Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Young Gubs: Managing Change in the Dugout--
Harold Stassen & Revolutionary Moderation  

Reader Marc Lippman was writing about change, and said this:

I've always been interested in effectively dealing with management change (say, the Mets firing Art Howe), then how to best move forward from both the group level, as well as the new manager. How do you not make the entire thing not seem like a giant failure (Howe's and/or the team's fault) then move forward as well as possible next season with a new manager? How can he make the team perform better/believe they can perform better than their dismal performance this season?

There are at least three books here, but I thought I'd share my thoughts & Lippman's a little on this topic, and focus on an avoidable mistake less-experienced managers tend to make when they take over a group or department or entire organization. In fact, the bigger the span of control, the more likely a manager with experience will make this mistake.


The Mets had been led by Art Howe last year and this, with a couple of poor finishes. While under Howe the team improved 5 wins in 2004 over the previous campaign, the Mets' front office doesn't think it can thrive in the tough metropolitan market without a better performance. Ex-Yankee and to some degree ex-Met Willie Randolph, the Harold Stassen of prospective managers, moves up from bench coach to skipper after what seems like seven years of rumor, innuendo and whispers that he would be one of those rare "minority" managers. Many teams, encouraged by the Commissioner's office and their own p.r. departments to at least interview "minority" candidates for jobs, went through an ornate choreography, eerily similar to each others', like a salamander mating ritual but in slow motion, interviewing Randolph or talking about interviewing him or hinting that they were talking about interviewing him.

I'm happy for Randolph (Stassen would have made a great U.S. president, better than any of the candidates who ran against him in seven of his nine attempts), but at the same time, there are two crushingly-negative factors in this 2005 Mets case as a kickoff to his career.

First, it's the frelling Metropolitans, the franchise that eats good managers and spits them out like a failed batch of Bok Choy. In their short history some really accomplished successful managers have been at the helm and failed miserably with the accursed franchise: Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and Howe. Moreover, there's a Gotham-based high pressure to succeed.

Second, he's the bench coach, inheriting his boss' job, and that creates a gravitational field that will push him to pursue one of two extremes in his change choices.

Managers inheriting a group or organization have a continuum of approaches, but I'll name them one of three things:

  • Recreating. The most passive of the three, you are a new face pursuing the same policies, sometimes with very minor changes, sometimes none at all.
  • Rebuilding from Scratch. The most aggressive, essentially throwing away everything your predecessor did in favor of making a big impression.
  • Re-Tooling. This is the middle ground between the previous pair, where you retain some behaviors and patterns and processes and introduce new ones.


Rebuilding from Scratch is a radical technique. The benefits are that people above and below you in the chain know you're being active and they have to pay attention. Many emotionally disturbed managers in and out of baseball like to combine this approach with fear as a motivator. A healthy manager can choose Rebuilding from Scratch, too, though few do, because it means throwing out a lot of already-autonomic low-overhead decisions and processes that work. New managers, especially from within, may make this choice to prove their difference -- that is, make management choices for the group that she didn't choose because they were better or necessary, but solely because they were different (and sometimes completely opposite).

Recreating is very common among inexperienced managers inheriting a manager job, especially when they come from within the group already, as Randolph does. It's a lure because, since the expected behaviors by contributors would be about the same, and the decisions one has to make would be the same, you don't have to spend a lot of time analysing or designing or implementing new initiatives or ways to doing things. Minimal overhead. Because this leaves a lot of time for internal politics, it's the choice of many an inheritor of a management position. This can be a healthy choice, too, when the predecessor was very successful and has left suddenly for reasons independent of her success in the group (big promotion, changing companies, health issues, retirement). As a rule, though, there are always things that can be improved on, even when the predecessor was the greatest-ever.

Most often, re-tooling is the right approach (not always, though). If the manager is already within the organization, he's had a chance to observe and play simulations along with the predecessor ("In this case, I'd do this"). If she's not already inside, then re-tooling is by far the optimal approach, balancing the overhead of change and the necessity of imposing it. Re-tooling, here, means observation, analysis, design, experimentation and implementation of systemic (or even only component-level) changes. It means both assuming guilt (you can change anything for the better) and accepting overhead (that almost no change is free and that the more you change the more it will "cost" in time and resources and stress and other emotional and organizational overhead).


Re-tooling is usually the best approach. For Randolph, I think it should be, because in general it's hard to succeed with either of the two extremes. His predecessor, Howe, is a pro who did some things very well, and as bench coach, Randolph got to see these things as well as the way they affected the Mets ' players and other contributors. At the same time, this is a team that hasn't had much success over the last four years, and that's a long time to be circling the drain. Lippman's Law: You have to jump start the team's sense it can win and part of that is to feature loudly some serious changes to give the contributors a chance to internalize the idea that change really has arrived and that the dreary past is just something in the rear-view.

I'm hoping for Willie Randolph, it works out well, and that the Mets' new skipper can find that balance between keeping the successful elements from the past, knitting in improvements and being flexible enough to experiment and put together a systemic approach to success.

It would have been a lot of fun to have lived in a country that had Harold Stassen as President.

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