Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Hoisted On Others' Petards:
The Mike Moore Meltdown  

If you've managed in enough groups, sooner or later you're bound to run into what I call a Mike Moore situation.

You come to the position and a fresh personnel decision has been made, usually by your own boss, that the organization is in love with and it' s a stinker. Sparky Anderson, a successful manager who won a World Series managing a team from each league, faced His Own Private Mike Moore. In the off-season before the 1993 season, the Tiger front office acquired Moore, 33 year old pitcher with a long losing record on bad and good teams.

The Seattle Mariners had drafted the Oral Roberts grad with the first pick of the 1981 draft. In seven seasons for the struggling Ms, his Won/Lost record was 66-96, and he had better than league average ERA twice. He had a reputation then for having a very good arm, a very average head and a total unwillingness to take coaching or ask for help most of the time. Moore was a first draft pick, and he acted as though he believed he must be that good and didn' t require the aid of figure of lesser stature, like a manager or the coaching staff.

By 1988, Moore's last year before becoming a free agent, he led the American League in runs allowed by a pitcher. The Oakland As acquired him for the 1989 season. The A' s had one of the most well-known pitching coaches with one of the best reputations for turning around pitchers, Dave Duncan. Moore reportedly allowed Duncan to help him harness his skill and then responded with his career year (19-11, 2.61 league-leading ERA). But his next three years with the A' s were up and down, slipping back and forth between his arrogant pattern and his trainable one.

When his free agency came up again after the 1992 season, the As wouldn' t give him the long-term offer he was looking for. The Tigers signed him to a 3-year, $10 million contract. The story is that Sparky Anderson didn' t particularly want the strong but troublesome Moore. Moore was reasonably successful his first season in Detroit. He threw a lot of innings, leading the league in games started, and his 13-9 record was a better ratio than the team' s 72-68 record in games that weren't his decisions). On the cautionary side, he gave up 35 homers, the highest number of taters any AL pitcher allowed that year, and he struck out only 89 batters in 213 innings, a big shear-off from his past pattern.

Moore got worse quickly, but the front office had pumped all this money to the aging, stubborn starter and Anderson was expected to roll him out on a regular basis to justify the investment. By 1995, his ERA had ballooned to 7.53 and batters were tattooing him with a .318 average and 24 homers, propelling him to a 5-15 record. Sparky, even with his personal credibility as a manager, either didn' t have the political capital to stop the team from riding Moore' s career death spiral into the crater, or he chose not to invest it what could have been an ugly political fight with the front office.


Outside of baseball, this getting stuck with someone else' s foolish decision happens with personnel, and it happens with technology decisions even more. In a growing or flat economy, information technology managers and executives tend to have high turn-over rates.

Hiring organizations, faced with a rapidly-evolving technology environment, feel like they need to hire people with direct experience in the efforts they are about to launch. (Notice I said "feel"; this is usually not soemthing they've actually thought out are analyzed; it's based on feelings like fear or hope). But significant technology projects takes years, sometimes close to a decade, to become firmly rooted in an organization. But the demand, and the expert' s ability to cash in on her expertise, depends on her getting ahead of the technology curve by being an early implementer. Secondly, it also pushes her to leave for a bigger paycheck before the project is established and running smoothly.

So people tend to be rewarded with better career opportunities of they grab at unproven technologies and then leave before the risky project is finished. Someone gets hired to finish these projects off. Sometimes, the incumbent had imploded and everyone knows the new ERP system was a mistake or just more costly than the benefits are worth. Worse, sometimes the run-away lover of an incumbent has effectively masked the shortcomings to protect his career mobility, Either way, managers taking an assignment frequently inherit these techno-time bombs, these Mike Moores that no-one in upper management wants to have to admit were their babies.

In the ideal world, you unleash audits of all inherited projects: where are they relative to budget, what are the goals and objectives and how well does it look like the project is going to meet them? Like Sparky Anderson, you may just choose to retire rather than put up with more Moore.

There are more aggressive alternatives. Some managers choose to struggle with their duds. For example, Lou Piniella and José Mesa, who worked out of the Seattle Mariners' bullpen for a couple of years. Acquired by the front office to put a marquee name at the closer slot, Piniella was expected to make Mesa the closer, a slot in which Joe Table was merely average but the team needed someone very good. And when the organization needs really good and you're getting just average, the result feels apocryphal-y awful. After a series of senseless Rodney King beatings (with José being the one wondering why we couldn't all just get along), the Mariner manager finally eased him into a less exposed role, though he acted as athough he believed he had to leave him exposed until it was quite apparent to everyone in the front office that the gap between what Mesa could achieve and what the team needed as a closer wasn't getting smaller. To most observers, that was too long from a practical point of view, though Piniella probab;ly read the politics of the situation better than fans did.

Like Piniella, you may be able to finesse your problem and push your low-work-value employee into a less exposed position (or trim down your low-return technology projects so you squeeze most of the benefits out of a smaller effort).

To avoid the giant sucking vortex of management mediocrity, though, action of some sort is required. Take a walk or take it on.

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