Sunday, July 24, 2005

Steady As She Goes: Managing
Goals & Objectives, Pedro Martí­nez Style  

A chronic weakness of large organizations in working towards goals and objectives is the subtle skill of finding the right point in the Preplanning<-->Flexbibility continuum. It's only a small surprise, then, that the New York Mets' Pedro Martínez, the most accomplished pitcher of his generation & this season's leading starter (Composite ERA of 1.48, 10% better than the closest also-ran, Roger Clemens) is an example non-baseball managers should follow in how to find that point.

The chronic weakness usually results in one of two opposite extremes in approach or course of action. This is the result of a simplistic, almost autistic response to nuanced situations that results in Binary Thinking (many bad managers are binary thinkers; all decisions produced from binary thinking are bad, though not all bad decisions result in bad outcomes). Binary Thinking is prevalent among those who like to or need to simplify options, and the kinds of people who ascend to positions of executive power tend to possess the ability to strip things down to simple (or simplistic) models, avoiding analysis paralysis.

Binary thinking is where the decisionmaker views things as having two opposite possibilities, and no others. Nuance tends to be winnowed out for the binary thinker. What channel shall I distribute through...direct or indirect? Is Jacques Chirac good or evil? Should I plant soybeans or sorghum? Should I expand our markets or look for a buyer? Shall I consumer 950 claories a day or not bother to diet at all?

Binary thinkers are mentally and usually physically uncomfortable in the grey areas (and almost all the best possible decisions are grey areas).

Pedro Martínez' approach is well within the grey zone, neither rational exuberance nor refusal to celebrate victories. Yesterday the Mets won with Pedro on the mound, moving their record to 50-47, 4-½ games out of first in the very tight NL East race. According to today's New York Times game story by Joe LaPointe, Pedro...

said the Mets seemed to be improving as a group. He suggested that October was the time for bragging, after teams had proved all their skeptics wrong.

"You'll see me dancing around after we do what we have to do," Martínez said.

Great baseball teams are good at maintaining this even keel, never getting overly-cocky and dismissive of their opposition, never coming apart at the seams in the face of a losing streak or losing a star player to injury. The great Baltimore Orioles teams during the Weaver era were as good as any franchise at this "talent", and when you went into their clubhouse after a game, you couldn't usually tell the difference in their demeanor between the days they won and the days they lost. If they won, they wore an air of that's what we get paid to do. If they lost, their demeanor was Okay we're better but we got beaten, we gotta/are going to win tomorrow.

Pedro seems to have found the positive middle ground, respecting and enjoying the fruits of the win to the degree it merits and not pretending it's either of the two binary possiblities a bad manager might: an omen that means they got the pennant cinched or an essentially meaningless game in July that because two of the three teams above them in the standings won their games as well.

Managers in non-baseball organizations need to avoid the binary extremes, the Bob Dole Generation pattern of withholding praise (because if you stop kicking their axes, they'll stop trying) or the warm unrelenting ego-massaging of the Norman Vincent Peale positive-thinker. Non-baseball managers find the positive inspirations of the victories they get along the way while still looking for what can be improved. They need to analyze the events as part of pattern, too, looking for what worked and why, what didn't and why, and how those factors interplayed along the way, so they can recognize patterns and improve their own performance.

There's an extra Pedro Martínez lesson to learn from the same story, an attitude high-achieving managers usually have.

Martínez navigates his career, his way of competing, by maintaining respect for his teammates and other crafts that complement his own. The "normal" attitude, a little more frequent among talented people is that the things they do well are important, and other things are less important. More damaging, sometimes people with that attitude allow themselves to believe because they don't do those things well, they must not be important. I see a lot of underachieving managers who disappoint relative to their obvious skill, because they undervalue other aptitudes they don't have, or simply ignore them without judging them.

Pedro's conduct is very different. As it played out in the Times story:

Martínez, who raised his record to 12-3 despite having trouble gripping the ball and giving up five runs, became animated when discussing (Met shortstop José) Reyes. Both are from the Dominican Republic. Martínez is 11 years older than Reyes and is a mentor to him.

"I become a fan at that moment when José Reyes is running the bases," Martínez said. "I wish I was him." Martínez said that in his next life, he wanted to come back with Reyes's abilities and play shortstop.

Martínez is not just focused on the importance of pitching. He sees it as part of a system. He takes the time to be a mentor (not an essential part of his job description) and he respects other skill sets, so much that when he sees skill at a very different one, he respects it enough to observe it and to wish he could do it himself.

Managers who achieve persistently respect and observe other departments, disciplines, talents, aptitudes, crafts, all looking for an edge or for deeper understanding of their environment. By encompassing knowledge about functionally attached workgroups there's a good chance they can refine how their own group works to the benefit of the overall system.

Pedro Martínez isn't just an exceptionally good pitcher. He's a Polaris for productive management insights.

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