Sunday, February 08, 2004

Chicago White Sox GM Ken Williams
Doesn't Marinate In What He Doesn't Have  

One of the favorite whipping boys of the sophisticated baseball fan population is Chicago White Sox G.M. Ken Williams. He's made some odd deals over the years and some good ones, too. More than most G.M.s, his performance is affected by an intrusive, aggressive owner. I'm agnostic about him, and if you pay attention to him, he frequently has something that, by contrasting himself with both the committedly old-school G.M.s and also with the committedly new wave G.M.s, reveals some interesting management petits-fours. Yesterday he had something revealing to say about third base in the Management by Baseball model: Self-awareness.

In an interview with the suburban Daily Herald cited by Baseball Primer, the reporter asked him about "competing" with the Second City's other team, the Cubs (they don't compete in the standings, and they play each other just a few times a year) in acquiring players who will attract fans' attention:

More specifically, how nice would it be to change places with Cubs counterpart Jim Hendry, who is operating with a budget in the $90 million range?

Williams bristled at the question.

"If anyone gets into that frame of mind around here, I'm going to have them replaced,'' Williams said. "Thinking about what you don't have, or thinking about how little you have, that's just not conducive to being productive and being creative.''

Emphasis mine.

This insight is both very powerful in the general case, and can be very limiting if you're not careful with it.


One of the challenges that's universal in management is to winnow out your emotions from the situation at hand. I work very hard to get managers to "think" instead of "feel". Feelings have their place, but no manager should ever rest with "I feel like this is a good program", any more than they should feel Santa Fé is the capital of New Mexico. Some things, especially management decisions, need a foundation of facts, and, even adding shading and the subtleties of human perception, those facts and anapysis of their pattern should be the basis for a decision. So I frequently will say in meetings, "It's fine to hear how you feel, but don't waste our time with that. Tell me what you think". Once you're done with the analytical core, you can use your feelings to fine-tune the overall effort.

If you inject your feelings to early, you're subject to the 3rd most damaging & widespread flaw in American management practice: Letting your personal-life emotions (good and bad) bleed into a decision or your relations with people at work is a chronic disaster.

I worked for a while for a manager of a documentation department at an aerospace company and she had terrible anxiety attacks. On days the bad chemicals were really churning in her brain, she'd make bag bid decisions based on her anxieties. She'd also pick fights with her staff. When I worked at Microsoft, I had a "manager" who was chronically depressed, and on the days it was bad, he wouldn't negotiate the work we did for other departments because in his depressed state, he just "knew we'd never meet any of the deadlines anyway, so what did it matter". I consulted at an international financial firm and the manager I was brought in to help was seen to be erratic, both brilliant and terrible, in an unpredictable way. I could find nothing in his work that explained it, so I moved on to the next assignment there, but after I'd been there a while, we had some lunch and he told me he had a terminally-ill child and it was exerting tremendous pressure on him. I relaized that some days he really wasn't able to process information because he couldn't compartmentalize such dire life tragedy, but he made decisions anyway rather than putting them off or delegating them. In that case, he and I went back to his management and worked out techniques for him to be able to stall not-urgent things and delegate urgent things, and a side-benefit was he eneded up giving good mentoring/training to a subordinate who later used that platform to become a vert good manager herself.

It's important to know how your feelings are at the moment of a decision.

It's equally important, as Williams noted, to work with what you have and not let emotions like resentment or depression color what you do. It's a waste of time that you could apply to actual problem-solving, and it'll lead you to mistakes that are easy to avoid.


At the same time, you have to invest some of your energy budget in contingency planning. ¿What if oil prices get detached from the U.S. Dollar and are anchored to the Euro, driving prices up to $39/bbl.? ¿What's my fallback position if my clean-up hitter gets injured? ¿What would be the best use of a 10% departmental budget increase?

I can't really tell if Williams has taken his "work with what you have" too far. I think not. Later in the article, the author writes

When he bought a home two years ago in Plainfield, a remote Southwest suburb, Williams admitted he enjoyed using the drive time to analyze all facets of his job.

And while stuck in traffic, the thought of operating with a much larger payroll has often crossed his mind.

But rather than cry poor, the 39-year-old Williams is trying to make the most of his plight.

"It doesn't matter if you have $100 million, $50 million or $25 million,'' Williams said. "The goal is the same and that's winning. Having more money, we might play those kind of games internally. But I think it goes beyond baseball. In any company, business or personal life, sometimes we get so bogged down with worrying about money that it takes away from what you're trying to accomplish. And that's exactly what we're trying to avoid.''

It seems to me he's struck the right balance. Be in the present, don't let resentment or envy or other personal emotions shape decisions, but remember that things will change and give a little thought to contingency planning. Perhaps he shouldn't be the Muggable Mary of our sabermetric community.

I wish more managers outside of baseball worked in the zone Williams seems to have found.

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