Friday, June 25, 2004

The Rockies, The Mariners, The Indians
The Goldilocks Approaches to Mid-Range Planning  

"Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight" - Thomas Carlyle

The few managers who succeed at mid- and long-range planning can tell you it's neither an art nor a science, and the only hard rule is: There are no hard and fast rules.

There are things your planning shouldn't do. It shouldn't shift drastically at the slightest trend-ette (which could be ephemeral and blow away at any moment). It shouldn't lash itself unyielding, like Captain Ahab to The Whale, refusing to adjust or fine tune in the present for fear of de-stablizing the future. Planners can succeed using either of those approaches, because systems are stochastic, and the changes might work out anyway. But the most successful planning approach is like building a baseball team: you have to have an actual plan, stick to it long enough to see if its working, and be willing to make tactical changes along the way that fit your current needs without destroying your longer-term strategy.

Three teams are the exemplars of the three Goldilocks approaches to planning: The Colorado Rockies (Papa Bear), The Seattle Mariners (Mama Bear), and the Cleveland Indians (Just Right).


The Colorado Rockies play home games in a most unusual environment, and they are blessed with a front office that is not only willing to experiment, but actively embraces experiment, testing, measuring feedback and change.

The apparent problem is, they never seem to stick with any one experiment long enough to gather enough data to see what's working and what isn't. They've tried the World 'O Big Sluggers approach. They've tried Heavy-Duty Starting Pitching Approach. They fielded Doodlebug Dementia, a team with remarkable speed to cut off hits that might turn into doubles and triples. For a place where any ball put into play might be a double, and any really hard hit ball might be a homer, they recruited a few guys who strike out a lot (don't make contact, losing opportunities) -- and it worked awfully well, as in this case. SO did they replicate it? No, they moved on.

You see The Rox' approach outside of baseball too much, in the publicly-owned business sector, especially, where ownership and executive management are not the same people, so execs are playing with other people's money. Management'll latch on to some hot acquisition that looks good to Wall Street, and as soon as they realize they're not going to get instant returns, boom-boom out go the lights, they shift to something else. Could they have made the new toy a success? Perhaps, perhaps not, but one will never know.

I worked for a billion-dollar company that used to go through the typically ornate budgeting choreography that seemed to last six months of every year. They'd project targets and then about two months into the new year, they'd start making radical realignment decisions based on tiny shift-ettes in markets or sales, rendering all that planning moot. Then they'd spend the rest of thte fiscal year just banging around without any course at all. Sometimes it worked out okay, in spite of, not because of, their Brain-Spasm of the Nano-Second approach.


The Seattle Mariners are blessed with a very sweet stadium and concessions deal, enough so that one study (will find the link later) asserts they are one of the ten most valuable franchises in North American sports (not just baseball).

Their recent behavior has been mystifying, with an off-season spree of apparently incoherent trades and acquisitions that clearly imnproved them only in one spot, the bullpen, an area which was already a strength, and did not signficantly address any of their three most obvious weaknesses (a left-handed power hitter, a 1st baseman who could hit left-handed pitching, and an overall shift towards an imbalance of older players on the field). And two of those weaknesses are as easy to deal with as any problems you could have. And it's not like they didn't make any moves; they made a ton of them, just not in any way that made them stronger in any area, so it was definitely not laziness..

The M's have struggled all season in many ways (as of today, firmly cemented in last place, 13th best winning percentage out of 14 teams in the league, and with a downward trend). And they have done nothing to address any of the pre-season problems that have become even more obvious than they already were. It's like an enigma in a mystery wrapped in a wet blanket. They won't tap into their massive Trump-Tower sized pile of pelf to upgrade at any of the places their incumbents are killing them. They won't even take a cheap flyer and bring up young players having good years in AAA ball who play the positions their major leaguers are struggling at.

The mystery may be solved. At Mariners Wheelhouse, Steve Nelson has written a four-part series that provides a strong hypothesis that makes the Seattle front-office's behavior understandable and apparently systemic.

The essence of his hypothesis: That the team is embarked on a long-range plan that they will not deviate from no matter how things change along the way. Like a mariner who sets a dead-reckoning point and then meets surprisingly different wind and tide conditions, they were aimed at the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, and are about to be beached in the Torres Straits.

I wouldn't call it dire straits, but it's definitely an extreme style. Read at least the first of Steve's four-part series. I'll come back to this subject in my next post and elaborate on planning styles, adaptive and otherwise.

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