Sunday, January 25, 2004

Hidden in Plain Sight: When Managers
Can't Process Two Things at Once  


Back in in late October, a couple of high-level Cuban ballplayers defected, 24-year old Sancti Spíritus starter Maels Rodriguez and 31-year old second baseman Yobal Dueñas, with the intent of playing in the majors. Because the system has some built-in edges for teams that sign Cuban defectors, front offices have been eyeing the merchandise.

But in a wierd way that's an lesson in limited thinking that's illustrative for decisionmakers beyond baseball.

Why total interest in Rodriguez, none of note in Dueñas?

The previous entry talked about their specific attributes, and it's clear Rodriguez is the more attractive of the two. But Dueñas has had years of consistent, all-star caliber success and is a rare commodity, a power-hitting middle infielder with good wheels.


I'm pretty sure this asymmetry of interest is resulting from something we see in business and government all the time: the unwillingness (or inability) to process two things at once.

In big organizations, most managers are more afraid of making a mistake than they are of missing an opportunity.

Angus' First Law of Organizational Behavior: "Almost all human systems are self-amplifying". Meaning that in an organization where fear-based decisions are more prevalent than opportunity-based ones are, fear-based decisionmakers are more likely to get promotions, and since more people tend to hire people like themselves, more fear-based decisionamkers get hired than opportunity-based ones. And more fear-based managers are likely to get promoted, an intensification cycle, and one of the key reasons big businesses and big charities and big government agencies all tend towards inefficiency in the same way.

One of the most common co-factors in fear-based decisionmaking is the elimination of options. These kinds of managers only want to look at one, most-likely, option, and then grind themselves into a tizzy worrying about it. Adding X options, in the cognitive map of most fear-based decisionmakers just multiplies the anxiety X-fold.

I was helping a dot-com company choose an ad agency a couple of years back. He had four scheduled to come in. The head-man, a primo example of fear-based frenzy, was terrible about the process and the decision. His company had very marginal finances...not smoke and mirrors, but not very well capitalised. He needed something outrageous to give the company a very noticeable image that was, at the same time, true to his (truly fine) vision. But he agonized over the inclusion of every candidate. He wanted a specific type of agency: an internationally-known mainstream ad agency that had been around since at least 1930. But those kind were expensive, not interested in his tiny business, and too straight-ahead (or in a couple of cases, downright stodgy) to do him any good given his goals. I burned up a couple of favors and got a couple big old agencies into the process.

The first presentation was pretty good.

Fear-Frenzy Man insisted we stop right there and give them the account. No comparisons, no bidding, no digesting of what they'd said. No negotiation. An archetypal event in the life of the fear-based manager.

[There are, of course, managers at the other extreme: those who see only the options and either use it as an excuse to exercise none of them or to hump the leg of each opportunity like a household poodle on puppy uppers. These are just as problematic, but tend not to inhabit for long the fear-based organization's management cadre.]

I believe front offices aren't interested in what Dueñas has to offer, at almost any price, simply because they are interested in the services (not competitive with Dueñas' services) Rodriguez opportunity. This happens at the tactical level, too. In Lou Piniella's last couple of years managing the Seattle Mariners, he appeared to do this a lot late in games. He'd focus on the bullpen and ignore his team at the plate, not making obvious moves he normally knew needed to be made, like leaving in a hitter with virtually no on-base percentage when he had a decent potential pinch-hitter on the bench. Or, if he made the lineup move late in a game, he wouldn't make bullpen moves, leaving in a guy who was getting shelled long after the manager should have stuck a fork in him. It was as though he only had enough attention to give to half the game at a time.

Do you know any managers who do that? Has your organization ever suffered as a result? What do you do to try and "fix" them?

In your organization, is there a Dueñas hidden in plain sight? A perfectly wonderful contributor who isn't noticed because another is better or has better star quality presence? If you work in a big organization, I'd bet All-Star game tickets on it.

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