Saturday, June 18, 2005

Why The Cubs' Chad Fox = Yin, and
The Blue Jays' Miguel Batista = Yang.  

Organizations that have the capability of growth or change (that is, have a chance to be successful) have to master a few universal ideas, regardless of what endeavour they are in. I've written about a few of them before, but a recent experience I had with a client impels me to bring it up again, and with some new baseball examples that describe it better than any other case study can (as usual).

When the talent is the product, and in most organizations that add value and aren't just plaqueing up the world that's the case, it's important for management to remember that the job description is not the employee.

In baseball, teams rarely make the mistake of forgetting the player is a bundle of aptitudes, strengths and weaknesses, strengths that might fade, weaknesses one might coach them beyond. Successful franchises are capable of changing a player's position based on development or a better chance to succeed in the organization. The NL champion 1977 Dodgers, for example, had two people they acquired to be outfielders, in their infield (Dave Lopes and Bill Russell), a player drafted as a middle-infielder in right (Reggie Smith), and a first baseman who'd started as a third-sacker (Steve "Father of his Country...Or At Least A Lot of Its Population" Garvey).

Baseball management is exemplary in being free of the misconception that once a staffer has a title or a set of responsibilities that the staffer loses their individuality and seemingly becomes a 3rd Baseman or a Pinch-Hitter. They are willing to move players around to various roles and positions for the player's advantage (the position the minor-league player currently plays is blocked by an all-star veteran with a long contract), training them to play another position. They're willing, of course, to do it for their own benefit, when they have a sunk investment or a need.

And, of course, there are weak front offices who are slow or even unwilling to see the advantages for both player and team, stuck as they are to conflating the job description with the person currently in the job.

The Blue Jays' Poet-Novelist-Starting Pitcher Miguel Batista, was acquired to be a starter. But last year, the bullpen was struggling and the Jays had a crop of promising young arms coming up to the big team. The team needed bullpen help, Batista stepped right up -- was willing and able. They didn't have to trade him to make room for a starting spot and then engineer another trade for bull-pen help; they moved him from one role/job description to another role/job description, saving a lot of staffing logistics overhead. In business, it's incredibly exhausting and expensive to hire good staff (and more expensive to hire bad staff), costing time and focus and energy better applied to making progress.

Large organizations have a lot to learn from baseball in this. To quote myself from before...

Bad front offices never look under the label, assuming because when they acquired a player, and they labeled him a shortstop or a starter or a middle-of-the-lineup batter, that to shift him to a different role would cost them "face".

For a weak front office, the label becomes the player, and the player himself disappears, objectified, frozen like a fly in amber, preserved in the viewer's perception and dead as a frelling doornail.

In baseball's strong front offices, players are individuals, taken as they are with all their actual history, potentialities and ability to change and grow.

Outside of baseball, frankly, almost all management teams are like the weak baseball front offices. "Flexible staffing" usually means laying off a third of the workforce and shipping half of what's left to a Communist China prison-labor camp. The skill of tweaking job descriptions or shifting roles based on knowing each staffer's strengths and experiences, and in response to shifting priorities and opportunities, is pretty rare among managers outside of baseball.

But the Blue Jays' situtation is a fecund analogy.

If you have contributors who are achievement-oriented, why not shift them around to take advantage of opportunities? And if you have "contributors" who are not achievement-oriented, or managers who won't get beyond job titles or pre-conceived designs for getting work done well, why are you letting them plaque up your organization?

Staffers themselves can be part of the problem, as well.

Take Chad Fox. When the Chicago Cubs' bullpen imploded in late April, manager Dusty Baker decided to move to something he called a "Bullpen by Situation". As opposed to the now-common model associated with an innovation by manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, this Dusty model would bring in relievers based on a lot of in-game specific factors and not overarching general rules. In the now-common model, players are "mop-up men" and "7th-inning guys" and "set-up men" and "closers".

It removes some of the ergs required for managerial decisionmaking. The manager (and you see this outside of baseball a lot) get to autonomically follow a simplified If/Then path. Low energy. And while players (and staff) like Miguel Batista, who are very "Yang", it's exciting or another opportunity to succeed.

But there are staffers who are more "Yin", like the Cubs' Chad "The Tarleton Travesty" Fox. When Baker announced his innovation/change, Fox was quoted as saying he was willing to do whatever but...

"To me, it's just too much of an up and down, up and down. It's nice to know what your role is. It's nice to know if you're going to pitch late or pitch early."

Willing but whingeing.

It's simpler for the staffer as well. Less to think about. The staffer can unplug the brain, just to the work that crosses his desk, go to meetings others schedule. Some work really hard, too...it's not that they're all trying to sandbag you, they just don't waste many brain cycles imagining how to make the organization more effective (that's someone else's job). And many of these types use the conserved energy to invest in office politics. When there are an abundance of these Chad Fox types, it's most frequently because weak management has encouraged this kind of behavior with its own brittle unwillingness to adapt or take and act on staff input. Management sets a tone, but It Takes A Whinger to close out the possibility of improvement.

There are likely Chad Fox-es in your organisation, too, individuals who have forgotten they are individuals, contributors, people who have become their job description.

To be truly effective, most organizations have to be like baseball teams, with management like the Toronto Blue Jays', willing to make flexible staffing decisions in both the staffers interest and their own. It helps if your H.R. department is smart enough to allow you to hire Miguel Batistas, people who may never become super-stars at any single position they hold but can make your team more effective in a number of ways and elevate its ability to adapt to changing conditions.

You can learn most of the components of flexible staffing by observing baseball management. Pick you hometown team and observe their personnel and job title evolution over the season. How do they choose to cope with injuries? Do they try out people in new positions? Get rid of someone who's failed at one particular role? Do they have a pecking order that drives what deicison they make (the high bonus prospect gets multiple chances, but the no-name is one chance and out)?

How can you apply these obervations in your own organization?

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