Monday, April 18, 2005
One of the essential managerial skills is contingency planning, reacting to emergencies small and big. Most managers are "bad" at it overall. A reasonable number are good at some aspects of it and not others -- the skill set required to be a good at it is pretty diverse because there are a lot of different kinds of contingencies. So a manager who is excellent at dealing with one kind of shift will have night-blindness about others.
Baseball, with all its open reporting and clear results, is one of the rare examples where you can see the effects of good contingency planners having holes in their game.
Take the brilliant (I believe) Tony LaRussa. If you've been lucky enough to read Three Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger's new book about LaRussa, the Cardinals, and pre- and in-game managerial strategy, then you know he has a relentlessly analytical approach to the game. His dissection, examination and self-examination borders on the obsessive.
But it appears even LaRussa has a hole in his analysis, a night-blindness that tiggers a less-than-optimal behavior. Don Malcolm's analysis of LaRussa's tenure at three franchises indicates he takes a "Management by Exception" approach to (specifically) pitching. That is while he understands succession planning (vital in baseball & in your organization, too) and planning a few steps out even when things are going well in the present, LaRussa has a pattern of failure. In Malcolm's words:
The pattern, however, indicates that LaRussa has an approach toward constructing his staff which contains a greater-than-average risk of catastrophic backfire. Once he has a staff that reaches a performance peak, his approach becomes static, resulting in a protracted cycle of decline that isnt corrected until the performance of the pitching staff clearly impedes the teams success.
This doesn't mean LaRussa is not good at his job. And I have to think you have to hold his front offices somewhat accountable. But the fact that his teams have exhbitied this pattern through multiple franchises and multiple front office staffs leads one to the unavoidable conclusion that he is, in part at least, one of the authors of this little repeating drama. It's more interesting because it contrasts with the rest of his managerial approach. If you look at his long record, it shows the ability to adjust on the offensive side to the rapidly evolving rosters that injuries (in-season) and player movement (year-to-year) force a manager to adjust tactics and strategy to deal with the present set of circumstances and build in a model for how to keep it current as things morph..
Take a look at some of the detail from Malcolm's analysis and his chart. The lead-in is about his belief the Cards will backslide from their major league leading record last year:
All of these things things add upand will result in subtraction.
It wont turn out so badly, however, because LaRussa is very good at keeping his offense working. The PWP history for Tonys managerial career (which weve displayed in most of its entirety at the right) shows that hes kept his offense in the black relative to the league as well as anyone (21 out of 24 full seasons with the same team). His record with pitching is much spottier (only 13 of 24 seasons with a better-than-average performance).
That record has been better since LaRussa took over the Cardinals in 1996, however. Six of his nine seasons have shown better-than-league performances from his pitching staff. The pattern, however, indicates that LaRussa has an approach toward constructing his staff which contains a greater-than-average risk of catastrophic backfire. Once he has a staff that reaches a performance peak, his approach becomes static, resulting in a protracted cycle of decline that isnt corrected until the performance of the pitching staff clearly impedes the teams success. Thats been a consistent pattern in Chicago, Oakland (twice), and with the Cardinals.
Malcolm points out that the this probable night-blindness in an otherwise succcessful pattern of contingency planning may be short-circuited this year by the team's acquisition of the young Oakland product, Mark Mulder. But the pattern is right there to see, a nice bonus from baseball for all of us who manage outside of it.
ANOTHER CHOICE, SMALLER EXAMPLE
Don Coffin and I exchanged several pieces of e-mail about my "Endy" Chávez piece from last month where I argued the Washington Nationals' front office's response to the player's refusal to deal with his limiting factors was appropriate. Coffin made a rational argument that the change sought by the team were not as simple as I had suggested (it was a very good argument for the Chávez side, though I still believe what they needed out of him was a reasonable change...a change Coffin argued well was not an easy one).
Further, he pointed out reasons to point the finger to the EX-pos' front office, thusly:
But, in addition, don't you think there's also a management failure here? Don't you think it's odd that they didn't address this last year? Or in 2003? Why wait for two years to address a performance failure? (Of course, they might have been and he ignored it then as well as now.)
To let Chávez continue to lead off for the Nats would have been catastrophic. But they let him play the last two seasons with that same inability. They only pulled the plug on his incumbency after last year's meltdown campaign. In their slight defense, they were quite squeezed last year. They didn't have an obvious lead off hitter (just as they don't this year). In '03, they had a practical option in Brad Wilkerson, a good on-base batter with good baserunning instincts and power. In '04, they needed that power lower in the line-up because of the giant departure of Vladimir Guerrero and other smaller losses of power. Moving Wilkerson down force their hand to some degree...they needed more specific effort from Chávez in the on-base side of his game for him to be useful to the team.
Wiser management would have started Chávez' forced training earlier and not waited until it became a crisis that stood to make line-up and field defnse planning so compound (that is, made up of a cascading set of decisions triggered by the one, foreseeable, move). The EX-pos' front office planning made this much harder than it needed to be.
In you own management, are you a Expo front office planner, allowing an avertable crisis to derail your bigger plans with a lot of small clean-up decisions?
Are you a LaRussa, good at many aspects but with a pattern of allowing certain kinds of crises to repeat? An examination of your past performance like the one presented in Malcolm's table might help you locate holes in your game.
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