Friday, February 27, 2004

John Schuerholz: Sim-City Zen-Master  

One of the hardest things to do well in most organizations is succession-planning. Operating the present is challenging enough to most American-trained managers (and since most American managers aren't given any formal training, those struggling but trained ones are better off than most). Succession planning, what I call pre-volution, has many facets, from organizational structure, to strategy, but mostly, personnel. How do you build people to take over as the next generation of [jobtitle], what skills will they need that the incumbent has, what skills will be needed the incumbent is missing, what skills will the job require then that it doesn't now, will the organization even need a [jobtitle] by the time incumbent is ready to move on?

Baseball is a wonderful petri dish for succession planning, a window on an amazing on-going experiment, because baseball players, unlike those in most skilled jobs, have a predictable lifespan that's based on age. Yes, coal miners and construction workers wear out, too, but they are the exceptions. In most organizations stuff just happens, and as in nature, evolution, there are mass extinctions, Ouspensky-like catastrophes, exploding heads, mass hysteria and silly Dilbert-quality ineptness.

In baseball, though, everything moves faster, you have to have some plan, which means you have to examine the future and find that challenging middle ground between pretending it'll all be the same (MBWT -- management by wishful thinking), and pretending everything will go your way (MBWT of a different nature).

I used to use the computer tool Sim City to train managers who were planning-impaired. Sim City, if you're unfamiliar with it, was Will Wright's magnificent urban planning simulator, Nobel-prize quality brilliance. Because you can make it speed up and fit a decade into a minute if you choose, because you can limit resources, and you get do-overs, Sim City is an almost perfect training tool for succession planning. And baseball, with its relatively rapid pace of change is almost like Sim City.


Nature evolves, but good management prevolves, that is, while things in nature just happen, adequate management pushes and shapes responses consciously. The effects are most visible in baseball.

I think the Sim City Zen Master award has to go to John Scheurholtz, GM of the Atlanta Braves. He's done what he needed to do to keep his team very competitive for 12 consecutive seasons, and baseball has changed since then (the owners juiced the ball, then took it down some, successful management theories have blossomed and died, unsuccessful management theories have popped up and deliquesced).

Baseball Prospectus' recent scouting report on the Braves analyses the most recent succession issues. For the first time, the team has a massive budget cut, and yet there are indications that Schuerholtz has made some wise planning decisions for the coming season.


  • End of the Road?: Many analysts predicted that 2003 would be the final year of the Braves' dynasty. Their once-vaunted rotation didn't look so fearsome after losing Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood to division rivals, and there were few bright spots in the lineup.

    But as they've done every year since 1991--save the washed-out 1994 season--Atlanta nabbed another division title, largely on the strength of their free-agents-to-be. In the process of facilitating a $15 million budget cut, the Braves said goodbye to much of their core for the first time in years. But take a look at how much the hitters let go by the Braves are expected to regress in 2004:


     Player                   2003 VORP    2004 VORP (projected)
    Vinny Castilla               24.7             9.0
    Rob Fick                      7.8            13.0
    Javy Lopez                   75.9            26.3
    Gary Sheffield               78.9            44.2
    Totals                      187.3            92.5

    John Schuerholz deserves credit for letting these guys go. Drastically lowering salary was not a problem he had to take on very often during the dynasty. He chose wisely to let the big spenders in the AL East throw their money at his aging hitters instead of re-signing them and cutting salary elsewhere. Looking at the numbers above, it is clear that the Braves probably wouldn't have been able to repeat their offensive rampage in 2004 even if they were able to keep their 2003 lineup intact.

  • VORP, btw, is a player performance projection technique, highly-imperfect, as they all are, but one of the most interesting ones.

    If you look at the Prospectus numbers, you'll notice three of the four players he let go are expected to decline in offensive production by the projection formula. He didn't try to stay in the same place by passively MBWT-ing. If the projections end up being true, and again you have to work from assumptions and intel, even if he had tried to preserve the offensive status quo, these guys wouldn't have let him maintain it.

    Fine Sim City move, parallel to cutting off electricity to churches when utility capacity is strained. Now, we can't trust that these numbers are "truth", but in successful succession planning, you have to have some indicators, and at a glance it looks like the measures Schuerholtz is using are parallel to VORP's indicators.

    And to press a point made in the perceptive Prospectus article, this is another big set of changes in a long parade that Scheurholtz has helped navigate gracefully. For years the Braves were a pitching team, but last year they lost a pair of their best, and they managed to win their division again remade as an offensive Infernal Machine. That's prevolution wrought elegant. Will they finally fold this year? It's always possible, but there's much to learn in your own operation by watching Schuerholtz work.

    You can't stop devolution, you can only prevolve your way around it. I can't remember if it was Wes Westrum or Jean Cocteau who said that.

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