Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Dodgers, Paul DePodesta
& Monsters From the Id  

Baseball is a wonderfully "transparent" system for analyzing most things related to performance and, as a result, most things related to performance evaluation. The performances are largely visible & measurable in many ways by a broad spectrum of people.

One of the weak links in business, military and academic organizations is the exxxxtreme inability to measure, deliver, or both, the vital core of organizational health: Performance evaluation. Unlike baseball, chains of command or reporting relationships designed to restrict the number of people for whom a manager is directly responsible mean a lot of the quality and quantity of effort a person does is naturally "hidden" from people up the chain. And I'm being generous when I suggest a fifth of all people in work or academic situations might be being measured on a regular basis with the results set aside for evaluation-time.

If you want to see a classic case of how performance evaluation and advocacy is done outside of baseball, look inside baseball for a transparent, informative example.

Today, courtesy BaseballThinkFactory.org, a columnist for the L.A. Times ripped into L.A. Dodger G.M. Paul DePodesta for his moves since last year's trading deadline. The core of his arguments against the pattern of moves is this: You've traded away all the guys I think are nice or fun or are good quotes, and you've gotten guys I don't know and will have to learn to deal with, and I think they won't be nice to me. And you've kept Milton Bradley who scares me.

If you think I'm exaggerating, here are some snippets of his whingeing (emphasis mine):

I might be thousands of miles away, but even down here it's apparent that the Dodgers are becoming a national embarrassment. In fact, do we have to keep referring to them as the Los Angeles Dodgers? (Anaheim might be interested in a small-market team.)

When I read in a New York newspaper that minor league catcher Dioner Navarro had fallen out of favor in the Yankee organization because executives questioned his work ethic and his ability to hit, I knew the Dodgers would do everything they could to land him. As you know, the Dodgers love to play catchers who aren't any good.

And now we're being told that the Dodgers are going to send Shawn Green, probably the nicest athlete in town, a guy who set the Dodger record for most home runs in a season, who also unselfishly made the switch from outfield to first base, to Arizona so they can secure Navarro — who will arrive via New York in the Randy Johnson swap.
It shouldn't be a surprise, of course. That was the media concern raised when the Parking Lot Attendant went cheap and hired a young man who has always been plugged into his computer. Now it has become clear, as the Dodgers make over their roster, that Google Boy's computer makes no allowances for intangibles.

Paul Lo Duca cried when he heard he could no longer play for his beloved Dodgers. Throw in team cheerleader Jose Lima, hero and all-time good guy Steve Finley, a home-reared Adrian Beltre, team players Alex Cora and Dave Roberts, and you've got one Hee-Seop Choi on your hands.

It seems as if every player that I've ever gotten along with in Dodger Blue has been sent packing.

{SNIP}The Dodgers maintained to a man last season that they made it all the way to the playoffs because of team chemistry. It certainly wasn't because of the brilliant moves made by Google Boy. The players even rallied around Milton Bradley — even though they were smart enough not to get too close to him — when Bradley flipped out.

We know this after watching Finley and Lima bring excitement back to Dodger Stadium, that Google Boy obviously doesn't put much stock in team camaraderie, or he wouldn't have added Jeff Kent to the roster.

I WAS kind of happy every time Brown got pounded while he was with the Dodgers, because he was pretty much a jerk, and everyone cheers when the jerk gets pounded in the movies, so why should baseball be any different?

I was thrilled to see Finley hit that dramatic grand slam, although I'll deny it if it's ever brought up again. I had teased Finley about being too old, dismissed his ability to hit home runs anymore, lost a bet as a result, and he not only found it amusing, but played along and came off as a regular guy, which is hard to find in professional sports these days.

They also don't come any more cooperative than Green, or Beltre or Cora, and I can say I wasn't unhappy when the Dodgers made the playoffs. And isn't that the point that Google Boy is missing?
This year, you'll be rooting for 35-year-old Jose Valentin at third base, who can't catch or hit. You'll have Kent at second, and if your kids are interested in getting autographs, be careful, he bites.

In the outfield you have Jayson Werth, and if they remake "Animal House" and need someone to portray your typical, immature, cloddish jock, there'll be no need for anyone else to audition.
I hesitate to mention that two great guys remain, Cesar Izturis and Eric Gagne, because I worry now that Google Boy will program that into his computer. {SNIP}

In sum, DePodesta's moves have undermined the columnist's comfort by removing from his environment people who made his job easier. They introduced a few he doesn't know well who have been unpleasant in the past.

Simers' evaluation, while laughable, is too close to the quality of thinking most managers in non-baseball organizations use in their performance evaluations for me to laugh. Simers gets paid to expose his monsters from the id, so he becomes like one of those Visible Man models...you can see his process through his transparent shell. But this same process gets applied every day in, I believe, close to half of all performance evaluations.

I can empathize plenty. Back when I was working baseball games, I had to interview some self-indulgent, poorly-socialized hominids like Roger Clemens and Kirk Gibson. Once I was close to getting jumped by Dock Ellis on one of his bad-head days. But I didn't let that seep into my evaluation of them as players, only into my evaluation of them as people.

As a rule, managers in non-baseball organizations view doing employee evaluations as though they were a Fear Factor event -- something incredibly obnoxious, nay, exploitative, you gotta go through just to get to hang around.

People who hold management positions who are not good at their jobs usually share an aversion to performance evaluations because it stands to expose their ignorance of what's going on, it forces accountability on them (they have to sign a piece of paper with their judgment/opinion on it), and it makes them go face-to-face with the reality of what's supposed to happen in their work group (like the New Year, the employee evaluation is one of those times to take stock and look at the big picture and use the past to create a contrasted future).

The most frequent, toxic result of this aversion is shallow, emotional evaluation. If the real work of analysis seems too hard, just take a ride on gut and emotion.

  • Who do you like?
  • Who's a crony, who's a "good guy", who's a "team player" and who's a pain?
  • Who dresses well or doesn't make much trouble?

The problem, of course, is that high-performers are almost as likely to be unlikeable as likeable (Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Roger Clemens, Ty Cobb), almost as likely to be a pain to work with as your low-performers, and perhaps a little more likely to be making waves that ripple beyond your work group. So even in the small minority of cases outside of baseball when a manager knows enough about the work and employee to execute a useful evaluation, there's a decent chance it'll just come down to who the manager likes and the need to balance out scores so the manager can appear balanced & realistic. Which isn't balanced, and certainly not realistic.

It's a cancer guaranteed to sap productive energy from the organization.

It's fine for T.J. Simers to feel that way, with his id hanging out self-indulgently. It may even sell newspapers. But it's not insightful or useful or destined to make winning decisions.

It's too much like the kinds of performance evaluations most managers in non-baseball organizations usually make.

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