Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Decisionmaking Diamondvision-Style:
The Scoreboard Made Me Do It  

About the only actual advantage most American males have as managers over most American females is when the males were about 9 years old, they knew not only how to calculate batting averages, but had the realization that it was as important to ongoing survival as, say, memorizing the names and "Days" of every single saint would have been to a medieval peasant. That kind of demented mental exercise builds the habit of playing with numbers, which leads to increased numeracy. That, in turn, leads to a level of comfort with, even attraction to, roughed out metrics.

To be adequate as a manager you have to be operationally effective (First Base in the MBB model), and the decisions you make in that zone almost always involve some level of working out rough-draft numbers.

If you're not comfortable roughing out numbers, let me tell you, it's all about tricks and techniques. When I was a kid, I grew up half the time in Great Britain, where not only was there a required Math class, but an additional one called Mental Arithmetic, equal in emphasis & also mandatory. Now let's agree the the Brits' need for this was much greater before they changed their currency, because there were 4 farthings to a penny, 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound and 21 shillings to a guinea, and buyers and sellers were expected to be fluent in all this. (A trivial but succulent factoid about the old British currency: it you weighed any combination of the five different silver coins, a pound of them was worth...a pound).

Mental Maths was all about tricks and techniques, creating in the mind a toolbox of short-cuts and a basic electronic calculator for doing the four basic math operations. Math is not an essential part of every deicsion you make as a manager, but those techniques and short-cuts are a vital foundation for every decision you make that involve resources, time, budget, sequencing of tasks, personnel assignment, contigency planning and when to give everyone the afternoon off. In short, to be adequate at operational management, you have to have an adequate level of numeracy. I believe from my management consulting practice that this easy mastery of basic numeracy, the ability to exercise a natural feel for scope and ratio, is one of the main reasons that European managers on average are far superior to American managers.

If this doesn't come naturally to you, if you never had Mental Maths in school, going to the old ballpark can be a great booster shot.


In his most recent Breaking Balls column at Baseball Prospectus, Derek Zumsteg does the very thing the Mental Maths teachers used to do. Using practical, real-life examples, he shows you how to break down a problem into pieces, explains the short-cuts, and informs you when to round things off. Those are the essential techniques. Once you practice working with these kinds of tools, they'll become part of your toolbox.

His examples all come from the scoreboard: Batting average, or how often does a batter strike out or walk, for example.

Once you master his, you can create your own. If, for example, I want to know what kind of extra-base power a hitter has, I use a scoreboard measuring technique I call 2b3bdex. I take the doubles (times two) add the triples (times three) and divide by the number of at bats. Anything below 10% is wimpy (the batter either doesn't hit the ball hard, doesn't run well, or both). Anything above 14% is quite good, and anything above 20% is legendary. I don't try to figure this out past rounding to the closest whole percent (after that, it's not information, it's just noise, which is why I always laugh at the idiotic defaults in computer programs that round percentages to the hundredths of a percent untill you program it to tell you otherwise).

Is 2b3bdex a valuable metric? Not significantly. If you know a lot of other things first, it's useful added texture and chiaroscuro on an individual, revealing an aptitude (or lack of one) that doesn't appear even in a fat, number-glutted Mr. Creosote of a statistical presentation like Baseball Weekly. But calculating the dex is excellent exercise, some gentle jumping jacks for the cerebrum that makes it easier to deploy at work when the situation demands running through dozens of options in a short moment.

Zumsteg's article, by itself, won't turn you into a great decisionmaker. But Derek makes it as fun as you're ever going to get it outside of a British school (hold the boiled brussels sprouts, savage canings by predtory sadist headmasters, & blanc mange; pass the treacle pudding & one-month long Easter vacation please).

If you can do it with baseball numbers, you can do it at work. If you know a manager who doesn't already have some fluency with these mental shaping techniques, send him to Zumsteg's article now.

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