Wednesday, September 14, 2005

D-Train, Dierker & The
Inevitable Intensification of Bland  

Larry Dierker (good playing career, VERY good managing career, good columnist for the Houston Chronicle, valuable member of SABR), wrote a fun piece for the Chronicle this week that packs an important observation about non-baseball organizations, especially American ones.

It's a little tribute to Dontrelle Willis, the Florida Marlins' effervescent and effective lefty starter who is so entertaining as a pitcher and a person, you might even buy a ticket to watch him if his results were just average. If the National League had an award for MWP (Most Watchable Player), he be on about everyone's ballot for his combination of élan, a dazzling smile that exposes his total love for the game, various odd artifacts and affects in his pitching motion, and the fact that bats better than many utility infielders, and seems to run the bases more intelligently than some starting players. He's the full package deal: brains, personality and talent.

He's also having a heck of a season statistically, not just in glamourr stats like wins, but in real sabermetic stats, too. Dierker uses D-Train as a launching point to discuss the decline of quirkiness, originality, individuality in ballplayers' batting running or pitching styles.

When the Astros were playing in Milwaukee, I noticed that practically every Brewers player had the same batting stance: bent back leg, front leg slightly open with the toe facing the pitcher. The same thing happened to the Red Sox and White Sox when Walt Hriniak was their hitting coach. Every player hit off the front foot, with the top hand released at follow-through.

I'm growing weary of cookie-cutter ballplayers. Where have all the quirky guys gone? How are we supposed to come up with jazzy nicknames when every guy looks like every other guy?

He's got good self-awareness (Third Base in the MBB Model), though. He also said in the article:

I try not to romanticize the good old days. After all, the only reason we call them good is that we were younger then. But perhaps we were carefree, jaunty and more creative, too. In short, we were colorful; today we're not — at least most of us aren't.

So is Dierker wrong...is it just a Bitgod (Back In The Good Old Days) illusion that there were more quirky-looking players when he was growing up in the 1950s (and growing up and playing in the 1960s) than there are now? No, he's correct.

And it's not just in baseball. It's in most kinds of organizations. Because of a management quirk that's most pronounced in the U.S., there's an inevitable intensification of blandness, and inevitable dimunition of originality, and the larger the organization the more creeping homogenaity is hard to resist. But here's the sad bit: If you can't successfully push back against it, you are doomed to underperform. To push back, you have to know where this gravitational field comes from.

Force #1 is the Q.A. movement. Contemporary organizations, especially large ones, rely on "standards". So a typical quality assurance scheme is not set up to achieve excellence, but adequacy. More often than not, a QA implementation is meant to isolate out any units that deviate more than a certain amount from the standard. So if that variant component / piece of work deviates on the high quality side, it's seen as being as much as a problem as a low quality variant. QA aims to improve consistency, not excellence, adequacy not pennants.

As organizations grow, their ways of doing things that helped them grow tend to get diluted. With no standards, everyhting comes apart quaquaversally. So bad management, being binary (all binary management is bad, most bad managers think in overly-simplistic binary ways) goes to imposing standards. And rather than imposing standards that are guidelines, they tend to be mandates. And woe to the manager who makes a choice that veers off the mandate. And rather than imposing standards based on success in outcomes, they impose standards based on following rules. And woe to the manager who has even a successful outcome if it deviated from the rules.

Standards guarantee mediocrity. They're meant to. That's the sacrifice standards-based organizations are perfectly willing to make in exchange for limiting deviations on the failure side.

I once hired a guy I called Blitz. He was available because no QA organization would hire him -- he looked scary, he had played linebacker for his college team and while he was the best on the team, he'd refused to get a haircut so they'd released him, he chain-smoked handrolled cigarettes and smelled like an ashtray. Like D-Train, he was a performance machine, but no one wanted to take a chance on him.

Force #2 is the Truth of Angus First Law of Organizational Development,. which is "All human organizations tend to be self-amplifying". That means whatever skew an organization's personality or tendencies are, they will tend to become more pronounced over time, and that will usually lead to collapse.

One of the reasons this effect is so powerful in big organizations is that they have recruiting departments who use QA mindsets to filter out candidates who have displayed too much originality, and to filter in what seems to please executive management, like candidates from specific colleges. Over time, these candidates are more likely to climb the hierarchy in a QA organization, and since all people tend to hire people who are like themselves, they are more likely to hire mediocrities.

This doesn't mean a Dontrelle or a Blitz can't get hired in an organization with some accountability. They can -- they just have to be significantly better than any available standard, vanilla candidate to get a fair chance.

As baseball has become a bigger-money industry and the decisions become more expensive in dollar terms, baseball organizations have become more QA based. As I wrote about the Red Sox decison to hire Wade Miller back in April, if you sign someone with a motion that people presume is going to kill your career, the consequences to the signer are much worse than if that signee was a cookie-cutter athlete who wasn't as good. People who want to preserve their careers will make decisions that mmove the organization towards mediocrity, even if that saps the chances for excellence. More risk-takers are removed from the decisionmaker pool over time for failed decisions, and the large organization self-amplifies towards the mediocratic (rule by the mediocre) standard.

The people in organizations like the Florida Marlins who take the chance to hire the Dontrelles helped their team to a World Series in 2003. The people in organizations like the Boston Red Sox who take the chance to hire the wade Millers helped their team to a World Series in 2004.

Do you vet resumes for hires or inject implicit rules that filter out candidates who might be Dontrelles or Blitzes? Do you allow others to filter them out? If you do, the mediocrity of QA will eventually squash you flatter than Zack Greinke's season.

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