Sunday, October 30, 2005

Management Lessons From DePodesta's Firing:
#1 = Creating Change Causes Corporate Crises  

It's a losing proposition, and one they should refuse. It's the
Politics of Politics. It's the Slim-Fast Blues. -- Glenn Frey

Los Angeles Dodger G.M. Paul DePodesta got fired yesterday after two seasons of a five year contract. He's been a lightning rod for the Bitgod contingent (Back in the Good Old Days) of baseball execs and reporters who pine for the social structures of the past, and for two reasons. One, he wasn't perceived as having "paid his dues". Two, he was featured heavily & praised in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball which the Bitgods found offensive.

There are key management lessons in this event. This is the first one.

Creating Change Causes Corporate Crises, Especially in a Political Environment DePodesta is a manager with a strong bias for change and a great skill at conceiving it. As he said in his now-no-longer available corporate lecture on management, to successfully manage and push change, you have to change the changes you deploy, even as you're concurrently fighting to install them in the first place. One of the reasons the Oakland A's team DePodesta came from before getting the Dodger job has been consistently strong relative to their player budget is that they never fell into the trap of a rigid plan. Moneyball showed a moment, a frame in the moving picture of their plan, a frame that both the Bitgod side and some Beaniacs debate, each from their own side...still. Even though the A's passed that frame a couple of reels back.

DePodesta really understands Change, something I wrote about in a four part series starting with this one. But while you can make amazing things happen by driving change, in almost every organization, baseball or not, you will trigger immune responses:

  • people who either fear specific changes that undermine them, or
  • fear change in general, or
  • people who are made uncomfortable by having to change.

In a complex, compound organization, change causes personal crises -- at least if it's going to work it has to. And interest groups, both ad hoc and departmental, will firm up "political" opposition. You can count on it. The more unhealthy or in-flux the organization is, the higher the political resistance.

In the Dodger case, the resistance is centered around Tom Lasorda, the ultimate Bitgod. For him, the fight is not so much ideological as it is personal. Sure, he favors the model that he cut his teeth on and managed in; that's perfectly natural if not always functional. But his own political power base within the Dodgers is in the process and people who were paramount in the old pre-DePodesta model the young G.M. was committed to change.

BEYOND BASEBALL You will always face this resistance in a large organization. The larger the organization is, the less accountability there is -- it's easier for the manager who favors politics over the mission to "hide out" or lurk without great results of one's own to point to. As an organization grows, not only can such people hide from their lack on contribution more easily, but they are more likely to get their way in hiring decisions, replicating their cognitive DNA.

The solution to pursue is what I call accountability-glueing...designing and enforcing vigorously, every day, the attachment of accountability to all decisions and pushing for hiring decisions that prevent them replicating themselves. Both undermine the politicals and discomfit them, not only making it somewhat less likely they'll succeed in any given campaign, but also makes them somewhat more likely to move to an organization that has an environment that's more appealing to them.

If there's a complete breakdown, the worst decision you can make is to do nothing. The 2005 Dodgers were not that case. The 2005 Dodgers were a team that followed the 2004 model that made the playoffs, one that sputtered and struggled with a lot of young players growing up on the job.

In the absence of a complete breakdown, the worst decision you can make in the middle of a change initiative is to dump it...reboot and start from scratch before you've given the change initiative a chance to deliver feedback on whether it's likely to succeed. Every one has its own necessary length. For a couponing or discount program, it might be ten days; for the Dodgers re-design, the front office team needed four to six years. The 2004 data point (getting into the playoffs) could have been seen as a positive (hmm, progress made already) or neutral (nice season, but too early to tell). But neurotically, it has somehow been turned into a negative, a weapon used against the change team ("we're looking at failure"). .Just as the 2004 success story built on the previous front office leadership of Dan Evans, the 2006 Dodger team benefits from being built on this 2005 experience. The new G.M. coming in can continue the change (with the possibility of adjustments or fine-tuning) which makes it pretty goofy to have fired DePodesta), or the new G.M. can throw away the blueprint and start over with a new one (which resets the building process back a year or two while decisions re-shape the organization, which undermines the very need for immediate gratification the owners were seeking in firing DePodesta).

Having committed to a hire like DePodesta in early 2004, an office purge in response to internal politics is a losing proposition, and one the owners should have refused. It was hard for them for reasons I'll discuss as the next management lesson in this firing.

UPDATE: I just read Jon Wiesman's super-perceptive description of the Dodger models during their time in Los Angeles. I strongly recommend it, not just for the extraordinarily informative insight it provides, but because it'll add value to the other lessons I'll be writing about.

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