Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Cardinals' Tony LaRussa: Relentless
Optimism Co-Exists With Relentless Realism  

In my management coaching consults, one of the first things I try to assess in an individual who's either a manager or about to become one is where they are on the scale of risk-avoidance at one pole and opportunity-driven at the other. Risk-Avoiders ("Ravers") and Opportunity-Seekers ("Seekers") in their purest forms will use their tendency on this scale as their primary filter for what-to-do in a specific situation.

The St. Louis Cardinals organization and their field manager Tony LaRussa are clear examples of Seekers. Something LaRussa allegedly said to TV announcer Tim McCarver this week is a telling indicator of LaRussa's relentless Seeker behavior.

The Cards took two quick games from their 1st round NL playoff opponents, the Dodgers, needing just one more game to win the series. In the third game they faced one of those rare but never surprising José Lima dominating starts and were crushed. The Cards were disappointed at having to play more games, and more challenging they had to use as their starter Jeff Suppan. Suppan had gone into the playoffs with four consecutive sub-standard starts. The last of those bad starts (Sept. 29) synchronized with the schedule so Suppan's spot was "due" to appear as the first playoff starter. LaRussa had used other pitchers in a way to rest his other starters, so Suppan didn't pitch in the last games of the regular season, had days off before the playoffs and didn't appear in the first three playoff games. He had had 11 days rest, and while rest is considered a good thing, many pitching experts agree 11 days is "too much". You'd have to consider Suppan rusty at that point.And LaRussa didn't have a better starter who wasn't rusty to throw in there.

To the punditocracy, LaRussa was stuck in Game 4 with Suppan, a guy with a bad streak at the end of the season who had then gotten rusty on top of it. Not that he was moldy refritos -- the Cards were 21-10 in games Suppan had started; Suppan just wasn't an optimal playoff starter in that situation.

But LaRussa is a Seeker. McCarver reported LaRussa said while he wasn't happy about not having swept the series, the good part of having to play a Game 4 was getting to use Suppan.

That's classic Seeker world-view. Confident it wasn't a dire situation, the manager was taking what good he could out of it. The benefits: getting Suppan some work; if Suppan was okay, knowing he could use him again; if Suppan wasn't okay and still in his late September funk, having an arguable reason to not use him as a starter in the next series. I'm sure he saw other benefits, too.

And, by the way, this situation happened to work out for LaRussa and the Cards:

 Date Opponent Score Dec IP H R ER HR BB K
 Oct 10 @ LOS W 6-2 W 7.0 2 2 2 1 3 2

Suppan pitched effectively, the Cards advanced to the next round, and the team gets to align its starting rotation the way it wanted to even if it hadn't had to play this game.

Baseball is largely a domain of Seekers, especially when the ball is lively and big innings, not one-run innings decide (probabalistically) the outcome of most games. In highly competitive endeavors, A Seeker tends to do better than an equally-gifted Raver.


In my experience, there's no bell curve distribution with a few folk at each end of this continuum and an increasing count as you get towards the middle. In reality, there are a surprising number at the extremes, a big peak on each end about two-thirds out towards each end, and a smaller fruited plain in between. In sum, most organizations' managers are naturally-inclined towards one pole or the other. And because of Angus' First Law (Most human systems are self-amplifying), organizations will trend strongly towards either one pole or the other over time because most managers who exhibit the opposite side will be winnowed out from above or will remove themselves to find a more compatible organization.

Ravers try to win my never erring, by relentless pruning of efforts and behaviors that might generate or proliferate a mistake. Think of those great National League games you get that end 2-1, where the team that won was the better Raver, the team that managed not to walk the fast runner, that had no errors, that wasted no at bat. I worked with Boeing for a couple of years, and the value of "safety", so vital to the manufacture and maintenance of passenger aircraft, permeated the social values of the company that even if you were building something as naturally defect-laden during construction as a computer program, you weren't allowed to use the word "crash". Ravers don't like the future much, because the future is populated with so many chances to make mistakes. There are healthy Ravers and neurotic Ravers: the healthy ones try to predict the future, the neurotic ones try to pretend it doesn't exist or that it won't change the definition of safe behavior.

Seekers exploit, run up the score, try to find the hidden edges, aim for the great côup, and see the future as a set of circumstances that will exist to be exploited. The more treacherous that future, the more advantageous it is to the Seekers. I worked with Fleetfoot Messenger Service for over a decade, and their president is always balancing present behavior with future, projecting economic and demographic and technology trends and aggressively pursuing whatever makes sense, whether it's buying out failing rivals, transforming his business model, tapping into new technologies. Change is his friend. There are neurotic Seekers, as well, unable to be present in the present, ignoring obvious signs that risk is overwhelming any return the opportunity might yield (think Enron or late arrivals at multi-level marketing schemes).

Seekers tend to be more successful in volatile environments, Ravers tend to be successful in static ones.

But the Seeker world view is almost perfectly-described by LaRussa's comment to McCarver. It's looking for the opportunities in each situation, each environment, and not looking back but looking forward. Seeker behavior isn't Pollyanna reflux ("There must be a pony"), it's a realization that no matter how much horse pucky the Fates have dumped in your living room, there are going to be returns from your efforts in this spot.

Unless you're already an extreme Seeker, you can benefit from chanelling a little LaRussa when faced with a less-than-optimal situation. Find the benefits, and squeeze all the positives out of them that you can, while being realistic about the situation itself.

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