Saturday, April 30, 2005

Cognitive Plaque: Sportswriter's
Macha-Do About Nothing  

In all large organizations, there is a cadre of people who get paid a lot but don't work hard. The larger the organization, the more likely it will be to have a bigger percentage of 'em.

Sometimes it's the slacker's fault. He figures if he can find a big enough organization, he can hide, generate just enough product and say plenty of wise-sounding bizspeak homilies, he can get by and polish his golf-game/football-pool/church-fund-raiser/whatever avocation he has. He's human plaque and when he does produce work product, it's usually plaque, too...a showy report that isn't actionable, a beautifully-formatted memo advocating something tangential or even irrelevant.

Sometimes it's the organization's fault. Sometimes protocol demands plaque. Universal reporting at weekly meetings, for example, where every department manager is expected by rule or protocol to say something. High-volume retail counters where they don't ignore pennies. Writing that quarterly report no-one reads and hasn't since Chevrolet made the Nova.

Baseball has some good examples. In baseball, announcers feel like they have lots of space to fill (no Red Barber style announcing anymore...the verbal pause is a declining thing in radio and even television; I almost understand it in radio where management is afraid a person might be station-scanning and think there's no game on, but on TV, where you can see the game, there's no excuse for the logorrhea). Announcers love to tell you portentously Bill "Wagon Tongue" Keister is 1-for-2 lifetime against Phenomenal Smith, so he's batting .500 against him, as though that was meaningful.

Writers generally don't love to fill space meaninglessly, by the way. The mantra in commercial publishing is "real estate is precious" because there needs to be a roughly-fixed ratio between ads and copy. Unless there are a ton of ads to run, editors need to keep the amount of copy under control.

sometimes editors shoot themselves in the footer by building structures that demand plaque. I saw a howler this week, a junk stat that arose, I'm pretty sure, because USA Today demands a certain amount of copy on every team every day to fill a design feature: Team Notes. Each day, they run something for each team, whether there's something of value to say or not. Some poor sod has to come up with something(s) short. Here was Oakland's note from Thursday:

Oakland: The Athletics, perhaps inspired by the Angels' five stolen bases against them Saturday, were 1-for-2 in steal attempts Sunday against Jose Molina. They were 1-for-3 in their first 18 games combined.

This is plaque, meaningless filler the writer probably knew was meaningless filler but the newspaper's format forced her to deliver something.

The one thing we can glean from this junk stat is the Athletics haven't tried to steal much this season. Not big news. Manager Ken Macha's A's last year were last in the league in steal attempts, last in the league in bases stolen and last in the league (which actually makes them the best in the league) at number of times getting caught stealing, and middle of the pack in Net Steals (SB - [2*CS]). The A's have a grand total of one starter or platoon player who is a good base stealer who does it on a regular basis, Eric Byrnes, and this year, he's in a slump so far, getting on base (that is, being in a position to steal a base) at a low .283 OBA rate.

And stealing 1-for-2 bases in a game is the ultimate in exxxxtreme non-news. Two attempts in a game for a team, any team, is ordinary, above the median but completely ho-hum, and being successful 1 time in 2 attempts is about the same, to be expected.

So the writer concatenated an "obvious" (1-for-3 in their first 18 games), a "ho-hum" (1-for-2 in steal attempts), and some unsubstantiated supposition (inspired perhaps by the Angels' five stolen bases").

That filler mentality can be just harmless plaque, but it can also undermine an organization's health. I've found it's most stressful when an organization is going through a re-organization or downsizing or re-engineering. Because the odd thing about American business is when the team sets out to pare costs or kill jobs or processes to preserve cash, plaque is more likely to remain than productive assets...that is, total plaque rarely goes down.

If USA Today suffered a loss of advertising and had to trim their real estate set aside for copy, I'd wager they would cut other editorial before they cut these team notes, a form of work that cries out for plaque.

Why? Because I suspect, they think readers expect to see it. Why? Because it's there and has been for a long time. Why? Because readers expect to see it.

The four-year old's incessant questioning of "why" not only is the shortest path to describing how some plaque has come about, it can also be, in an organization capable of being healthy, a path to opening up people's eyes to the behavioural plaque. Like water to a fish, it usually becomes invisible, just part of the environment. Pressuring someone tell you why may help them to see why it's unnecessary (or explain to you why it actually is useful).

In your workplace, hunt out the plaque. Ask "why?" and keep asking nicely until someone tells you.

Plaque, human or cognitive or behavioural, can almost never help an organization, but it will always slow it down and rob it of at least a little strength.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Red Sox' Thriller in Wade Miller:
Finding the Golden Meanie  

If you read this page regularly, you'll already know I'm highly critical of the majority of American managers' general lack of courage and judgment. Here, though, I'm going to express some sympathy for managers who have to face one of the toughest areas in which to find a "right" solution. It's difficult because there's no roadmap for success; every instance is an experiment and requires the manager to be attentive to context and how it's working. The poster child for this problem is going to be the managerial handling of the Boston Red Sox' recently acquired starting pitcher Wade Miller, thought he problem is one you will face as a manager on a regular basis yourself.

That area is in dealing with an employee whose approach is "different" from the norm.

Large organizations, especially business ones, work very hard to create standards and to hire people who appear standard and to impose standard ways of doing things. Standards are generally require the amputation of excellence to get a corresponding reduction in the chances for total failure. I call it "guaranteed mediocrity".

The standards-based approach seeks mediocrity in pursuit of safety, but at the same time, it acknowledges the reality that most of the possible variants will fail most of the time. Accepting that "most variations of off standards will fail most of the time" while not slipping into the binary quicksand of believing "all of the variations of standards will fail all of the time" is one unusual accomplishment.

Wade Miller is a starting pitcher notorious within the game for having unusual mechanics that are generally regarded as being a set of actions that (a) can't work well, and (b) guaranteed to cause injury.

Normally in baseball (and other kinds of endeavors) this will filter you out of advancement, even if you are successful. No one wants to be the lightning rod who tells her superiors that Implosion Lad should get a chance because as soon as they see his deviations off standards, especially the ones that are almost-universally accepted as failure-inducing, the recommender gets 14 lashes with a soggy canelloni and her personal mojo is downgraded to a lower level making her subsequent recommendations marginally less appealing because of the Implosion Lad one. Over time, her influence will decline. Recommending the determinedly non-standard what my smart buddy Dave Perkins calls a CLM (a Career Limiting Move).

In most big American organizations the math is more punishing than what I just described. That's because people remember mistakes more than successes in the average large organization.

I wish I could tell you how Wade Miller made it to the majors with his universally-regarded-as-self-immolating cross-body delivery. Maybe we owe a tribute to the Houston Astros' courage. Maybe they were simply willing to ride his superior performances until he broke. But the Astros promoted him to the majors and for a few years, he was a valuable contributor.

 1999 HOU 5 1 0 1 10.1 17 11 11 4 5 8 9.58 2.13 .362
 2000 HOU 16 16 6 6 105.0 104 66 60 14 42 89 5.14 1.39 .257
 2001 HOU 32 32 16 8 212.0 183 91 80 31 76 183 3.40 1.22 .234
 2002 HOU 26 26 15 4 164.2 151 63 60 14 62 144 3.28 1.29 .249
 2003 HOU 33 33 14 13 187.1 168 96 86 17 77 161 4.13 1.31 .242
 2004 HOU 15 15 7 7 88.2 76 35 33 11 44 74 3.35 1.35 .228
 Career   127 123 58 39 768.0 699 362 330 91 306 659 3.87 1.31 .244

Table source: BigLeaguers.Yahoo.Com

His production is actually a little better than these straight-ahead collected numbers show. ALast year while pitching quite well (at about his normal level of accomplishment), he blew out his shoulder during his June 25th start and was on the disabled list the rest of the season.

The Red Sox signed him during the offseason to a low price upfront welded to a lot of performance-based incentives, protecting themselves pretty well if he can't recover. That financial bit is fine, a win-win from which both sides benefit. But the financial bit isn't intrinsically interesting.

The challenge comes from the next step: Do you make re-training part of Wade Miller's physical rehabilitation? In standardizing Miller, you might will erase parts of the very approach that made him successful. You might succeed in making him more durable long-term but at the cost of guaranteeing his mediocrity (perhaps good enough to have a role in the Majors, perhaps not).

According to Peter Gammons' 4/22 column:

...Miller is inching closer to Boston. In his last rehab start, Miller got up to 93 mph and sat at 91-92, although his Kinston opponents felt he was far from dominant. To take pressure off Miller's shoulder, Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace has tried to smooth Miller's delivery so that he directs to the plate and isn't so pronounced throwing across his body. "It's worked well," Miller said. "There's less stress, my slider and curveball are fine & the one thing that's different is that I don't have as much movement down in the zone. So I have to try to pitch more like Curt Schilling, commanding both sides of the plate down on the corners."

The Bosox are opting for change and hoping they can teach him to be a different successful pitcher than the successful pitcher he was before..pretty ambitious stuff. After all, if he had been successful with standard pitching mechanics before, the homogenization machine that college and minor league coaching represents would have shoe-horned him into that model already -- that's their job.

In your own organization, the challenges of non-standard people and non-standard practices are always soemthing you have to balance. Can you afford mediocrity (the word is not an insult -- it just means ordinary adequacy)? Most big organizations are built on the idea that mediocrity is survviable or even survival itself.

Most non-standard approaches do underperform, while some exceed standard performance by light years. You have to judge these on a case-by-case basis, and there's no magic tool that guarantees success.

The Red Sox approach insulated them a little. While they hope Miller will pitch as well as he did for the Astros, they aren't banking on it -- the deal they structured with him allows for him to be of value even if he's a C- quality contributor. They will watch and track and monitor his performance.

I think that's the best approach to non-standard people and processes. Certainly don't try the two-out sacrifice bunt (something almost sure to fail), but unless you're passionate about maintaining mediocrity, don't fear experiments. Try them, but hawk-eye them. Learn as much as you can from them. Don't aloow things to get too out of hand, but at the same time, show a little patience and allow enough wiggle-room to give them an opportunity to succeed.

Tough advice to follow,as I said before. No hard-'n-fast code, more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

But Millers can be thrillers if you're willing to experiment. I think so, and clearly the Red Sox do, too.

Monday, April 18, 2005

When Punctuated Equilibrium Devours
The Cards & Nats: Tony LaRussa & Don Coffin  

One of the essential managerial skills is contingency planning, reacting to emergencies small and big. Most managers are "bad" at it overall. A reasonable number are good at some aspects of it and not others -- the skill set required to be a good at it is pretty diverse because there are a lot of different kinds of contingencies. So a manager who is excellent at dealing with one kind of shift will have night-blindness about others.

Baseball, with all its open reporting and clear results, is one of the rare examples where you can see the effects of good contingency planners having holes in their game.

Take the brilliant (I believe) Tony LaRussa. If you've been lucky enough to read Three Nights in August, Buzz Bissinger's new book about LaRussa, the Cardinals, and pre- and in-game managerial strategy, then you know he has a relentlessly analytical approach to the game. His dissection, examination and self-examination borders on the obsessive.

But it appears even LaRussa has a hole in his analysis, a night-blindness that tiggers a less-than-optimal behavior. Don Malcolm's analysis of LaRussa's tenure at three franchises indicates he takes a "Management by Exception" approach to (specifically) pitching. That is while he understands succession planning (vital in baseball & in your organization, too) and planning a few steps out even when things are going well in the present, LaRussa has a pattern of failure. In Malcolm's words:

The pattern, however, indicates that LaRussa has an approach toward constructing his staff which contains a greater-than-average risk of catastrophic backfire. Once he has a staff that reaches a performance peak, his approach becomes static, resulting in a protracted cycle of decline that isn’t corrected until the performance of the pitching staff clearly impedes the team’s success.

This doesn't mean LaRussa is not good at his job. And I have to think you have to hold his front offices somewhat accountable. But the fact that his teams have exhbitied this pattern through multiple franchises and multiple front office staffs leads one to the unavoidable conclusion that he is, in part at least, one of the authors of this little repeating drama. It's more interesting because it contrasts with the rest of his managerial approach. If you look at his long record, it shows the ability to adjust on the offensive side to the rapidly evolving rosters that injuries (in-season) and player movement (year-to-year) force a manager to adjust tactics and strategy to deal with the present set of circumstances and build in a model for how to keep it current as things morph..

Take a look at some of the detail from Malcolm's analysis and his chart. The lead-in is about his belief the Cards will backslide from their major league leading record last year:

All of these things things add up—and will result in subtraction.

It won’t turn out so badly, however, because LaRussa is very good at keeping his offense working. The PWP history for Tony’s managerial career (which we’ve displayed in most of its entirety at the right) shows that he’s kept his offense in the black relative to the league as well as anyone (21 out of 24 full seasons with the same team). His record with pitching is much spottier (only 13 of 24 seasons with a better-than-average performance).

That record has been better since LaRussa took over the Cardinals in 1996, however. Six of his nine seasons have shown better-than-league performances from his pitching staff. The pattern, however, indicates that LaRussa has an approach toward constructing his staff which contains a greater-than-average risk of catastrophic backfire. Once he has a staff that reaches a performance peak, his approach becomes static, resulting in a protracted cycle of decline that isn’t corrected until the performance of the pitching staff clearly impedes the team’s success. That’s been a consistent pattern in Chicago, Oakland (twice), and with the Cardinals.

Malcolm points out that the this probable night-blindness in an otherwise succcessful pattern of contingency planning may be short-circuited this year by the team's acquisition of the young Oakland product, Mark Mulder. But the pattern is right there to see, a nice bonus from baseball for all of us who manage outside of it.

Don Coffin and I exchanged several pieces of e-mail about my "Endy" Chávez piece from last month where I argued the Washington Nationals' front office's response to the player's refusal to deal with his limiting factors was appropriate. Coffin made a rational argument that the change sought by the team were not as simple as I had suggested (it was a very good argument for the Chávez side, though I still believe what they needed out of him was a reasonable change...a change Coffin argued well was not an easy one).

Further, he pointed out reasons to point the finger to the EX-pos' front office, thusly:

But, in addition, don't you think there's also a management failure here? Don't you think it's odd that they didn't address this last year? Or in 2003? Why wait for two years to address a performance failure? (Of course, they might have been and he ignored it then as well as now.)

To let Chávez continue to lead off for the Nats would have been catastrophic. But they let him play the last two seasons with that same inability. They only pulled the plug on his incumbency after last year's meltdown campaign. In their slight defense, they were quite squeezed last year. They didn't have an obvious lead off hitter (just as they don't this year). In '03, they had a practical option in Brad Wilkerson, a good on-base batter with good baserunning instincts and power. In '04, they needed that power lower in the line-up because of the giant departure of Vladimir Guerrero and other smaller losses of power. Moving Wilkerson down force their hand to some degree...they needed more specific effort from Chávez in the on-base side of his game for him to be useful to the team.

Wiser management would have started Chávez' forced training earlier and not waited until it became a crisis that stood to make line-up and field defnse planning so compound (that is, made up of a cascading set of decisions triggered by the one, foreseeable, move). The EX-pos' front office planning made this much harder than it needed to be.

In you own management, are you a Expo front office planner, allowing an avertable crisis to derail your bigger plans with a lot of small clean-up decisions?

Are you a LaRussa, good at many aspects but with a pattern of allowing certain kinds of crises to repeat? An examination of your past performance like the one presented in Malcolm's table might help you locate holes in your game.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Purpura Reign: Houston Astros'
Revelation for New Managers  

Honey I know, I know, I know times are changing
It's time we all reach out for something new
That means you, too -- Prince Fielder

Someone who gets a promotion to manage a group she's been part of is in a tough position, but one that affords lots of chances for actions that can deliver quick, visible returns. Sometimes the returns are tangible, sometimes they are more in the realm of morale and staff attitude.

The new (since November) G.M. of the Houston Astros, Tim Purpura, was assistant to the former G.M., Gerry Hunsicker. Whenever you take over a group you've been working in, you have special advantages (you've been inside, you should know what seems to be working and where improvements you can make will help, you know staff and some of their abilities and limitations), as well as special disadvantages (others may be jealous you got the promotion instead of them, people tend to see you as a peer not a boss and for some people that will make your supervisory actions discomforting).

Further, Hunsicker had one of the more successful records among standing MLB general managers, running a medium-budget franchise that scored more than its share of playoffs. That's good for the franchise, but it deprives the new manager of an obvious opportunity to "turn things around". The Astros didn't need turning around, ergo any changes the new manager launches will be viewed with skepticism by some, trepidation by most.

But even organizations that don't need turning around, heck...even the best ones, have plenty of opportunities for non-radical tweaks and process revamping.

So what did Purpura do? According to a story from the Houston Chronicle earlier this week, he did a few things. One, a great idea, I'm going to touch on only lightly here: He made a point of integrating had been an essentially all-"white" front office, hiring a couple of skilled individuals who were not "white". It's not clear that Hunsicker had been the barrier to this before he left, and I suspect he wasn't. It's one of those things most active managers without a mandate to do will let slide in favor of things upper management cares more about. It had been on Purpura's mind for a long time. According to the story,

Purpura understood the Astros needed diversity, but not just for diversity's sake.

{SNIP}The first call Purpura made was to (now assistant GM Ricky) Bennett, a longtime acquaintance on the scouting and player-development circuit that Purpura used to travel. Bennett, an African-American, was respected by everyone Purpura knew. {SNIP} Bennett was at the top of Purpura's "someday" list. Someday, when he was GM, Purpura would cull from this list baseball executives who could help him build a championship club. He kept the list for years as Hunsicker's righthand man. Once promoted, Purpura brought in the likes of Cabell and special assistant Al Pedrique, both minorities, from his list.

I touch this only in passing because not all managers (beyond those in government) are afforded the chance to hire "minorities" or women. In most large organizations not required by law to integrate staff hiring this is a costly first move, and pretty much would use up all the "magic bullets" a new manager has set aside for her. That doesn't mean new managers shouldn't diversify the kinds of people they hire or get their junior managers to hire...it only strengthens an organization to have different life experiences and points of view. I'm just acknowledging a large-organization manager who chooses to do this as an early initiative will too often pay a terrible price in being positioned as a troublemaker by back-stabbing bigots, of which there are no shortage in most large organizations' power centers.

It's the other thing the article mentions that's also positive but far easier to do. According to the author:

As much as Purpura realizes it will be his signature on every move the Astros make now that he has taken over for Gerry Hunsicker, his priority has been to expand participation by everyone in baseball operations.

He meets often with staff and starts every day listening to voice-mail messages from all of the Astros' minor-league affiliates, whose managers Purpura instructed to check in with thoughts and updates.

Purpura ordered the wall between the booths taken out so the majority of the baseball staff could sit together at games, also sharing observations and ideas. Hunsicker, who relied on his instincts with much success, often sat by himself or with club president Tal Smith at games.

During a game in this past weekend's Reds series, which the Astros swept with Sunday's 5-2 victory, to visit the large suite was to see bustling energy personified.

There was Purpura, cheering and encouraging the club while sitting between Smith and director of baseball operations David Gottfried. Nearby were new assistant GM Ricky Bennett, special assistant Enos Cabell and scouting coordinator Fred Nelson. At various times during the weekend, the entire staff came together at the suite.

"I just want to have everyone around," Purpura said. "I just feel everyone in this group adds something important. I want to hear what they have to say."

In your own new gig, you can "tear down the walls" that restrict the flow of ideas, both directly and symbolically encourage people to bring their ideas to you regardless of their rôle in the hierarchy, encourage cross-pollination of ideas and initiatives. There are very few organizational development designs that are more likely to produce solid results than this, especially in one where you inherit a healthy shop that's basically successful.

And when you don't just do it but you talk it up as well, it leavens the effect, bringing borderline introverts into the mix.

Try it as the new manager:

  • Diminish departmental barriers,
  • Encourage people to share their ideas with you and each other,
  • Make symbolic, visible changes, and (mandatory...)
  • Initiate actions related to important issues based on the fruits of this synthesis.

Channel Tim Purpura, strengthen even a good, successful group with more diversity of types of people and types of ideas. You might earn even more hits than the Gerry Hunsicker formerly-known as G.M.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Texas Rangers' Film Noir Special Effect:
Don Malcolm's Performance Evaluation Tool  

Most large organizations (about 80%) make no meaningful attempt to do performance evaluation. About 15% strive for meaningful results and squeak out some utiltarian insight. Only 5% actually master the concepts required to figure out how to figure out what performance is and should be and can keep it useful through evolving events and environments.

The single most common stumbling block to effect performance evaluation is that would-be measurers forget about the context. Context isn't simple. We don't live in a good-or-bad, black and white world where the good guys 'n gals are easy to pick out from the bad ones. Like in a film noir, people are all human, all have foibles and moral weaknesses -- sure, some just stink, but even the best have weak spots. Protagonists in a Noir film may be people the writer wants us to root for, like Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear, but writer Leonore Coffee makes to understand she is capable of evil, too. The classic hero of the genre, Philip Marlowe, knows he lives in the real, ugly world and is willing to steal needed evidence or let the innocent suffer to achieve his goals.

In the noir view, the difference between protagonist and antagonist is a matter of degree. The lines can fuzz at times, and the relative good/badness of an individual depends on the exigencies of the environment and the moment. Nowhere are measures, the good ones, anyway, more clarifying on this point than they are in baseball.

Because in baseball, researchers "normalize" performance. Normalize, in this context means, removing from an individual's performance the specific factors that boost or supress average performance. Take a 5'5" woman, and measure her standing height on the ground, upright in a one-foot hole and perched on a nine-inch high pitching mound. How tall is she?


But to the average manager doing performance evaluation for a big organization, she is going to be measured as 5'5", 4'5" (petite) and 6'2" (call the WNBA), because he hasn't normalized, evened out the playing ground. Sales people are most frequently afflicted with this inability. Where compensation depends on commissions, varying quality of assignments and territory demographics and pre-existing customers shape performance, but usually not performance measures.

Sometimes the context differences are subtle. Sometimes they change the way you view the whole shebang.

Take the 2004 Texas Rangers. Take a look at their roster's core performance measures from last season by clicking here. It's a bunch of heavy hitters and a pitching staff made up of a couple of league average ERAs and then the deluge of 5-something ERA tater tots.

That's what it looks like to conventional wisdom. Just about all the observers, including the press, fans and cognoscenti agree what Texas needs (besides a film noir remake of The Alamo), is pitching. When people analyze the Rangers' performance, the conventional wisdom is it's their pitching that has limited their achievement.

It's not true. Thanks to Don Malcolm, who not only messes with Texas, but with conventional views of the Rangers' performances, it's now obvious their pitching was fine, it's their hitting that needed improving.

Malcolm, one of the most interesting (and persistently contrarian) baseball minds, is issuing his team by team previews for the 2005 season, and recently did one for the Texas Rangers. His numbers for the team over the last few years normalized for their offensive-boosting home park will surprise many people.

Normalized to 1.00 (where 1.00 is an average performance for a team playing in a composite league-average home park), the Rangers hitting last year was 0.95...5% below league average, while the team's ability to prevent runs was 1.13, 13% better than league average. Conventional wisdom, a mere 180 degrees from its belief in reality, stood on its head.

The masking factor was their home park, which everyone knows is an offense engine, that boosted hitting 11%. And even though everyone knows this as a given, they still overlook it when they analyze what Texas needs to go the next step. GM John Hart knows, actually. His biggest move of the off-season was to sign solid-hitting and -fielding outfielder Richard "Guadalupe" Hidalgo, and not to spend the bulk of what dollars he had in his budget to acquire more pitching.

I discussed the common failure of performance measurement in sales departments (where you'd think it'd be easiest, given that results are already measured, as they are in baseball, in hard numbers, usually dollars or units-sold). I had an interesting consult several years ago with a big multi-state law firm that was trying to figure out a way to partially equalize compensation based on performance.

I headed them in a direction they ultimately couldn't bring themselves to commit to as a compensation system foundation, but it did re-arrange their thinking on performance evaluation.

I suggested they do regression analysis on what factors were knowable in advance on a piece of legal work. What were the merits of the work, and what was the expected, realistic, chance of coming away with a settlement or victory if it went to trial? If it went to trial, what effects on success would the judge (most frequently out of the control of the talent) have? There were a handful more factors, but you get the idea.

To some degree, they were already doing this kind of analysis, but not on paper, and only in deciding whether to take a piece of work, how flexible to be in pre-trial negotiation, and how much and which resources to assign to an individual piece of work. That is, senior partners knew roughly how to assess everything I suggested they use to measure outcomes relative to what the talent actually achieved, they just weren't, ultimately, willing to codify it or use it after the fact. I don't think in this client's case, they were afraid of accountability, although that's the most frequent reason for slipping context-sensitive performance analysis. Most often when decisionmakers hate accountability it's because the system that got them to a level where they get to make important decisions is one where they haven't had to be accountable -- add that in, and all of a sudden, you're changing their job and putting them aat risk of being outed for their non-successes. And a fair number of the decisionmakers have actually worked the system to slipstream things like the Texas Rangers' park factors, appearing to do better because they've had easier assignments or appearing to look taller because they're standing on a pitcher's mound instead of a hole.

Malcolm's work will cast light on many subjects -- this was just one team preview. Take a look at his work -- his contrarian and tart outlook should give you other management ideas you might apply in your own performance evaluation efforts.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A Short Book Note: More Resellers  

A couple of correspondents who prefer to look at a book before they buy asked which retail outlets carry The Pocket Reader.

Added this week are the University Bookstore and University Fitness, both in the eponymous University District, in Seattle.

There is still stock at Second Story Books and Elliott Bay Book Co., both also in Seattle. I'm going to the San Francisco Bay Area later this week and will try to add outlets there. Step by step, I'll get it out to where you live.

And it's still available on line, from the link in the left sidebar.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Slipstream the Cosmic Wisdom of Lou Piniella:
Knowledge from the Trenches  

When you take on a new management position, you have a handful of days to take advantage of a unique opportunity that can make you a legendary rainmaker. You can either do it the normal way or you can succeed.

The most typical model for a new manager is to do whatever he's done before, whether that record was particularly successful or not. The next most frequent is to NOT do whatever she did before that didn't work. Somewhat less common is the doing whatever one did before, but just those things that were successful. And while you don't see it all that often, the final common model is to do nothing you've ever done before and try to make up everything as you go along -- sort of reinventing everything simultaneously. This latter approach I call the splatter approach, and it works about as often in a human organization as it does in nature, which is very infrequently.

Occasionally, you'll see a new manager using the initial one-on-one meetings with staff and peers to go beyond the get-acquainted routines and really going into details. That's a great thing, but usually executed top-down, starting with the highest-ranking people (in large organizations, most often seen as the people you need to please) and working the way down the hierarchy.

While it's good politics, it's crappy management. I strongly urge you to follow the Piniella model

Piniella has learned to become a very good "turnaround" artist. Like most good managers, he learns to take away both the good and the bad from his job and apply the lessons in his next gig.

Here's his record after his first management job (which was a three year run in the Bronx working for the functionally-sociopathic Yankee owner). BP is Before Piniella & WP is With Piniella.

Before or With Team Year Wins Losses Gain or (Loss)
BP Cincy 1989 74 88  
WP Cincy 1990 91 71 +17
BP Seattle 1992 64 98  
WP Seattle 1993 82 80 +18
BP Tampa Bay 2002 55 106  
WP Tampa Bay 2003 63 99 +7.5

It's a universal rule in baseball and beyond it that a new manager tends to get better results than her predecessor (that's based on Angus' Rule of Problem Evolution, a point I'll get to in a minute). But Piniella just creates a successful environment for a turnaround. His uncommon approach is one I like to use myself both as a new staff manager and as a consultant. First I'm going to tell you why it works, and then I'll tell you what it is.

The Piniella model works because it adapts to the rule of problem evolution. Any manager with a shred of ability will solve some kinds of problems, and no matter how good, will leave some problems unsolved. The manager, as a human being, has strengths and weaknesses, high aptitudes and black holes of incapability from which no wisdom escapes. Over time,. the problems within an organization that a manager can solve get solved and the ones he's not good at solving fester and become an ever-greater proportion of the remaining problems. If the manager is not good at "change", Home Plate in the Management by Baseball Model, and the vast majority of managers aren't even passable at it, this plaque of unsolved problems will usually be the downfall of the manager or the entire department if no other person does anything to attack the plaque.

That's why the top-down approach to learning what's going on in an organization, what needs fixing and what needs to be left well-enough alone, is counter productive. Because management has already bought into what needs to be done and what doesn't. The problems they were able to solve are more likely to have been solved. Moreover, by the time you get to the line staff, your head is already positioned to some degree, filled with the views of the people whose talents have left the problems unsolved.

It's people on the line, in the trenches, generally without a position from which to affect change who, by the rule of problem evolution, have the unimplemented solutions waiting to be tapped. Managers generally ignore the ideas stored in the heads of certain staff.

So Piniella's technique is: First talk to those without a strong investment in the solution set that's been the m.o. before you came. Act quickly upon the insights that have value -- it informs everyone in the organization who has been overlooked as a cource of wisdom to come forward.

According to the following clip from Art Thiel's book, Out of Left Field (Sasquatch Books, 2004) about Piniella taking the Mariner job:

"Upon taking the job, one of his first phone calls was to trainer Rick Griffin, seeking an assessment of personnel from the '92 team {SNIP}.

"I trust trainers as much or more than scouts," Piniella said, "Be honest and don't sugarcoat--nobody knows we're talking."

In a conversation that lasted two and a half hours, Griffin spelled it out, saying there really was only one guy who didn't fit. A couple of days later the oft-injuered, portly outfielder Kevin Mitchell was traded to Cincinnati for relief pitcher Norm CHarlton, who would become vital in the Mariner's climb.

Piniella called Griffin again: "How do you like that?"

"Wow," Griffin said, "You work fast."

"From now on, we're going to work fast."

The Piniella Solution then, is

  • Start at the bottom of the org chart and solicit suggestions in the "What needs changing/improving around here" line.
  • Act quickly and publicize the change
  • Follow up with more right away so you can accustom staff and adjacent departments that change is an on-going thing, and that it has payoffs.

The approach is not effortless or without its own potential pitfalls. Many times, line workers "don't get it", "it" being strategy or marketing fine points or subtle initiatives. Some suggestions will be entirely dysfunctional and not based in any reality. Okay, both are frequently true, but line staff know things others don't, those things are usually not valued, and there's much ore to be mined there. Persoianlly, I've gotten my highest quick returns in larger organization from people who work in the mail room. In the realm of management by walking around, they are the people who walk around, they see things not from a departmental perspective, but from a more integrated systemic model -- the patterns that connect departments or functions.

You want to turn around a drifting organization, or even improve on an already-successful one, listen to those who haven't been listened to. Most frequently, those are line staff.

You can overcome the rule of Problem Evolution if you channel the cosmic wisdom of Sweet Lou.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Available this Weekend:
Management by Baseball - A Pocket Reader  

I took delivery yesterday of the first printing of my book, Management by Baseball - A Pocket Reader, published by Occam & Dihigo. Later today, it'll be Right now it's available for $12.95 through a link on the left side of this page.

ASIDE: There's no flavor of exhilaration that tastes quite the same as that of a complex 15-week project that comes in right on target (in this case, beats it by a weekend). That project-on-target sense is closely akin to the one we 7th graders had when we'd bottle close to pure oxygen in chemistry class and then breathe out of the bottles later. Of course, that was the San Fernando Valley, Smogopolis Central, where oxygen was in reduced supply and garnished with all methods of man-made petroleum extras. In the same way, when you've been working off other people's schedules for a long time and they're not good project stewards and they consistently miss targets or redefine the specs to accomodate the missed dates (Project Smogopolis Central), hitting a target so closely and with all key deliverables to spec (or better) is like a hit of almost-pure oxygen. You managers who both run projects yourself and comply with those managed by others know exactly what I'm talking about.

I want you to know what's in the book. Some of the 138 pages of content is original, written specifically for this book. A little of it comes from Management by Baseball, a sphagnum opus on which I've been toiling since the Arizona Frelling Diamondbacks were reigning World Champs. MOST of it comes from this weblog's essays from the inception though this January. Of the content from the weblog, some of it I tweaked, some I reconstituted, some I left virtually untouched.

So if you've read all the content on this weblog and you are as comfortable reading off the screen as you are out of a book, you may not get a lot of additional enjoyment out of the book. Someone else who doesn't marinate in the blogosphere will get more out of it.

Either way, in you'll find the Pocket Reader is an easy read with the same pungent language & applicable management lessons you've come to find here, packaged in a convenient form-factor to take to your front porch or bathroom for a quick five minute jolt of management and baseball. It's not the fully-featured management system and complete tool-kit; that's for next season.

If you want a copy, you can get it in one of three ways:

  • On-line through this site using credit card (see link at left),
  • Mail order w/check or money order (same link at left)
  • Through an independent bookseller. I'll try to maintain a list of stores that have it in stock. Right now, it's already in stock at both Second Story Books and Elliott Bay Books, both in Seattle. If you want to place an order through your local independent bookseller, Occam & Dihigo can fulfill their order. But tell them it's not available through their jobbers, only direct from the publisher.

For the forseeable future, the book won't be moving through some of the channels people have come to expect, such as Amazon, Wal*Mart or the big national or multi-national chains. I've based this decision on a few things.

  • First, I love experiments, and I believe this is a viable model (putting a book into independent booksellers' hands without them having to compete with elephantine, inefficient mega-stores) -- but I'll never know until I test it.
  • Second, I've managed a couple of independent booksellers. The privately-owned, locally-run bookstore is a threatened institution that is one of the foundations of democracy and entrepreneurship, two things I value highly. Occam & Dihigo attached a price low enough that the steep discounting model chains use is unneccesary for readers to get their value out of the book.
  • Third, the business models of the chains are all, to varying degrees parasitical, predatory on entrepreneurial publishers and authors. Basically, they're anti-capitalist. At this time, we're choosing not to make them more successful in that in however small a way we would if we drank their kool-aid.

If you get the book, you'll find I heavily footnoted it. The footnotes aren't in the book, they're here on-line, or will be in a few days.

¿Why online instead of in the book?

Many of the footnotes are links (better on-line than on paper). Plus publishers hate footnotes; they're hard to lay out, hard to manage and update, use up lots of pages. And as new references come out, I can update on-line footnotes in close to real time. The publisher gets a lower logistical burden (which they usually get by simply killing the footnotes), the reader gets dynamic footnotes, and I get to run an experiment in new media.

It's an experiment. It might work, it might fail, but we'll find out. Let me know how it worked or didn't for you (that is, don't tell me whether you liked or hated the idea in concept; I've already heard from the book-loving, computer-hating The Dixie Peach what a sucko concept it is....this flies or dies based on its applied torque, not conceptually).

Right now, the oxygen is running high around here. The season opens next week, I beat my aggressive schedule and the product is better than my spec for it.

Let's play ball.

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