Saturday, October 16, 2004

Cognitive Terrorism: A LaRussa Tactic
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The last entry was about a basic personality duality in managers, a spectrum of "settings" that determine the way a manager will make any important decision and will shade the way the manager will make even small decisions. I used Tony LaRussa as an exemplar for one of the ends of the spectrum.

I used to watch LaRussa in action a lot, back when I lived in Oakland and a company I worked with had season tickets to the As and was very generous with them. But that was hundreds of games ago, & I'd forgotten until Brian at (the insightful and well-written and extraordinarily entertaining...whew) Redbird Nation reminded me a specific LaRussa tactic that some other very good managers have had: What I call Cognitive Terrorism (CT).


In a very competitive situation, CT is the application of a sudden change away from expected behavior when engaged with an antagonist who either pre-plans his path and doesn't like to change (think Gene Mauch) or who takes a lot of time to process alternatives. As Brian noted about LaRussa:

La Russa’s strategy is built on getting in the other team’s head, disrupting them. He’ll often go against book for no other reason than keeping his opponents on their toes. I’ve seen him try almost anything to rattle the other team (or rally his own team): he’ll yell at umps; he’ll get himself thrown out of games; he’ll have the umpires check the opposing pitcher for cheating; he’ll start a war of words with the other teams’ star players (Barry Bonds, twice) or their managers (notably Dusty Baker, several times). He will use any strategy to obtain an edge.

This is within the realm of the behavior I previously wrote about as Seeker behavior, but all managers with the appropriate knack for it can exercise CT, even if they're not a Seeker.

The prerequisites for success as a CT artist are:

  • A good knowledge of The Book (beyond baseball, standard operating procedure, or commonly-accepted standards), its limits, and just how far you can innovate off of it without going into an event horizon,
  • A natural interest in examining and deconstructing competitors' habits and biases,
  • An ability to get to a "good-enough" decision very quickly, that is, quick thinking, which is not the same as intelligence though it can accompany it,
  • An ability to appear calm on the outside even when one doesn't feel that way.

Earl Weaver used to run this game against Gene Mauch. While pundits criticized Earl for being a "push-button" manager, he varied a lot in seasons and adapted his tactics from season to season based on opponents and the basic environment (the liveliness of the ball, etc.). Mauch really was a push-button manager. He simplified his life by mentally charting generically optimal strategies and then before games examined the day's situation and tweaked his settings a little, but went into a game and operated without changes as much as any well-known manager in the 20th Century. Mauch was a real S.O.P. guy who would make any Boeing or Ford Motor or General Electric proud, smart and pre-meditated.

For that reason, Weaver could play him like a drum set. Weaver could put a pinch-hitter in the on-deck circle who would trigger Mauch's autonomic response of putting in a specific pitcher and then Weaver would change hitters getting the exact match-up he was looking for. In at least one case, Mauch changed pitchers before the pinch-hitter was even announced, leaving the original P.H. untapped and available later.

Weaver reveled in these manipulations of the autonomic or slow. Because he enjoyed it, I believe he sometimes did it even when he didn't need to, just for fun. I think LaRussa does, too. There's a certain pursuit-of-knowledge kind of manager who thrives on the edges (this goes specifically to Seeker behavior, as Brian notes). And both of them applied this both in regard to in-game tactics, but also sometimes just to elicit an emotional response. Weaver could not easily out-tactic Billy Martin, for example, because Martin was just as fluid and almost as innovative as Weaver, but Martin behaved as though he had a couple of severe personality disorders, and Weaver knew with almost-perfect certainty how to get Martin to blow his top, and Martin with top blown, a little distracted, yielded a small edge to Weaver.

But even if you're the opposite, a Raver who is managing risk instead of opportunity, you can use this tactic to some degree. If your antagonist/competitor is a by-the-book, very predictable operator, you can give the illusion that you are pursuing a certain line to which you know she'll respond autonomically -- without radically changing your own direction, you can make your antagonist/competitor waste cycles or resources and go off in a direction that undermines the antagonists objectives.


I've used this CT approach with great satisfaction in the past. I once had a staff job with a new department. The already-powerful manager of a related department who had hoped to inherit the sceptre for the new department and fold it into his own empire was very upset at losing this plum. Upper management knew he was not a start-up guy, while he was incredibly intelligent and incredibly ambitious and driven, he just didn't have the skills.

Weasel Boy, as he was known around the organization, set off on a Holy War to prove the new department was badly run and failing. Because the new department was providing services to his existing empire (he was our main customer), he would come to me with a long list of impossible demands. It was our job to service his demands as best we could. Upper management, while strong enough to realize his limitation, wouldn't intercede because it was very very weak-minded and driven by a fellow with severe Billy Martin-like personality disorders.

I had made a choice early on that the way to build the group was to attain a quality unrivalled in the industry, and amp up quantity once we had mastered the process and procedures and research needed for the quality targets. So he saw that as our weakness, and tried to push a quantity of work at us that would break both our quality and our ability to deliver. He would come to our department and engage in debate about what he needed and when (not dialogue, not negotiation, debate), and it became apparent to me he always prepared rigorously, like a presidential candidate for a debate (If she says this, I'll say that). He was the Gene Mauch of antagonists. And because this was a zero-sum game sadly (he could only "win" if I "lost" and vice-versa), it constrained the arguments available to him. He became very predictable.

He would come over for a debate, and I'd know exactly what Weasel Boy was going to say, and I would always have a return that was completely different from anything for which he had prepared. He was very intelligent, far moreso than I am, but Weasel Boy is deliberate, a pre-planner who finds it hard to come to a conclusion, but once he reaches it, finds it hard to change away from it. "But you didn't say that last time!" he'd sputter, his Army Corps of Engineers Master Plan in tatters.

As he lost his composure, I pretended to be totally calm, exhibiting a tranquil, impassive monkish persona (think LaRussa), which only un-nerved the already-agitated Weasel Boy more

I always nailed him in these debates, he always left muttering.

I took great joy in it, and as much for the satisfaction of knowing I was leaving him dazed and confused as for the fact that I knew our group was doing the right thing for the organization, keeping on the path of the most productive approach we could execute given our mission and resources.

A note in Weasel Boy's defense, I should relate that outside of work, he was able to vary. He's a kind-hearted guy, believe it or not, and at a key moment in his life when he needed to be attentive and adaptive, he aced it completely. He and another employee were lured out to a business meeting with a troubled man who had either a bomb or an automatic weapon (I can't remember which anymore) and who intended probably to kill them and other people in the vicinity and then himself. Weasel Boy maintained his cool in this completely unpredictable, original situation and talked the fellow out of it and they disarmed him peacefully. Why he couldn't express even a shadow of a dream of this skill in a work situation, I know not, but when it counted, he was an ace.

The complete master of the Weaver/LaRussa ability outside baseball is Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Foundation. There are volumes about his strategy and tactics, and I recommend them strongly if you're interested in learning how someone who is incomparable at fluid problem-solving plans and executes. You may disagree with his means, his ends, or both, but studying this master will be enlightening regardless.


Either risk-avoider or opportunity-seeker, you can use CT to upset your antagonists, cause them to use up resources worrying about what you might do, get them off their game. If you have the aptitudes for it and you're quick enough to do this without spending more time devising strategies than you cause your opponents to invest trying to overcome it, you win.

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