Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Jiffy-Popped From Last to 1st:
The 1890 Louisville Colonels, Lucretius & Why
Not All Success (or Failure) is Planned
Booms and busts can muddy the the apparent success or failure of managers in all endeavors. Baseball has some clarifying lessons. In baseball, we can really see, usually measure, successes and failures; there are no Enron bookkeeping tricks, no dipping into Social Security Trust Funds to make ratios look better. Because baseball is so open, the easy path is to think of them as "deserved". The 2003 Detroit Tigers were a "bad" team, the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals were a "good" team. These are measurable -- the Cardinals won over 100 games, the Tigers lost over 100.
In general, a manager, unless he has a free pass, is tagged with the level of success at which his team is measured. Under this model, Phil Garner was considered a poor manager with a fluke season until this year, and now is presumed to be a good manager.
Managerial RecordYear League Team G W L WP Finish +----+-----------+--------+-----+----+----+------+------+ 1992 AL East Milwakee 162 92 70 .568 2 1993 AL East Milwakee 162 69 93 .426 7 1994 AL Cent Milwakee 115 53 62 .461 5 1995 AL Cent Milwakee 144 65 79 .451 4 1996 AL Cent Milwakee 163 80 82 .494 3 1997 AL Cent Milwakee 161 78 83 .484 3 1998 NL Cent Milwakee 162 74 88 .457 5 1999 NL Cent Milwakee 112 52 60 .464 5 2000 AL Cent Detroit 162 79 83 .488 3 2001 AL Cent Detroit 162 66 96 .407 4 2002 AL Cent Detroit 6 0 6 .000 5 2004 NL Cent Houston 74 48 26 .649 2 +----+-----------+--------+-----+----+----+------+------+ Detroit 330 145 185 .439 Houston 74 48 26 .649 Milwakee 1181 563 617 .477 +----+-----------+--------+-----+----+----+------+------+ TOTAL 1585 756 828 .477
The conventional wisdom is now granting Garner genius after this year's Astros turned it around when he was installed mid-season, and they made the playoffs .
I've discussed the importance of context many times & how important it is to analyse results using context. Garner's career has been strongly affected by context. Both the Brewers and Tigers were pretty poorly-run franchises, so of course Garner's record is going to be less successful than, say, Joe Torre's during the same years. ¿How much of this is beyond Garner's control and how much is it his making a worst of a bad situation? We have some data, and some opinions, but we don't know.
Beyond context, though, there are managers who are blessed or cursed by the Dance of Random Chance. Some environments just extrude out and swallow up the best-laid plans and talent, or, converely, allow you great opportunities or even make you successful in spite of your own incompetence.
THE LOUISVILLE COLONELS
The Louisville Colonels were an early baseball franchise playing in the American Association until that league folded; they then joined the National League until they were sold to the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their best players transferred to the Pirates' roster.
An article in the most recent SABR publication, Road Trips (2004, University of Nebraska Press) edited by SABR's publications wizard Jim Charlton, has an article by Bob Bailey about the 1889-1900 Colonels, the first team in professional baseball history to go from last place to first in consecutive seasons. That team's manager had had one successful season before and never followed his pennant with another good season. The 1st place team's talent was actually less than it had been in the previous year. And yet they won. Pure Lucretian Dance of Random Chance.
The 1889 Louisville club featured an all-time great hitter, Pete "The Wooden Indian" Browning (he wasn't Native American, he was a fielder totally devoid of range or instincts) and an all-star caliber outfielder, Chicken Wolf. It had Guy Hecker, one of the better hurlers of the era, and short-career abuse victim Toad Ramsey, who was breaking down after seasons of pitching 588, 561 and 342 innings (and he was a strikeout pitcher, the AJ Burnett of his time).
The '89 team just sucked lukewarm prune juice through a plastic straw, putting up a pythagorean win-loss mark of 37-101 and underperforming even that toxic waste pool by going 27-111 on the field. This wasn't just a last place team, it was a bad joke told by a bad comedian. Browning had his worst full season ever, Hecker and Ramsey, too. The supporting cast was inadequate -- and played worse than that. A pair of interesting pitchers were Scott Stratton, who had a good season over few appearances, and a young Red Ehret, who wasn't good but still was one of the better arms on the team.
Moreover, the owner was experienced severe financial difficulties and was trying to sell his better players and the league was trying to mess with him so he couldn't. The struggling owner, with nowhere else to turn, tried to balance his books by fining his non-unionized players for whatever he could, creating a Wal*Mart kind of working environment.
The team was managed by four skippers during the year. The last was Jack Chapman, who had managed the team during its more appealing, mediocre, years. Not that his 1-6 record at the end of 1889 was indicative of great things to come.
But Chapman's fortunes were rising anyway. Several things happened between the finish of the 1889 campaign & the beginning of the 1890 season.
- The Players' League formed, a third league partially-owned by the players who played in it. The teams drew from the existing leagues and thus diluted the remaining talent in general.
- Louisville got new owners who were less player-unfriendly.
- The best team in the American Association, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, and the fourth best, Cincinnati's Red Stockings, jumped to the National League.
During the 1890 season against weakened competition, Hecker returned to form, Ramsey had his final flowering before his arm imploded, several recruits had career years (and never had any other decent ones), Chicken Wolf had a Manny Ramirez year (his best ever), Stratton had is career year, and Ehret grew up and threw the first of a fistful of good seasons.
Playing cohesively in a weakened (and weakened) league, and with a roster having more career years than about any team since, the 1890 Louisville Colonels (renamed by the press the Cyclones because a tornado hit Louisville that year, and because the team was such a major force) had a Pythagorean win-loss of 85-47, enough to win the league, but overperfromed that on the field to the tune of 88-44 (the equivalent in a 162-game season of going 108-54).
The following year, the 1891 Chapman-led Colonels returned to the primordial ooze from which they had come, going 55-84 and escaping the cellar only because the league added the Washington Statesmen, who were 11 games worse. Chapman never got close to great achievement as a manager again.
Sometimes things align for success independently from your skill. Sometimes it's in spite of your moves.
This is going to be a fine decade to be a petroleum-exporting nation that owns its own reserves and doesn't just eke out royalties, because of Asian energy consumption expansion, the US' unique committment to consume without enforcing consumption standards or behavior-altering energy taxes, and spreading instability in the biggest oil-producing region. Entire countries that had nothing to do with the Middle East's implosion will reap dozens of billions of dollars in windfalls from the coming troubles...and that's if oil sells at only $39/bbl.
I had a client 20 years ago who was really lazy. He had a warehouse full of old, dated parts and knew he needed to get rid of them and write them down as a loss, but it wasn't fun and he kept avoiding the yucky effort. A few months after we had last talked about it, I was looking through a Federal publication for RFPs to respond to and just happened to look over the section that covered materials acquisition, and stumbled across an announcement for an AID contract for Indonesia or the Phillipines (I can't remember which now) that was looking to buy old parts of the exact type my client had. He was able to sell off most of his dead inventory at a sweet premium to market value. It wasn't because he was smarter than the market -- it just so happened his laziness created an opportunity and he happened to have a consultant who happened to read a publication that served a market he didn't.
When you see managerial success and failure, it's important to measure not only the results, but allow for the Dance of Random Chance as well. Sometimes bad things happen to good managers, and sometimes you're Jack Chapman...everything just clicks and you were talented enough not to disrupt that wave.
Sometimes you get a Jiffy Pop and all the kernels pop. Sometimes you end up with a pan full of burnt dross and unpopped kernels. Sometimes you're the Louisville Slugger, sometimes you're the ball.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
So in my last entry I suggested, "One of the reasons I don't write a lot about marketing, one of my own areas of strength, is that lessons from baseball would almost all be counter-examples, a gloomy Trail of Tears." I posted there a very positive example, one to follow.
Big mistake. It took the League office a mere 24 hours to come up with the most brain-dead counter-example I can remember: The new marketing for the Washington Nationals. I'm not going to make a habit of pointing out examples of weak marketing in baseball, even though they have value as counter-examples (what not to do), but this one is so over the flop, I just have to lay out some of it.
SOMETIMES CAMELOT IS JUST A PLACE TO SELL DROMEDARIES
You probably know the National League Montréal Expos, owned by the other 29 major league teams, will play the 2005 season in Washington, D.C. as the Washington Nationals. The team announced its new name and logo this week.
As far as the team's move, I'm sad for Montréal, thrilled for D.C., and totally speechless at the exxxtreme suicidal marketing approach the league has taken. The approach spits in the eye of almost every tenet of what American marketing professionals know.
Let's cover the logo first, and then go on to two elements the organization cadged (foolishly).
WE'RE BORING...BUT WE BLOW CHUNKS
The key thing you want to do with your image in a competitive market is to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Whatever your unique proposition is, you want your graphics/logo/symbols/look to reinforce that proposition, what you do, and its uniqueness. As a new organization, your logo should attract the eye and it should say something about what your organization does. Here's a great example. Here's one you know; it doesn't tell you what they do, but it comunicates how you'll feel, and in a different, textual way, the one at the top of this page tells you something about what makes the underlying commodity different or original.
Not so the team's new logo. It's militantly bland, using the generic colors of those afraid to stand out, pseudo-retro lettering redolent of a B-movie with a baseball backdrop (think The Kid From Left Field). It's purposefully symmetrical to nail the ethos of insipid.
It's reminiscent of the big temporary images teams put on batter's box circles or the giant ones they sculpt on the outfield to commemorate team centennials or All-Star Games or Playoff Series. For those temporary purposes, those images are just fine -- they are not meant to sell, but simply remind the viewer of a specific, transitory event. I call that "phoning it in" imagery: it's easy on the eyes, isn't meant to stimulate, and textually informative about something that needs no burnishing.
A product logo though, needs imagery that screams out an image that stimulates prospective customers & makes them feel special. If the Nationals' logo could scream, it would scream "We're boring".
But they didn't stop there. They didn't just crater, they compounded it by weaving in cachet de failure.
Here's their cap. It neither draws from the graphics in the logo, nor looks good next to it. Okay, lots of people have a "tin ear" for type (a tin cornea?). But here's the coup de pruneau...
It's a close replica of the cap graphic for the last major league baseball team that played in Washington, a team that failed so miserably no one even wanted to write a funny Broadway musical about them, a team that stiffed the District on the field, a team that left in the middle of the night and stiffed the District again by walking away from long-term financial deals. They broke D.C.'s heart and pocketbook both.
Yet the league's spinmeisters resurrected the 1963-1971 Washington Senators uniform graphics (look at those caps...the similarity is chilling). It's not quite like hawking Marechal Petain memorabilia to French resistance fighters, but it's close.
Do they think there's nostaligia for that failed franchise that jilted the city? Not much. Here was their record from the expansion franchise's genesis to their beam-out to The Big D:
Year League Record Finish Manager 1971 AL East 63-96 5 Ted Williams 1970 AL East 70-92 6 Ted Williams 1969 AL East 86-76 4 Ted Williams 1968 AL 65-96 10 Jim Lemon 1967 AL 76-85 6 Gil Hodges 1966 AL 71-88 8 Gil Hodges 1965 AL 70-92 8 Gil Hodges 1964 AL 62-100 9 Gil Hodges 1963 AL 56-106 10 Mickey Vernon, Eddie Yost, and Gil Hodges 1962 AL 60-101 10 Mickey Vernon 1961 AL 61-100 9 Mickey Vernon
One solid finish above .500 (1969). Okay, so how about attendance...many lovable losers draw big crowds who don't care how well the team is doing (think Cubs when they weren't making the playoffs). Here are the Senators' attendance records during that same period.
Year League Record Finish Stadium Attend/G Attend Rank 1971 AL East 63-96 5 R.F.K. Stadium 8,088 11th out of 12 1970 AL East 70-92 6 R.F.K. Stadium 10,183 8th out of 12 1969 AL East 86-76 4 R.F.K. Stadium 11,335 6th out of 12 1968 AL 65-96 10 R.F.K. Stadium 6,749 10th out of 10 1967 AL 76-85 6 R.F.K. Stadium 9,636 8th out of 10 1966 AL 71-88 8 R.F.K. Stadium 7,388 10th out of 10 1965 AL 70-92 8 R.F.K. Stadium 6,915 9th out of 10 1964 AL 62-100 9 R.F.K. Stadium 7,409 10th out of 10 1963 AL 56-106 10 R.F.K. Stadium 6,695 10th out of 10 1962 AL 60-101 10 R.F.K. Stadium 9,122 8th out of 10 1961 AL 61-100 9 Griffith Stadium II 7,561 9th out of 10
When I worked in D.C., the anthropologist in me could never stop calling it "The Roller Derby Culture". This is a hypercompetitives' ghetto, a place where people who are in the dominant culture would rather fail but have people think they succeeded than succeed and be overlooked. The dominant culture eats their young and dumps anything that smells like it might be a loser. I've seen it from all angles-- I worked as an aide at the U.S. Senate by day and drove a cab at night -- trust me when I tell you I'm not overstating the ethnographic twist.
Nostalgia isn't automatically a good thing. That feeling or thing you're trying to tap into by evoking has to be something that doesn't freak out the target customer (it can, and probably should, freak out non-targeted individuals).
Moreover, nostalgia is hard to come by in a metropolitan area where a disproportionate number of people with money are from someplace else and plan to move someplace else in a few years. ¿How many people living in D.C were conscious and lived there in 1969 when the team was good? Yep, it's a lower number than bought the Pat Boone heavy-metal covers album (although anything with Ritchie Blackmore and Merry Clayton on it is worth playing).
The combination of the logo (that says "we're boring") and the cap (that says "we suck as much as that terrible team we're going to imitate) is an unfortunate one. D.C. deserved better -- the ballplayers on that interesting team deserved better.
SO WHAT'S THE RIGHT THING TO DO?
The cap graphic cannot sell nostalgia for failure. The team needs to differentiate itself from the past and face the future. They do have a little cushion for minimizing the effects of exxxtreme suicidal marketing -- National League baseball is, after all, a monopoly in the Capital, with the nearest rival being Philadelphia's Phillies at 138.4 miles away. There's novelty (though notice in the table above how little that novelty did for the inaugural 1961 Senators team). and that should sell some tickets for a season or two. And there will be a cluster of middle-aged fans who remember the old team, and, given they're playing in the same ballpark, the nostalgia factor might draw some persistent near-retirees.
They need a real logo that embodies the spirit of the team or the city or both (that'd be hard because culturally, the team really reflects where it came from more than where it's about to start playing).
A bold redesign, either acknowledging the Expos' past (using their colors and typefaces, but stretching the model to the limit...like Pat Boone singing It's a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock 'N Roll) or a makeover with unique colors and/or typefaces that instills a sense of "change" in the consumer, of freshness, of differentiation. That would make it not just "a" team, but "the" team. And dump all the symbology of the failed expansion franchise, don't have a Jim Duckworth Day or pretend there were some "good old days" watching those old Senators teams for anyone who was over the age of about 14.
Neither militant blandness nor nostalgia for a combined playing- and business failure works well, especially in that Roller Derby Culture.
Blaze new trails and let the marketing imagery support that message. And let Pat Boone sing the National Anthem once in a while, just to make the Taliban & James Dobson squirm.
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Baseball has a ton of marketing lessons for people in non-baseball organizations. Since Bill Veeck's death in 1986, most of those lessons have been obverse...that is See this...don't do it! One of the reasons I don't write a lot about marketing, one of my own areas of strength, is that lessons from baseball would almost all be counter-examples, a gloomy Trail of Tears.
But last week the Minnesota Twins exploded out of the little "the way it's done" box major league teams' marketing departments limit themselves to, and it's a clever, positive campaign that's worth measuring your own marketing against.
How often does an organization nail their market at one moment in time and then, when demographics change, slowly lose touch with the needs of many of the individuals over time? Lots of times -- in fact it's normal, even for the rare organization that is able to nail its market. In some ways, that very success can be the enermy of change, because it's fairly normal (though not useful) for successful organizations to resist changing the things that made them successful, even when the environment in which the approach was successful has changed.
The Twins have adapted to a shift in the demographics of season ticket holders, impelled perhaps in part because of difficulty selling season tickets. The team has been very successful (three decision titles in a row, albeit.a division generally regarded as weaker than average), but the owner has been a fount of bad publicity, cajoling, then arguing, then threatening for a publically-subsidized new ballpark. In his defense, he wasn't asking for a deal any lusher than many other contemporary ballpark deals. He just seemed, under pressure, to appear less graceful in his approach tah, say Godzilla dancing cheek-to-cheek with Tokyo. But the team overall is a very good product and they maintain a productive farm system. If any team struggling to sell season tickets is in a position to benefit from a marketing breakthrough, I think it's the Twins.
GAS, WATER, ELECTRICITY, SEASON TICKETS
Season ticket holders are usually viewed by major league teams the same way utilities view their customers: a milk cow. The customers are desired, but there's very little differentiation in services because like a gas utility, in almost every place where there's a major league team, they have a monopoly for the product they offer (Chicago & New York exempted to a large degree).
As a result, while these customers are valued by the teams, they are also turned into commodities. The standard season ticket package is X seats for all home games. Teams that have a difficult time meeting their sales goal with the vanilla approach tend to add small variances, say X seats for Y (a # fewer than all) home games. W-o-w.
The challenge is that culturally, both season ticket sales package designs presume one of two things: Season ticket buyers are corporations who will dole out tickets to execs, favored customers/suppliers and key employees, or they are people who have their lives planned out for a coming Spring-Summer-Fall. That's only true for some of the potential market.
For the vast majority of people who buy tickets for multiple games during the year, neither of these scenarios work, but teams generally design & market season ticket sales to do what teams were doing when the marketing folk became aware of season ticket sales. "The way it's done".
Even when a team provides flexibility for the buyer who has schedule changes between the off-season when they buy the ducats and the dates during the regular season when they would be using them, they tend to treat the customer as a utility would...a milk cow to squeeze some more juice out of. For example, some teams have web sites where they allow the season-ticket sellers to scalp their own tickets legally if they give the team a cut of the take (effectively allowing the team to sell the same ticket twice). Moo up, Bessie.
The Twins have broken this utility model for their campaign to sell 2005 season tickets.
According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune story by Jay Weiner, the Twins are marketing about the most flexible sports ticket plan I've heard of.
Twins: Vouchers put ticket plans in hands of fans
Jay Weiner, Star Tribune
November 18, 2004
In an effort to boost disappointing attendance and to adapt to the forever busy lives of their fan base, the Twins have decided to let their ticket-package buyers devise their own schedules.
To get more customers to the Metrodome, the Twins have quietly established a plan that sports marketing experts said may be the first of its kind: Instead of tickets for a set amount of specific games, customers can now buy vouchers for, say, 40 tickets and then, when they desire, spread those tickets across whichever games they want, sitting in whatever available seats they want.
"Our research shows it isn't that people don't want to come out to our games," said Twins president Dave St. Peter. "It's a product of the culture we live in," St. Peter said. "Our core fan base is stretched more for time than they've ever been."
That's been reflected in Twins attendance, which didn't reach 2 million fans for the 11th consecutive season in 2004. [SNIP]
So, during a strategic summer planning meeting, Twins ticket sales director Scott O'Connell suggested the "Flex Plan." Under the plan established last week, each voucher is worth one ticket.
If, say, a customer buys the minimum 40 vouchers, he or she can go (alone) to 40 games, or 10 games with three family members, or five games with seven employees or one game with 39 friends. The exact seat within three different price levels will be determined when Flex Plan customers select their games. But a Flex Plan buyer could sit in 40 different seats for 40 different games, adding another mode of flexibility.
"Too often, sports franchises -- including this one -- do things one way because we've always done it that way," said St. Peter. "In this case, we're being realistic and reacting to what fans want." [SNIP]
The Twins, with only 8,000 full-season equivalent ticket holders last season, have more than 40,000 seats to sell every night to the casual fan who, the team hopes, becomes more committed by buying these vouchers.[SNIP]
"It may very well be the next wave of ticket marketing," said David Carter of The Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles consulting firm. "If I'm the Twins, I bend over backwards for these ticket purchasers. They represent the best potential source of incremental turnstile revenue."
Weiner's copy-desk trimmed out an essential detail: that vouchers cost $2 less/apiece than the corresponding ticket bought at a window.
Why is that important?
Because without the discount, the plan is almost identical to the normal routine of heavy buyers who are not season ticket-holders. A buyer like that might pick out a handful of games for which to buy some early tickets with some spares for buddies. Then for other games, just walk up to the window on game day. For a team like the Twins with empty seats more often than not, this is convenient plan that maximizes opportunity and minimizes cash otu of pocket.
The Twins flex plan gives the team a win because it can sell vouchers up front, getting the cash up front, and in exchange, it yields a little on price plus the buyer gets some additional flexibility. It's somewhat analagous to a stored-value card, though better for the consumer because she can't lose the credit. Each side in the transaction gets a little something.
PACKAGING THE PRODUCT
It's amazing sometimes how rigidly a seller will adhere to a delivery scheme through inertia, even when the model has always been broken.
I worked for a swell software company where one of the highest-margin products it had was a product that could not be used by a single user. The fewest people this networked program could use was two. The buying of a single unit would only be for an upgrade (where an existing set of users needed to add another user). Dozens of times every week, technical support received phone calls from people who had just bought one unit and couldn't do anything with it (imagine instant messaging where you're the only person who has it).
Resistance to change was overwhelming. They had always sold 1-packs. It didn't matter that a 2-pack required only another registration key (a slip of paper with another number on it), and would therefore cost about 15 cents more to make while nearly doubling the asking price, never mind it would cut down on angry or confused (or both) customers and those customers' wrath directed at clueless resellers and our own technical support. And this was software, not something hard to package like a power-drill or a workbench or a piece of furniture -- it was a book, a pamphlet, a card with a number on it and a disc. No-one needed to design new packaging.
It took over a year to even get the idea discussed. Ugly, but not unusual.
Decisions as to what to put in the box usually stem from earlier wisdom that was actually wise. The wisdom then loses some of its value over time, but systems and the people who run them fall into patterns they don't want to change.
The Twins woke up and tried something different from what teams have been doing since their executives started working in baseball.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
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.
REBUILDING FROM SCRATCH, RE-TOOLING, RECREATING
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.
Friday, November 12, 2004
Baseball is peppered with lots of examples of productive demotions and how to handle them. The most recent lesson was in last week's demotion of Detroit Tiger Scouting Director Greg Smith.
WHITHER THE SMITHER?
In the last entry, I was presenting how Detroit Tiger G.M. Dave Dombrowski moved aside the Director of Scouting he had inherited when he took on the job a couple of years ago, and how his move illustrated several things about the importance of recruiting talent as well as patterns of managerial decisions upon starting a job in a new organization.
Remember, it seems Dombrowski kept Smith on because the Dombrowski had been working in organizations with strong scouting departments where he was expected to delegate that kind of decisionmaking to those groups, or at least rely heavily on their advice.
It became obvious Detroit's drafts, especially in the ultra-premium early rounds, were not measurably successful, and it was time for a change. But Smith owns a a lot of the organization's institutional memory and I suspect Dombrowski isn't sure Smith is a loser.
What the G.M. did to change the Director of Scouting's position is subtle and worth considering in your own staffing moves. Dombrowski didn't fire Smith -- he made use of him.
The team assigned Smith to scout a region the team has not been taking much advantage of: the Pacific Rim. He also has responsibility for countries with no formal position relative to MLB, such as Cuba. The Tigers actually had one of the earliest Cuban exile players, Barbaro Garbey Garbey (The Gratuitous Middle Name Kid, as he was known in Santiago), giving him a roster slot in 1984.
Smith has gotten a chance to apply his skills in an almost no-lose no-pressure situation.
If he comes up with anyone useful, it'll be more than the team had already. If not, hardly anyone will notice that absence of what's already absent. If some of Smith's recent draft picks from his Director tenure work out, you haven't lost him to another organization. If they don't work out, his span of control is limited to areas the Tigers weren't getting much torque out of anyway. Worst that can happen is he collects his salary a little while longer and yields no new gains.
When you start a new management gig, you have staff or lower-level managers on hand. It makes sense to see what they can do before you purge them to make way for your own picks, especially if they have strength in areas that are not your particular strong points. But the highest-reward action you can take is to observe them closely for strengths and weaknesses and rebuild jobs for them to maximize their value to the organization.
Facing them to tell them they are being moved downward isn't easy, but you owe it to your organization to give them a chance to be of value even if that chance is at a lower level than they are currently operating in. Even if you have to suck up the unpleasant task of deflating someone (many people conflate their value or personal worth with the position or title they hold at work), it's part of your responsibility as a manager to parlay the most value out of your resources over the long haul. Part of that effort is finding people jobs in which they can succeed, in overcoming their weaknesses.
I think Dombrowski's niche for Smith was a clever attempt at doing just that. He moved Smith out of the spotlight, but gave him a chance to contribute. He minimized the potential morale hit, and preserved a chance for the ex-director to be rehabilitated if he learns new skills.
Would you have the stomach to do Dave's daring deed? If you want to excel at managing, you have to try.
Tuesday, November 09, 2004
Earlier this week, Dave Dombrowski, the interesting general manager of the Detroit Tigers, juggled his scouting operation, sending his scouting chief, Greg Smith, to a new position looking over talent in areas the team hasn't really mined before (Japan, Korea, Australia), and bringing in a couple of outside contributors who have had good results to take his place. Smith had been a holdover from the previous regime. When Dombrowski took over before the '02 season, he kept Smith on.
Smith's drafts, especially in the high-impact early rounds, had yielded very low results, according to this Detroit News piece. So while the team showed a little life this year, it was at a high cost with the addition of free agents such as Ivan Rodríguez, and the core difference-makers were those free agents or veterans acquired in trades. While a team can be successful reaping the benefits of players other teams drafted, it's a relatively expensive and difficult-to-sustain model. Teams with budgets need to develop their own contributors, an important lesson for non-baseball organizations.
But the key lesson is that in an endeavor where the talent is the product, you can only be as good as the talent you recruit. If a team's scouting department isn't effective, if your organization's H.R. department is not finding (or allowing through) the best, you can never be better than mediocre.
There were a lot of reasons why Smith was demoted last week and why two sharpies who had been working for the Red Sox and earlier, for the Florida Marlins are now in charge of straightening out a historically awful Tigers farm system.
But these two names stood as big reasons why Smith was exiled: Scott Moore and Brent Clevlen.
They were the first players the Tigers drafted in 2002, Dave Dombrowskis inaugural draft as president and general manager. Detroit had the first rounds eighth pick and took Moore, a high school infielder. Clevlen, a high school outfielder, was the teams second-round choice.
Here are their numbers from 2004 at Class A Lakeland: Moore played 118 games, had 391 at-bats, and hit .223 with a .322 on-base average and .384 slugging percentage. He hit 14 home runs, had 56 RBI and struck out a whopping 125 times. Clevlen was almost Moores equal: 117 games, 420 at-bats, .224 batting average, .300 on-base percentage (gasp) and a .350 slugging percentage. He had six home runs, 50 RBI and struck out a sickly 127 times.
Ouch. Dombrowski always has believed that, when drafting early in the first round, you need to not only grab a certified big-leaguer, you better select a future All-Star.
Thumb back through the Tigers drafts since 1979 and you are left in disbelief. Only rarely did anyone make it to the big leagues; all too often, players who should have been in Detroit ended up with other clubs.
Meanwhile, other clubs Minnesota, Cleveland, Montreal, you name it drafted and developed talent that always seemed to elude the Tigers appraisers.
The ugly stuff had to end. Dombrowski might have waited too long, for whatever reasons, to make changes. But this situation had to be altered radically, and immediately, if the Tigers hope to become anything other than a perennial insult in the years ahead.
Was Smith solely to blame? Perhaps, perhaps not. The story also notes:
Some of us had refrained from openly questioning his tenure, which began under Randy Smith in 1996, because you cant always be sure who is doing the selling when a player is selected. There are national scouts, regional scouts, cross-checking scouts, and front-office bosses who all have their input. Attempting to discern who most promoted whom can be risky business.
Randy Smith was not only the man who pulled the trigger on draft day during his six years as general manager in Detroit, he did a great deal of the final-stages scouting. Dombrowski does less on-site evaluation and leans on heavier input from trusted scouts.
The key word there is trusted. And the suspicion confirmed, it would appear, by last weeks decision is that Greg Smith had too much to say about too many draft picks who annually washed out of the Tigers anemic farm system these past eight years.
Some of us likewise wondered if Mike Ilitch, the Tigers owner, would decide at some point in conjunction with Dombrowski to throw more money at their scouting system after so many years of abject failure. As much as money might help remedy an embarrassing legacy of bad judgment, scouts with greater wisdom plainly had to be a bigger part of the Tigers reformation. It looks as if Ilitch and Dombrowski made their move last week in shuffling Smith and replacing him with David Chadd, a respected Red Sox scouting director who worked with Dombrowski in Florida, and James Orr (Red Sox and Marlins pedigree, as well), who becomes assistant scouting director.
Dombrowski, on arriving, didn't bring in his own scouting people, but stayed the course with the old. As managers, when we start in a new organization, we generally focus on areas we know best or are confident are areas in which we have the highest impact. Dombrowski is not a scouting guy, though he came from a pair of organizations (the Marlins and the Expos) with histories of good scouting.
He might have not made it a priority because he didn't know a lot about scouting himself. He might have not made change there a priority because he might have taken it for granted (¿have you ever worked in an organization where something straightforward like the shipping/receiving or A/R group just didn't work; remember how surprised you were because you had always taken their efficacy for granted?). Or he might have just been passive. Any one of these three are a potential weakness you should be alter to when you start a new job. The first reason, delegating or deferring decisions in areas outside your expertise, is the least damaging. The other two can be fatal.
MBWT (Management By Wishful Thinking) is one of the most pervasive forces sapping managerial effectiveness. Passivity is an enemy of effective management. That's not to say you have to be tweaking every aspect, process, job description, piece of equipment, marketing plan all the time. But you do have to address known limits to your group's effectiveness.
Dombrowski couldn't wait any longer to take a chance on something new in a vital area. Can you?
Friday, November 05, 2004
you or breaks you is
the ability to choose from among the in-betweens
those (players) who will go on to make good.-- Branch Rickey
In contemporary organizations that will survive the coming economic shocks, there's a single common thread: they know and act on the idea that the talent is the product. No line of endeavor makes that clearer and holds more lessons for managers looking for an edge in this area than baseball does. Baseball is way ahead of other kinds of organizations, with its decades of post-reserve clause competition to acquire talent.
WHEN THE TALENT IS THE PRODUCT
I've elaborated on that point before, most recently here, so I'm not going to do any more explicatin' on that topic in this entry.
But this idea is catching on and one of the most innovative management consultants, Tom Peters, recently brought to my attention a slide deck he presented to a conference of H.R. people. As all of his output does, this deck is choc-a-bloc with new ideas and enthusiasm. My favorite new idea was "Best Sourcing", which is exactly the model baseball front offices understand and that most pursue because history has lead them to it. Baseball teams have to scout hundreds of potential prospects to find a handful of individuals in whom to invest resources. And a small percentage of those will actually contribute in the major leagues.
In such a challenging, winnowing model, small errors in judgement have devastating effects. For example, the Brooklyn Dodgers gave up on Roberto Clemente, one of the 100 best outfielders of all time, by not protecting the 19-year old in the Rule V draft (that allows other teams to pick up unprotected players for a tiny token dollar sum) in favor of protecting around a dozen players who never were able to contribute to the major league team. A more recent example (there are hundreds) is the champion Boston Red Sox' David Ortiz, left-handed slugger extraordinare and probably the Bosox' most valuable player in October. The desperate for left-handed power Seattle Mariners coughed up Ortiz for 28 games of Dave Hollins, a Minnesota Twins third-baseman who did give the Ms a wonderful contribution in a stretch drive (in which the team failed to grab a playoff spot).
In any competitive endeavor, talent acquisition is the single most important area that will determine success or failure. Before free agency forced teams to become hyper-competitive, teams tended to do have their talent acquisition ruts. They looked for players everywhere in the U.S., sure, but they had one or two leading techniques on which they relied, so talent tended to be clustered, usually based on the efforts of a small handful of their regional scouts.
Joe Cambria, for example, acquired a lot of the second line talent for the old Washington Senators. Being relatively impoverished, the team found Cambria to scour then Third World Cuba for their second-line talent. Cambria had little competition, and he was good, so fishing in that secret (for a while) pond made him effective.
Teams later focused on Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. Some teams, like the Dodgers, were more aggressive in combing Japan and Korea.
There was a rage a couple of years back -- Taking a Rule V player. Many more teams than usual were selecting a minimum-wage, usually low-minor league player of promise and then were forced to make him plaque on the major league roster. Teams' management have argued/tried-to-negotiate for years to cut the 25-player major league roster to 24. In the absence of that, putting a Rule V guy on the roster is the cheapest way to fill a 25th slot for a year. Then you send the player down to the minors, a year of development lost, to try to continue developing. This Rule V fad was designed to save money, but so are a lot of H.R. decisions.
And when the reserve clause met its sudden death and that escalated competition, baseball got serious about the Major League Scouting Bureau, a co-operative venture that put a pool of common scouts at the disposal of all member teams. It was a clever money-saving device, but it was, in a major way, the anti-Moneyball approach. Co-op models are the basis of many a successful industry (Ocean Spray, Minute Maid, Farmland are all superb examples), but in all the exemplars, I cannot think of one where the co-op's members are hyper-competitors. If you can think of one, send me e-mail; I'm looking right now for a counter-example for a discussion with a client. In baseball, the co-op scouting model guarantees uniformity of thinking, at least as a foundation. Teams will send their own scouts to cross-check the Bureau's reports, but if the player is a diamond, that potential contributor won't be a diamond in the rough, undiscovered by competitors. The only way a team could gain a competitive edge would be to examine the players the Bureau's scouts weren't recommending -- hardly a high-yield strategy.
There was a rage a couple of years back -- Taking a Rule V player. Many more teams than usual were selecting a minimum-wage, usually low-minor league player of promise and then were forced to make him plaque on the major league roster. Teams' management have argued/tried-to-negotiate for years to cut the 25-player major league roster to 24. In the absence of that, putting a Rule V guy on the roster is the cheapest way to fill a 25th slot for a year. Then you send the player down to the minors, a year of development lost, to try to continue developing. This Rule V fad was designed to save money, but so are a lot of H.R. decisions. Like most fads, a few teams that mastered the context benefited. But some teams lost their chance to be in the playoffs in trying to save 1% on their labor costs with a Rule V-er.
H.R. departments' uniformity of thinking imitates the functions of the Major League Scouting Bureau. While too many H.R. departments are totally incompetent (evolutionary tendency operates here; H.R. is such a complex endeavor with such a history of non-success that many sensate executives have come to believe it can't be better, while others just do end-arounds to do their own hiring but not confronting the entrenched, failed model), most are quite "good". What they are "quite good" at is acting like the standard, vanilla, H.R. Department, making standardized, mostly-uniform decisions, just as the Major League Scouting Bureau, a standards-driven evaluator, does.
The trend in baseball is to put more resources into in-house, proprietary scouting analysis. The Boston Red Sox' sabermetric consultant Bill James has proposed tinkering with the paradigm for scouting, proposing vastly-more in-depth scouting of significantly fewer potential players. The Sox haven't, apparently, implemented the James model, perhaps they never will, but they are open to thinking about it.
But no team can afford, in the hyper-competitive environment, to just scout Cuba or just scout college players in the Pac Ten or just scout high schoolers in Florida. Rigidity, autonomic simplicity, increases the chances for failure, something no team can afford to risk.
The challenge for non-baseball organizations with a standards-based, conformity-driven H.R. department is they will all pursue the same profiles, missing out on the Roberto Clementes and David Ortiz-es. As a result, those failures have created a gravitational attraction for letting others (most frequently no better, by the way) do the recruiting and carry the burden of failed hires. That movement has lead to many kinds of "sourcing", mostly "out-sourcing". Any orghanization that would outsource either its most important fucntion (talent acquisition) or its second-most important function (strategic planning) is playing Russian Roulette with four bullets. And playing two rounds.
The approaching economic shock forces all organizations to rapidly internalize the baseball model if they want to survive. How best to do it becomes the key question.
Personally, Peters' "Best Sourcing" idea is one of the most worthwhile to internalize, I think.
His slide read as follows:
Not "out sourcing"
Not "off shoring"
Not "near shoring"
Not "in sourcing"
Peters' argument is (oversimplified) use the talent that's most appropriate for the upcoming tasks. Don't automatically assume a specific source is the best for everything or that a standard approach will be best for any specific effort. Diversify your talent search to acquire the best available anywhere, because if you don't, a competitor will.
If your H.R. group is not open to breaking its mold, you're going down the path of a team that only uses the Major League Scouting Bureau. In a non-competitive environment, that wouldn't be fatal, merely generic. In a competitive environment, it guarantees high salaries/wages and average performance, a turnpike to performance hell.
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