Friday, July 23, 2004

LaMar's Devilry & a Stake Through the Hart:
Doubling a Good Idea Can Be Bad  

Foolishness is redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim
-- paraphrasing George "The Madrid Masher" Santayana

In late June I wrote about adaptive mid-range planning and used the Cleveland Indians front office of the late 1980s and early 1990s as the beacon of good sense in this facet of management .

I pointed out that one of their competitive advantages was their successful approach itself was a barrier to imitation because:

  • It was long term, which meant
  • Some would never start, and that
  • Many who tried would run out of patience.


What I never mentioned in that entry was another barrier that was so obvious I neglected to mention it. But a recent Baseball Prospectus article whapped me upside my head like a squirmy 50 lb halibut, and I realize I should have explored it. This ultimate barrier was: Human Foolishness. That is, even if a competitor decides to try to imitate you and even if they're patient and determined and persistent, they can screw the pooch by doing what I call a Nixon Bombing Haiphong (an NBH).

An NBH is when you take an idea, fall in love with it, and think, when it finally fails, that if you just do it harder, it'll work. When Kissinger and Nixon decided during the war on Vietnam to slow the flow of supplies through North Vietnam to the South, their chosen technique was to bomb & plant mines in a primary harbor. Simply put, the bombing/mining had little effect on the throughput. So they intensified the bombing. Which had little effect on the throughput. So they increased the bombing. Which...you get the drift. There were other approaches they could have pursued, but Kissinger's arrogance and Nixon's reliance on his advisor almost guaranteed they would just redouble their efforts.

At its core, NBH is: If some of X was good, intensifying X must be better.

Inventors can pull an NBH, and sometimes do. Imitators are more prone to it. Because they have not gone through the invention design process but are merely trying to copy it, they have some intrinsic advantages and disadvantages. Advantages because a person coming later can skip some of the unsuccessful iterative refinement attempts required to get an idea into action, and disadvantage because an imitator might not "get" the subtle context of key aspects of the idea. Intensification is an easy, primitive approach to try to feed off others' success. Any Communist Chinese prison factory can crank out copycat DVD players; it doesn't mean they know anything about their end users' requirements, which controls should be in which positions, how to document their equipment's features. (One human rights observer who toured prison factories there told me-- perhaps apocryphally -- that the some of the knockoff electronics designs copied the originals so closely that there were features they built in without knowing they even existed, so they went undocumented).

A fool can take a great idea and imitate it exactly and fail, or try to "improve" on it by intensifying the design. If the imitator tries to innovate by merely intensifying another, successful innovation, the imitator can fail.


According to Baseball Prospectus, Chuck LaMar, the general manager of Tampa Bay's Devil Rays is thinking about doing exactly this and pulling a major NBH.

  • Ah, to Be Young, Untested and Signed through 2013...: In the baseball world, bad ideas coming out of Tampa are about as shocking as a Rush Limbaugh divorce proceeding--easily anticipated and no longer novel. But this latest one hints at new levels of irresponsibility.

    Shortstop B.J. Upton started the season ranked a lofty eighth on our 2004 Top 50 Prospect List. And although he's slated to be called up on August 1 and, hence, may exhaust his prospect status before next year, there's a reasonable chance he could top our list next year. There's no doubting that he's lavishly gifted prospect; the second overall pick of the 2002 draft is hitting .311/.416/.541 at Triple-A Durham (good for the third-best EqA in the International League) at the unthinkable age of 19. It's also worth noting that since Upton is a U.S. prep product, there's no questioning the legitimacy of his age.

    Still, would you sign a player who's yet to play a day in the majors to a nine-year contract? Of course not; it's a silly idea. But according to a recent report in the St. Petersburg Times, that's precisely what Rays GM Chuck LaMar is considering. LaMar met with Upton's agent, Larry Reynolds, on July 19 and acknowledged that talks are underway on what could be an eight- or nine-year deal. [emphasis mine]

    Upton's potential is unassailable, but to lock a player in to a guaranteed contract that will run almost a decade before he's even made an appearance at the highest level is folly. Sure, erstwhile Cleveland GM John Hart was on to something when he bought out the arbitration and, in some instances, free agent years of some his young Indians charges. But that was after they'd shown they could handle major league competition.

    It's possible that such a gambit could pay off for LaMar if, in fact, he's in possession of the next Alex Rodriguez, but it's an incredibly risky endeavor for a franchise that's supposedly so blighted.

Now LaMar might just be suggesting this as a possibility as part of a negotiating gambit. The report could be false (yes, sportswriters sometimes get it wrong and sometimes make stuff up). But he's made some whoppers in the past, and an attempt to get double the benefit of the Cleveland strategy by doubling the stakes is the kind of bold NBH of which he might be capable.

Doubling a tactic doesn't guarantee doubling its benefits (nor does it guarantee failure). But because it's not the embodiment of a systemic design, apparently merely an attempt to intensify without the context of a mid- or long-range plan, it looks like LaMar might accidentally bomb his own harbor.

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