Thursday, February 12, 2004

PART III: Paul DePodesta: If You Can't
Change an Organization, Change Organizations  

We don't know who discovered water, but we can be confident
it wasn't a fish -- Father John Culkin

In my previous entries on the Paul DePodesta presentation to non-baseball managers on change management, I rang up a few of his lessons. This post continues that series, and is not the last.

If you haven't read the previous & don't want to, here's some table setting:

Paul DePodesta, the Assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics featured (not extensively enough) in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, is one of the most interesting of the new statheads in baseball front offices. What separates him from the others is not that his stats are better or deeper, it's that he understands the key, final, most-difficult-to-master concept in the Management By Baseball model: Change.

He understands that to successfully manage and push change, you have to change he changes you deploy, even as you're concurrently fighting to install them in the first place.

DePodesta started in the Indians' front-office, but the Tribe was successful, and successful organizations have the least impetus to change. So when the then-struggling Oakland As offered him a promotion, Asst. G.M., he took it. In thye past six seasons, the As had finished 161 games under .500, and as he said, "were really in full crisis mode...attendance was in a freefall." Given the choice between comfort with success or chance to work for a lower-budget organization "in freefall", what did he do?

What did I decide to do? I moved to the Bay area. This was the perfect opportunity because losing had become the expectation in Oakland. If we tried something really innovative and it didn't work, all we'd be doing is fulfilling expectations. To use a scout's term, there was a lot of upside. If somehow we figured out how to put a playoff caliber team on the field for pennies on the dollar, the baseball world would have to take notice.

It wouldn't be easy for us. First of all, no small market team had ever made the playoffs in the post—strike era. The A's like everybody else in baseball had ceased to do one very critical thing—to ask the naïve question: “If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?”

Management guru Peter Drucker introduced this simple test decades ago and yet our public and private institutions are replete with things as they are because that's pretty much the way things have always been. Why is the workday 9—5? Why do we have the Electoral College? In baseball, why do people still believe that trying to bunt and steal bases helps in scoring runs? [snip]

So once I got to the A's I began a subtle, under-the-radar mission to ask the naïve question all over the A's organization. As you can imagine, some people didn't like it. Remember that the baseball industry is run by these old time guys with leathery skin who chew tobacco. Imagine Jack Palance in a baseball cap. And here's this young guy asking all of these questions like, why is our scouting system the way it is, what about our contractual strategies?


DePodesta cies Drucker in that clipping, and to a lot of people, Peter Drucker is ho-hum. Professors and business people use his name all the time, like a totem. He's about a million years old. Don't let that fool you -- he's the single most-perceptive organizational observer who actually applies his knowledge. He's not some ivory tower theorist, Drucker's a practitioner. And his rules of operation are very simple, making them universal. He gives them away for free, but people hire him anyway, because people just can't do them as well as he can. If you ever get a chance to hear him present, take it. He's remarkable.

Drucker drives change by fighting interia, by applying the naive question, glacially, unstoppably. Take nothing for granted, examine all rules, fight all gravity.

So when DePodesta got to Oakland, an outfit in a rut, but with hopes of success, he channelled Drucker.

The next time you get a slack day at work, try it. Step back from the implicit, quotidian ordinariness of everything and ask naive questions, like

  • Why does that time card that takes over ten minutes a week to maintain still have a place here?
  • Why do I need to get a signature in advance and waste four days to buy $21 of office supplies?
  • Why is the coffee in the lunch room so undrinkable?
  • Why does Finance have approval rights over the content of this already-budgeted marketing program?

Just channel Drucker all day. It can be depressing if you let it be, but drive your mind that way just for one day. You may not have a lever a fulcrum or a place to stand to make the obvious changes, but even just oopening your eyes to it can help you as you move ahead in time, not accepting plaque or overhead on new initiatives.

Then start asking the naive question (even if you know the answer). Keep asking politely, as persistently as the three year old who asks "Why?" over and over, but in a better-socialized way.

You may not be ablke to do this yourself. Unlike DePodesta, you may be an old-timer in the organazition. You might need to hire someone new, or get a consultant to do this. Most consultants are good at this (standard consultant procedure is to come in, harvest knowledge, package it, charge you for what staff told consultant), even if most of them aren't good at delivering good advice based on that knowledge. But if you can get someone to ask the questions, and you aren't the one to answer them, it can be a very Socratic experience, it can wake up, and sometimes galvanize into action, the people being asked.

I'll continue the exploration of DePodesta's insights & techniques in my next entry.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter