Thursday, November 03, 2005

Management Lessons From DePodesta's Firing:
#3 = All Managers Have a Limiting Factor  

Re-hash: Paul DePodesta, the G.M. of the Dodgers 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, a work the Bitgods found offensive.

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

Before I go to Lesson #3, let me make a quick addition, two thoughts I accidentally left off Lesson #2. First, I was explaining how commercial real estate people will re-paint and spackle a property they want to dress up, even if paint/spackle has very little or nothing to do with the essential limits the property is facing. Dodger ownership apparenly spent $20,000,000 tearing out stadium seats and replacing them to improve the color scheme and, according to one source I found, provide better comfort. Analogue real estate behavior...an indication that the McCourts brought their perceptions of how to attack problems from their previous experience, at the cost of misunderestimating the essential limits the team needs to flick aside. Second, journalists, like real estate people, tend to live in a world where image matters more than outcomes. The conventional wisdom among editorial management is that editorial quality is about 6th or 8th on the list of things one needs to aim for in making a publication successful. As they teach at the classic Stanford program for working editorial managers, if you slash investments in editorial staff and replace them with scrubs, it normally takes two years for most readers to "notice", and by then, of course, you're moved on and it's somebody else's problem. Columnists or journalists are rarely held accountable for barking mad assertions they make. In general, the readers just don't hold them accountable any more than people leasing office space make purely rational decisions. In this way, the McCourts and the Bucket 'o Plaschekes have a common world view from which they misinterpret how to go about winning at baseball.

Enough leftovers from #2. Here's #3:

Every manager has a weakest aspect.
In a healthy organization, that limiting factor is a development opportunity.
In an unhealthy organization or an unstable one, that weakness is an excuse to be exploited by political rivals or an excuse for restructuring.

For all complex organisms there's always a limiting factor. If a plant doesn't have enough nitrogen, that will be the immediate constraint on its growth. Give it enough nitrogen, it'll be another element it needs to concentrate. No matter what the state, you can always point to one detail/ingredient that, if you could just optimise it, would allow the organism to make better use of everything else at hand and grow better/faster/healthier. In project management limiting factor is called constraint, in some forms of engineering, a gating factor.

In management, it's just a reality. No matter what you bring to the table, there's soemthing you can, and should, improve in your methods or practices to achieve better performance. In a player, that might be learning to throw a little more accurately with the same force, or a half-step improvement on the turn at second base, or an additional angle of slide for that once-every 40 game play at the plate for which it comes in handy. Everyone from Barry Bonds to Mark Buehrle has some part his game that is his least-strong skill and that, if improved, would no longer be the limiting factor.

According to press accounts, DePodesta's limiting factor was one of a rasher of alleged shortcomings. I'm using Ken Rosenthal's column (courtesy Baseball Think Factory) on the subject because it seems the wrap-up least tainted by personal venom.

DePodesta, 33, was the equivalent of a one-tool player, a statistical expert who lacked valuable management skills — most notably, leadership. As an inexperienced GM working for an inexperienced owner, he practically was set up to fail.

DePodesta never ran a department as Billy Beane's assistant with the A's. Never had to persuade others to adopt his vision. Never had to rein in out-of-line employees. Never had to gain the trust of an organizational pillar like Tommy Lasorda.

Reserved by nature, DePodesta didn't want to be like Beane, who is one of the game's most commanding figures. {snip} It's not just about moving chess pieces, as some statistical analysts would have you believe. It's about leadership and communication, about putting out fires and building bridges. About things that, even for the best and brightest, can not be learned overnight.

There are interesting assertions here, and they may actually be DePodesta's limiting factors, except for one (leadership is not a skill, it's a way of being). Whether they actually are or not, it's important to remember DePodesta, like every manager in existence. has parts of his game that are less-refined or skillful than others, and one of them is his limiting factor.

The argument that he was inexperienced is reasonable. That he never ran a department in Cleveland or Oakland looks true. His roles have been more like a Grand Vizier/Merlin than as a Caliph or King Arthur. A functional hiring organization will recognize that going in and allieviate it by recognizing that that will be a challenge for the newcomer and either (a) re-shape the job description or (b) provide complementary talents to surround the contributor, or both. The Devil Rays hired a very young G.M., and have brought in Gerry Hunsicker; who has what on his job description & who is in charge doesn't seem clear to me, but the thought is they will complement each others' skills and strengths. The fact that, for whatever reason, these things didn't happen in L.A., tells us the Dodgers did neither effectively.

Rich Lederer wrote a really perceptive piece at Baseball Analysts. It's built on questions, 32 of 'em, including these that I think are closely related to the organizational failure here:

1. Why did McCourt hire DePodesta in the first place?

2. Why did he give him a five-year deal and then fire him in less than two years?

5. Why wasn't leadership, now a "very important characteristic" in the search for the new GM, not valued 20 months ago when DePo was hired?

6. Ditto for being a "good communicator" and finding "someone with the experience to do the job?"

15. If leadership, being a good communicator, someone with experience, and having a "keen eye for baseball talent" are so important, why didn't McCourt hire Pat Gillick rather than DePodesta?

22. If Lasorda's comment that Orel Hershiser's "not qualified" for the GM position is correct "because he has never done it," then would any of us have ever gotten a promotion to a new position? Based on that logic, wouldn't we all still be cavemen?

Except for questions 1 and 22, I think the answers are all the same: Because the McCourts are getting OJT (on the job training) themselves, and are not particularly healthy upper management for a baseball franchise at this stage of their development. I'm not saying they never will be. Like DePodesta and every other person in life, they have a current limiting factor they need to work to set aside...so they can get to the next one to set aside in its turn. At the very least, they need to realize that when they hired a genius just because he was a genius, they neglected his development, neglected coming to an understanding what his limiting factor was, what the next likely ones would be, and with the mission of either getting him complementary talents or training so that these would not be problems. BTW: that advice is not just for executives hiring managers, it's the mandatory precursor for success for everyone who's hiring at any level. Organizational adequacy requires those practices.

Paul DePodesta will work again. He may decide he prefers the Merlin role to the King Arthur one (reasonable choice). He may jump into whatever equivalent offer comes along without thinking too much about it (not good). He may think about whatever were his limits in this first G.M. job and work on blowing them out so he can be even more succesful next time (humm baby).Whenever you leave a position under good or bad or other circumstances, there's always this kernel of opportunity -- self-auditing. DePodesta has a chance to move aside whatever the limiting factor is. If he's smart, he'll wait to hire on with an organization that is interested in his development and also one less buffeted by political winds of Beaufort Force 7.

He may never get the organizational politics thing down. I've noticed in mentoring managers that many people who are not good at it aren't good because they don't care for it or they have a tin ear for it. Like leadership, you can't teach someone to be good at it, only mimic behaviors that seem to work. If he can't cope with it, that may end up being his enduring limiting factor, one that is extremely common in talented contributors, and one that really imposes a constraint on which organizations they should choose to work for.

┬┐Do you hire with limiting factors and unblocking them in mind? Are you constantly pushing to act on ways to help people overcome their limiting factor or are you blaming/punishing them and being disappointed in them instead? If you don't act on those requirements, your inaction may be your own department's limiting factor.

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