sim-, and fantasy), but it's not actually a baseball-specific tool.

When you're building a competitive baseball team, it's not just important to gather the best players you can. It's at least as important to blend them together in a way that   makes for the most productive combination, with complementary attributes. A GM would use a more complicated tool, but at it's foundation it's the same as the one I talked about: rows for each position, columns for each aptitude.

In the baseball example, there might be columns for speed, left-handed hitting power, left-handed hitting for on-base, hitting to all fields, fielding, etc. Then, as you put in each player you already have, you pour in the aptitudes into their respective columns, indicating which players have which aptitudes. When you look to add a player, you can see what it does to your overall mix. Here's a truncated baseball example, the projected (as of today) lineup for the 2004 Seattle Mariners.

Pos RH power LH power OBA Speed Spray Fielding
C         X X
1     X     X
2 X         X
3           X
S         X X
Lf   X        
Cf       X   X
Rf       X X X
DH X   X   X  

You can see pretty quickly that they have limited power from the right side, almost none from the left side, and not a lot of outstanding OBA. There are players at two positions who bring only a single strong aptitude to the table. And in trying to improve the recipe, the easiest thing to do is replace the two guys who have only a single aptitude. But there is a constraint here, because the player at "Lf" is the only power from the left side on the starting team. At a glance, you know what you have to build on to get to a balanced offense. As I said, this is truncated. It doesn't account for half the batters' factors you'd like nor any of the pitching. But it's illustrative of the kind of tool you could use for aptitudes.

In the last three entires, we've been talking about attitudes. Below, I'll run a table of an organization I used to consult for and show you how you might use it in that particular case, trying to note the minority of rules that are universal . I've used shorthand for the Dorfman/Kuehl winning attitudes for team members (described more fully in the previous entry below).

  Conscious Source Learn Team Enthuse Open Humor Social Empathy Balance Team Criticism
B       x x       x x x x
R x x x x   x x     x x  
D     x x x x x x x x x  
W x x x x   x   x        

B is the supervisor. From an attitude point of view, this team as a whole has some obvious strengths and weaknesses. On the good side, they are all dedicated to the success of the team and the greater organization, and everyone but the supervisor is open to change and understands the importance of learning. That combination opens up a lot of possibilities. And you gotta hope for that because except for the supervisor, they are absent the ability to restrain criticism of co-workers, and there's only middling enthusiasm (remember, I talked about how constant complaint undermines aggressiveness). That needs to change. The supervisor in this case is not the best hope to launch or captain the changes needed -she's out of step on criticism (she's a rah-rah, so her telling her employees to get with the joy is likely to trigger a counter-reformation, not compliance. And enerting what will be a tense situation (changing the criticism, upping the enthusiasm), she doesn't readily use humor to break the tension.

How would I design a project to improve the overall attitude? This is my take. D is enthused but is also a person who ciriticizes casually. I would enlist D's help, explaining the enthusiasm and the casual criticism are at cross-purposes. I would ask D to continue to criticize where (a) there's a good chance for change, and (b) the change would make a real difference to the team or organization. D, you'll note, cares about both, and has empathy, which means D won't just be a jolly airhead. D will be able to comprehend the criticism of others and consciously direct it, focus it on important issues. And then when D gets around to buffering criticism, it won't look like jolly airhead behavior. I would have D focus on both co-workers, but R most, because R has more components of winning attitude already. Once W is standing out as an exception, he can conform a little, conform a lot, or leave. If W is very disturbed, he may choose to stay and resist, and that becomes an H.R. department problem.

There are a trillion permutations here. In this example, once D is enlisted (and with this set of attitudes, you will always be able to recruit D) there are not multiple points that both R and W have that D doesn't. If there were, that would be advantageous; pick between R and W the one who has the most points in common with D, and count on them to link to the remaining person through those other points.


An exercise like the very simplified baseball GM's aptitude table is valuable for seeing what you need and for doing trade/change/succession planning. And if you just spray the attitude components on a table, you'll see some basic info about group strengths and weaknesses. If you take more time and pay attention, you can use the attitudes of individual team members to complement, buffer and improve the attitudes of their team-mates. In a reasonably healthy organization, you can craft plans to improve attitude over time and not have to live with the self-centered or hyper-complaining or change-resisting group.

Questions? Write me via the Contact Me link in the upper left of this page.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Part II - Changes in
Attitude = Changes in Latitude  

In the last entry, I started talking about attitude of your team members, one of the vital elements of any successful management recipe, talked about some team social attitudes I had experienced when I was reporting on baseball, and compared it to some non-baseball situations. If you plan to read this entry and haven't read that one yet, it's a necessary prerequisitie that makes this one useful.

I promised a tool, because without a system you can apply, management just becomes that fuzzy-but-lovely sizzle called leadership.

A Steak in the Ground

To improve attitude, you need to first assess the existing status of your group as a whole and of the individuals within it. There are a lot of tools out there. I'm going to give you this one from The Mental Game of Baseball by Harvey Dorfman & Karl Kuehl, modifed slightly (you know, slightly, like election results from Georgia -- the ex-Soviet country, or Georgia, the U.S. state with the problematic voting machines).

Evaluate each person on each of these. You can build a row-and column model (like in a spreadsheet program or -- better -- on paper. Working on paper will increase your learning and recall of the patterns, the computer is more convenient and with a cleaner looking result) with the staffers in columns across the top and the Attitude components down the side.

First, I'll tell you the modified Dorfman/Kuehl components, and then I'll give you hints about filling out the tool.

A Set of Components

*1. Conscious of one's attitude. That is, the player has some perspective and knows and can tell you what their attitude is and how it helps make an overall environment.

2. Ideas of where those attitudes came from. That is, she can point out the experiences that were important in shaping the attitude.

*3. Recognizes the critical nature of continual learning.

4. Dedicated to success of the organization & the team.

*5. Behaving enthusiastically about daily activities.

6. Open to change. Is neutral or even positive about proposed changes, publically displaying an attitude that things can get more effective/better. An ancillary component is understanding that being asked to change is not criticism (though many times this neurotic connection between change/criticism is the result of the manager's poor change management technique and verbal ability).

%7. Able to use humor to relax self or group.

%8. Interest in the lives and work of team-mates, and ability to serve their work needs and help them cope with their work difficulties. And this can overflow into the non-work life,m too, because sometimes what's preventing a person from being effective at work is something outside of work, and if you can help them with that non-work difficulty, their work difficulties evaporate.

9. Ability to comprehend the point-of-view (that is, empathize) of co-workers, reports and superiors.

*%10. A balance between speaking and listening. That is, contributing, but also absorbing the contributions of others.

*%11. Working/playing effectively as part of the team. Being part of the group, and making the "groupness" seem valuable to other members of the group. A critical component of this is making outsiders welcome, that is, new employees or people from other departments, presenting the idea, it's a real honor to be part of this group and we're honored to include you.

**12. Keeping yourself from casually criticizing others. This one is fuzzy, and therefore tough, because criticism is a critical component for improvement. What I'm egtting at here is the destructive habit of having more than, say 10% of water-cooler, coffee-pot talk consist of what so-and-so should have done and why. When this gets out of control (say, more than about 15% of the communication) it cognitively sucks dead bears, as they say at Arthur Andersen.

Symbols: **Super-critical, *Critical, %Glue that holds team together.

The glue components mean a person with bad attitudes in one area may be making an important positive contribution i to the group's effectiveness, even if her other attitude components are not good. And if the person has really bad attitude and is a glue-factor, that person can really mess up a whole team by transceiving negativity.

If you're new, or if you can't reel these off already (most managers aren't evaluated on this kind of thing, so many don't take the time to master knowing this kind of truth about their reports), you might create exercises for having team-members anonymously evaluate each other. I wouldn't use a previous manager, or anyone up the chain of being, since they're likely to have a distorted or limited point of view that they don't recognize as limited (a dangerous combo). If the attitude is alarmingly poor (that is, you believe attitude is a single piece of the environment that is assuring failure where at the same time, if it was C or C+, everything else would work out positively, then self-evaluation could trigger a Rwanda-style Hutu-Tutsi bloody war. In that case, I don't recommend it. In that case, you'll need to enlist H.R. (even though Angus' Law of Problem Evolution works here...usually, if they already had the capability to fix the problem, it wouldn't be there...they'll probably need a consultant or outside group to come in and work the evaluations...contact me if you need some leads).

In the next entry, I'll make some suggestions of what to do once you have your sheet filled out.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Part I - Managing Players:
Winning Attitude, Losing Attitude  

This topic drifts dangerously towards the over-hyped realm of what the popular business & sports press both refer to as "Leadership", away from the realm I try to work with people in: management. "Leadership," far too often is a favorite topic because it's not measurable; if someone claims to be a good leader, can you test their assertion? Possibly. I haven't seen any good testing tools. I know the cluster of aptitudes and practices that pundits call leadership exist and that as components, you can work on them and in many cases become better at them. Overall, though, the hyping of leadership is driven by politically-successful American executives' proclivity for avoiding any shred of accountability.

I do believe this area is important for managers and I have a few practical tools I use. I call it managing, because it is, but to your superiors, it will look like leadership, something you can use to market your success.

The Rangers, The Orioles: Self & Group

One of the vital elements of any successful management recipe is the attitude of your team. In baseball, you can see it if you walk into a clubhouse before or after a game. There are a lot of different societies (some people call these "business cultures"; fewer than 5% of organizations have an actual "culture") in baseball. Some late-70s/early-80s examples I'm familiar with from my baseball reporting days, and you'll recognize them in non-baseball organizations you have worked:

The Late 70s Texas Rangers: Everyone is a free agent (emotionally...many of them were acquired through that mechanism). Like recent employees of healthier tech companies which have outgrown their beer/pizza camaraderie and are now in a cycle of overseas outsourcing and trimming the tangential benefits of line employees, individual Rangers' attitudes seemed pretty uniform: hostile, hard-working, joining together only to conspire against outsiders or authority. Sort of faux-existential posing.

Early 70s to Mid 80's Baltimore Orioles: Everyone is together. If one player has a bad day, it's assumed it's everyone else's responsibility to pick up the slack. If a player is dogging, it's assumed it's everyone's responsibility to apply some pressure for him to concentrate and deliver. The manager will take the heavy-lifting on mistakes and laziness, but all pitch in.

Late 70's Atlanta Braves: We're losers: the team can make money anyway. Let's play within ourselves and do what can be done, but we're not going anywhere. Don't sweat it.

Late 70's San Francisco Giants: I'm like any other worker. I come to work, I go home. As long as I do what's in my job description, I'm doing my job.

There are more models, but this gives you an idea of the range and how closely they parallel non-baseball organizations.

Both in baseball and beyond, all human systems tend to be self-amplifying. The young player (employee) who comes into an organization with a given social norm will tend to gravitate to that norm for acceptance. Those who find the norm unacceptable are, probabilistically, more likely to leave the group. The manager can redirect to some degree, but if she tries to do it too suddenly or with too much force applied, she will trigger what I call "an immune response". There are tools for changing the pattern of a social norm, and I'll approach some of those soon in another entry.

Attitude in workgroups can be a critical component that decides success or failure. The standard "culture of complaint" that is a norm in most big organizations is exemplified by the rapid readiness to talk about what's wrong, a general (not universal) unwillingness to change the subject when solution discussions come up, a sense among the participating individuals that they cannot trigger or contribute to enduring change for the better. If you manage in such a social norm, you can succeed, but it sure is a challenge. I encourage my clients to give some time to attack the status quo while still working with the social norm as it currently is and making sure you get your work done. If you can create an island of healthy attitude, you might be able to transform adjacent workgroups. Might...it's not at all a sure thing, but it certainly is something worth trying.

To use the tools, you first have to have a system of analysis, a filter through which you examine "attitude". In the next entry, I'll give you a solid model you can use. It's the one developed by former A's "performance enhancement counselor" Harvey A. Dorfman, and Karl Kuehl for their book The Mental Game of Baseball. Their system is derived in part from Maslow. I'm not sure it's the very best model, but it's workable, and the important thing is to have a tenable system -- perfection isn't required.

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