Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Cognitive High Cheese: Dick Allen,
Organizational Transformation & Counter-Reformations  

If I have hit the ball farther than other men, it is by
standing upon the shoulders of The Giants.--Sir Isaac Newton

"Tradition" is a powerful attribute for workgroups, for organizations, for entire lines of business, for whole societies. Traditions are options that people follow as rules, and these were generally, at least at one time, functional...which is how they transcended their status as options to become traditions.


The richer an endeavor is in traditions, the more effortlessly important information passes from veteran to newbie, the less overhead spent on reinventing the wheel, the more net ergs left for creating something new and different.

Sometimes traditions have to be thrown away because they've become grossly ineffective. Sometimes traditions have to be thrown away because social realities pass them by and leave them, like a tide pool at low tide, all by themselves, obvious and disconnected. When we succeed in throwing away the ineffectual, most frequently those at the forefront of moving that dead-weight aside are forgotten or are remembered the way the change-resisters painted them, and not for what they really achieved.

One of baseball's classic cases of this vilification sticking long after the reason for the vilification vaporized like an R. Dean Taylor Fan Club was addressed a little today as Dick Allen, perhaps the finest 20th century major league ballplayer who will never get to the Hall of Fame, was inducted into The Baseball Reliquary's Shrine of the Eternals. I'll get back to Allen in a little, but first to explain the good part of tradition.

Large organizations, naturally less efficient at sharing knowledge, get the greatest benefits out of traditions, and can be the ones most loath to change them. The same ossification that binds big bureaucracies, corporate, military, governmental, to their traditions makes it harder for them to face necessary changes to them gracefully. Even in an organization that eventually runs with an innovator's necessary tradition-busting it's really common that the aggressive promoter of tradition change will be shot down and shipped out long before he sees the innovation come to pass. It's almost standard operating procedure. The sacrifice of the point-woman has to be internalised before the change can start. This seems to be especially true when the tradition-busting becomes necessary because of external social changes.


Billy Mitchell was the U.S. military's first strong advocate for air power, specifically the need to dominate the air with a polycultural approach. He was ridiculed and sacrificed, but eventually others, having only to repeat arguments already made and refine them. The emotional need for tradition-alists to push back and destroy an innovator seems to get used up. The follower who comes along later, or the wing-man who asserts the same case but has the cover to argue he's not like that wild-man over there (like the not well-known Navy equivalent of Mitchell, Admiral Sims), has an easier time because the innovator is catching all the ack-ack.

The idea that women should be allowed to vote was not even discussable by the major parties at the turn of the century. Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party's candidate, ran on a platform of Women's suffrage, treated like Mitchell, and like Mitchell, opened up some cover for others to make the argument, an argument that ultimately won the field. It was a fight that Debs never could have won, and a fight that never would have been won without Debs or another person taking his noisy stand.

Pull-Top Patrick is a pseudonym for a warehouse manager who was a classic example of this effect in a corporate setting. Back in the mid-1980s there was a work process organization idea that was somewhat popular: Pull-through. At a production site where things were manufactured, finished and shipped, it was previously common practice to have the beginning of the process work as fast as it could, moving things down the line without regard to the situation downstream. Faster and slower production at the beginning creates accordion-like rushes and lulls downstream (if you've ever seen I Love Lucy Episode #39, with Lucy trying to keep up with the conveyor belt to wrap chocolates, you know the exact problem). Since crud rolls downhill, the farther down the supply chain you go, the uglier it gets. So the idea (oversimplified here) behind pull-though was that the loading dock would set the pace, with each step previous tuning itself to match the pace of its downstream partner(s). Pull-Top saw the biggest problem in customer service was the very problem pull-though was designed to fix, and after executive management refused to support his survey of customers to see if they agreed it was a major problem, he funded a survey himself, found they agreed, and started campaigning. Pull-through fought against every tradition the company had. Instead of a pair of highly-paid plant managers dictating pace, a handful of roughnecks on the loading docks would. It was anti-hierarchical, unprecedented, and felt backwards to everyone upstairs. When Patrick wouldn't back off he was let go in a blaze of recrimination and vilification. His replacement, an outsider with a decent track record wholly in the old model, continued the tradition, but looked at Patrick's work as an outsider might, with fresher eyes. When he campaigned for a pull-through experiment, his days were numbered -- he was let go after a few months, but sent to every member of the Board of Directors a polite, thorough memo describing the model and its virtues specifically to the company's configuration. The next warehouse manager was hired because he had worked in a plant that had used (and discarded) the pull-through model. After about nine months, he ended up instituting the pull-through model with virtually no resistance, won a fat bonus and a significant promotion. He lectured to trade groups about how to do a conversion and was a "hero". And it would have never happened without him, but it wouldn't have happened without Patrick's passion and the successor's rational exit memo, either.

Dick Allen is arguably the finest baseball player who will never be in the Hall of Fame. In a 15 year career, he was a rookie of the year, a most valuable player, a seven-time all-star, led the majors in batting three times (as measured by OPS). He lead the league in triples once and homers twice, and I suspect he was the last seasonal triples leader who was also a seasonal homers leader (the two each require a strong, but very different in the modern game, skill set). NOTE: Mike Molloy points out over at Baseball Primer that two players have actually done that since...Jim Rice & Ryne Sandberg. If you never saw him, he was a very good baserunner, a fearsome slugger, and the kind of cool professional average-plus-power hitter with a beautiful swing you would see in the last few years in Rafael Palmeiro or Edgar Martinez.

He still carries around a lot of other people's baggage, the perception that he was unpleasant because he could be unpleasant to reporters. He may have been. I never met him, but I did see him play and he was extraordinary.

Allen was lashed to cultural expectations of African American people in general, and of African-American ballplayers, more specifically. He was in the 4th "generation" of African-American ballplayers, and arrived on the scene in 1964, a high profile year for the civil rights movement in the South, the first year after the church bombing, the year of freedom riders and the murders featured in the movie "Mississippi Burning". Having won legal rights, Black Americans were pushing ever harder against the de facto barriers to their ability to exercise those rights, and this made some tradition-bound people uncomfortable. Allen was "normal" for 21-year old African-American males of 1964, except he played baseball at a high-level. He didn't have mentors inside the system to help him navigate media relations, relations with management and culturally different peers any more than most ambitious 21-year old African-American males had in 1964. So he did what innovators usually do when faced with the unknown -- he flailed a little and tried to carve out a niche for himself that worked for his employer and himself.

The results were predictable. Lots of misunderstanding. Old white guys who had liked the previous "generations" of black ballplayers they were on teams with (quiet, stoic-behaving guys, or ultra-loose guys, the kind management felt safe embedding on their rosters), freaked out when confronted with a self-confident, quietly cocky young Dick Allen. And when "race relations" in the non-baseball world turned incendiary, it created a petri dish for petulance, perturbation & precautionating.

Dick Allen, like Pull-Top Patrick, started embodying everything that seemed out of whack with the world. All the scary meta-meaning of external change that made everything so uncomfortable for Patrick's executives, for General Mitchell's superiors, for Debs' rivals, discomfited Allen's management as well. And having excoriated him for everything that made them uncomfortable, they were able to move on, to mature, and to find it easier to accept the culturally-similar ballplayers who followed him. The next cohort took fewer hits, the following one even fewer. By 1974, any player who behaved the Allen had wasn't seen as very eccentric, and certainly any player with skills comparable to those Allen had had in his prime (true, not many on-field comparables of any cultural background) wouldn't have generated as much friction.

Today, Allen's behavior set would be perceived as well within the norm for athlete behavior, perhaps even unremarkable. The constellation of normal behaviors of post-Civil-Rights movement young African-American males is now knitted into the cultural fabric of sports teams. New behaviors stretch the comfort of the status quo. But of course that wouldn't have been the case unless Allen or some other pathfinder hadn't taken those arrows first.

But the rap on Allen persists, and you have to chip away at it to see the factual playing record beneath. Just as sad, no one, as far as I know, ever invited Pull-Top Patrick or his ethical successor to an awards dinner. Baseball's just a little more evolved than corporations; baseball has a Baseball Reliquary and its extraordinary organizers, and there seem to be no equivalent institutions to celebrate the Pull-Tops of the world. I'm sure that if Dick Allen had met Pull-Top, he'd have shared today's honor with him, brother to brother.

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