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Thursday, July 01, 2004

The Project Is Dead, Long Live the Next One
In-Season Reassessment & Rebuilding  

Success is going from failure to failure
without a loss of enthusiasm -- Winston Churchill

I received an unusual amount of mail this week talking/asking about big trades that occur in mid-season. The ones most talked about are the ones that have become common: a team that had hopes for this season but finally realized it has none trades away a "difference-maker," most often one who is a free agent at the end of the year, to a team that still has hope. The Hopeful team gets a "rent-a-player", that is they own the contributor's services for the remainder of the season. In exchange, they most frequently send young players to the Hopeless team, prospects who might be of use in future seasons. Sometimes the hopeful is able to sign the free agent, but usually not.

Two deals of this ilk provided conversation fodder in late June: The Astros acquired Carlos Beltran from the never-really-had-a-chance-this-year-but-didn't-realize-it Kansas City Royals, and the Chicago White Sox swapped to get Freddy Garcia from the swirling-the-bowl Seattle Mariners.

┬┐Since non-baseball organizations don't make trades (except some offshore prison-based manufacturing facilities), why is this topic important to non-baseball managers? Because seasons are a lot like projects -- they have a planning phase, an execution phase, mid-course corrections, and a debriefing phase where you try to apply lessons-learned to your next project. In that sense, major league teams' season are vast, easily-observed, projects.

I'm re-publishing in the following section an entry from August 29 of last year on some important aspects of project planning and de-briefing, and how managers can use baseball lessons to improve project performance, even when the current project, like the Royals' or Mariners' 2004 season, is a steaming pile of rubble.

FAILED SEASONS, FAILED PROJECTS

If you work on projects in large organizations, you know how failures, even small failures, build up the plaque of dread and doom among participants. Failures become mythic, vocabulary of mistakes and "inevitable" doom become part of the vernacular of the organization. The cognates of employees get mapped to "we can't do it right here". Once this cognitive cycle starts, even 50th percentile projects are remembered for their glitches, not for what went well.

And at the end of a project, even an average one, team members start to pimp quality, deliver late when they could have been on time, treat each other with less public respect.

Management's response is most frequently ignoring the dread in the effort to apply more ergs to C.Y.A. activities. Management's next most frequent response to to pretend the project was a great victory, with rah-rah meetings, or all-paid golf outings for upper-level executives. Next most frequent response: lay off some people, sometimes even middle managers.

None of these responses are realistic or productive. None of these responses affect the next project.

Baseball has a great lesson here: Like the 2003 Tigers, finish the run hard, no matter if the outcome of this project is pretty-well determined anyway.

This morning, Baseball Primer has a link to a story about 2003's sub-woeful Detroit Tigers. Their manager, Alan Trammell, is determined to keep the team playing to win even thought they're having one of the worst 20 seasons any team has had since the end of World War I, scarily evocative of the early, hapless New York Mets . (NOTE: The Tigers this year have been competitive and no laughing-stock; as of today, they're five games out of first place, two games under .500).

BASEBALL LESSON: TRAMMEL'S TACK

Classic sabermetricians like Bill James and Craig Wright have done studies that indicate player performance and team performance in the second half of a season has some tendency to continue into the next season...that's there's actually a partial performance "momentum". So by trying to keep his players winning and practicing acheivment and pursuing goals and analyzing success and remediation of failures in a totally lost cause, Trammell is working to build "momentum" for next season.

You should too, because that performance momentum is just as possible outside of baseball. The culture of complaint, the plaque of dread, isn't erased by rah-rah meetings or layoffs. It's debriefing, analysis, incorporating into the institutional memory the things that would have made a difference on this project and that will on the next. It's emotionless list-building and a commitment to use that data next time in a flexible way. It's push-back, public correction of those who selectively remember only the things that went wrong.

The St. Louis Cardinals of 1980-1987 are a great example of an organization that went from failure to great success to mediocrity to re-building to other successes. When they were poor, they knew they were, but they built to succeed, drove hard to overcome their weaknesses.

And please note, I'm not suggesting that project managers of doomed projects whip all participants in a frenzied way to the very last deliverable even after it's become obvious they're not relevant. It's not about punishment or imaginary goals or Soviet-style five-year plans. It's about devising better methods and attention to detail, tuning team-work, learning from failure, providing some informed hope.

There's no quick fix for the Tigers' losing ways, nor for the built-up plaque of dread in large organizations' project work. But there is a mid-term cure if you pursue it and follow the baseball example: Trammell's Tiger tack.


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