Saturday, December 31, 2005

Full of Wrap -- Solstice-to-Solstice "Best of"  

One of the great cultural compulsions of the English-speaking world is to do year-in-review and best-of wrap articles. As a former journalism professional, I know enough about how they come to be to ridicule them as a class. I've written about it at CIO Central, but summarize the argument, it's usually either an excuse to squeeze out an easy piece of content during a time of year people either are getting time off or feeling like they deserve to, or alternatively it's an autonomic reaction, as in "Gosh, everyone else does them...shouldn't we do an end of the year wrap"?

I've been engaged in a conversation with some of my readers and I'm usually surprised at their "favorite" entries --m they tend not to be the ones I like best myself. Anyway, a couple pushed back on my push back when I asked "why" they happened to favor some specific pieces, something I do to try to learn more about the readers in the hope of doing a better job fulfilling their interests. The push back was: "Well then, which are your favorites".

That alone didn't galvanize me into clichéd action. I got cover from one of the most useful bloggers, the Creative Generalist, who had the courage to produce such a piece and still be useful.

So for the benefit of those few who wonder which of my entries I'm most pleased with, here's an American League starting line-up's worth of my favorite entries between shortest days of the year, winter solstice 2004 through winter solstice 2005.

1. CATCHER: A two part entry, interviews with LA Angel manager Mike Scioscia. He reveals a lot about himself, and the statistical and analytical underpinnings of the low-OBA division winners' Moneyball strategy. What I liked best about this essay was there was some insight into how an organization uses numbers to shape behavior and at the same time there was a lot of revelation about the manager and his personality and background. Part I and Part II.

2. PITCHER: Rick Peterson's Management by Baseball Lesson #1 - Coaching IS Learning. An essay that resulted from my conversation with New York Mets' pitching coach Rick Peterson, the single most interesting individual I've ever met in baseball, one of the most relentlessly analytical and right-brained people I've met in any field. This small slice of his thinking is a way of managing that is universally and easily applicable to managers who supervise people in their jobs.

3. FIRST BASE: The Texas Rangers' Film Noir Special Effect: Don Malcolm's Performance Evaluation Tool was classic First Base in the MBB Model. It covered sabermetric bad-boy Don Malcolm's analysis of the Texas Rangers' performance with a prediction for their 2005 season. There is a duality in sabermetric analysis; at one extreme, there are pure math researchers who get pleasure and believe they find truth in formulae and their results, and at the other extreme there are pattern-recognizers whose arguments, while equally mathematical, may not even require numbers (think Euclid's The Elements). I enjoy both, but I find the irregularly posted thoughts Malcolm lays out among the most valuable pattern-recognition leaning ideas.

4. SECOND BASE: The Dodgers, Paul DePodesta & Monsters From the Id. This January 2004 essay pointed out an early assault by some key members of the L.A. sports press on the regime of Dodger G.M. Paul DePodesta, what they were doing and their reasons for conducting the war. The attack, sustained continually, was ultimately successful in getting him fired. The owners' reported reason for letting the G.M. go was his lack of people skills, Second Base in the MBB Model.

5. THIRD BASE. Minnesota Twins' Cosmic Enlightenment: Success Through Knowing the Contributor Is Not the Job Description. One of the greatest organizational weaknesses (business, military, government, especially) is falling into the unexamined belief that the job description is the employee and that the employee is the job description. This is a well-documented case of baseball management's clear superiority over the management in those other sectors, and it's an easy, actionable insight to apply to your own benefit.

6. SHORTSTOP. Management Disinformation: Dusty Baker, The Cubs, Shock & Awe, Derrek Lee. An essay on the application of disinformation and the way one of baseball's masters of the practice, Dusty Baker, executes it. Baker is one of those super-smart types whose conduct and statements make casual observers imagine he's a semi-ignorant yahoo which, of course, is exactly what his tactics require for them to succeed.

7. LEFT FIELD. Bob Wickman's Wisdom or Wacky Weltanschauung?: The Intentional Balk as Cognitive Terror. One of the biggest challenges is finding a context to try out an innovation. Sometimes the benefit/cost ratio is higher than it looks.There's a school of knowledge management that believes in "innovation science"; while scientific method is a critical component for most successful innovation, innovation as a successful practice relies on more than just science, something Bob Wickman wisely knows.

8. CENTER FIELD. A two-part essay on Negotiation, Scott Boras Style. Negotiation is the most most universally-required skill in which a majority of managers are over their heads. Boras is not a negotiator many can use as a model but understanding his techniques and when and why they work is essential for those who might face a Boras-style negotiator.This piece also explains tangentially why player salaries have apparently gone up so much this off-season. PartI. Part II.

9. RIGHT FIELD. A two-part essay on Lenny Harris' Deboning of the Marlins. Batting coach Lenny Harris misinterpreted data, rolled in some conventional wisdom and re-made Marlin lead-off hitter Juan Pierre's approach at the plate. I predicted challenges for him, and he performed worse than I thought, dragging down the Marlins' season into the Marianas Trench. A cautionary note about using data unrigorously and ignoring context. This one has a lot of value to managers outside baseball. Part I. Part II.

10. DESIGNATED HITTER. Beane Salad Surgery: If You Respond to Current Events, You've Waited Too Long. An essay explaining in the most simple language possible why change is so hard to initiate and manage. Baseball in general, Billy Beane specifically, makes this lesson and how and why to execute change clearer than anything else I've seen. Plus, it points to an atricle by Steven Goldman, a serious favorite of mine.

"That's a wrap".

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Baseball Genome Project: Bill Bavasi
& Gene Splicing to Clone Success  

As a manager, it's standard practice to tap into past successes. Weak-minded managers are only comfortable repeating methods that had successful outcomes previously, the opposite of the stochastic pattern that is most likely to lead to current success. Taken to its extreme, it's close to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. But the dividing line between "worth trying" and not is the amount of negative feedback one earns with the method. If you never get negative feedback, there's no reason not to continue until you do.

Seattle Mariner general manager Bill Bavasi tried to clone a past resounding success this week in signing outfielder/designated hitter Carl Everett for the club's 2006 campaign. The past resounding success was Bavasi's trade for Tony Phillips for the California Angels before the 1995 season. There's a long elaboration of the Bavasi-Phillips combination and the importance to organizations outside baseball recruiting humans like Phillips that appears in the upcoming Harper Collins book, Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning in Any Field (May, '06), but I'll sketch some of their mutual history here.

Basically, Phillips electrified a young team that wasn't really ready for contention and turned them into a team that contended for the division flag to the end. Phillips was one of the most determined, intense, rigorous, diverse talents in baseball during his era. He sometimes had outbursts of anger, fought some demons, offended some opponents and umps though not very many teammates, and had enough passion for the competition that he was driven to drive others, too. Bavasi believes Phillips is one of the very finest players he's ever worked with. Here's some transcript of a conversation I had with Bavasi this September.

In '94, which was my first year, we got our butts handed to us... Before the strike, I think we were 15 games below 500. Whoever was in first place, you (know you) can still catch them. I knew we were still in it because I was trying to trade for Rick Aguilera, the closer. I thought, "we’re still in this thing."

In '95, the kids matured. We traded for Tony Phillips and that really turned us around. That really made us a good club. We weren’t close … we shouldn’t even have been in that race.

So was his intensity somewhat contagious?
Oh my god. He is THE single most influential and best player I’ve been around... We traded Chad Curtis for him even up. We liked his (Curtis's) intensity, we liked his hustle, we did not like his style of play... He (manager Marcel Lacheman) and I just said, let’s just roll the dice, we don’t know Chad is going to grow and be a better player. What put getting Phillips over the edge for us was Matt Keough who played with him said, “I guarantee he will made Jim Edmonds and J.T. Snow and other guys better players. He will absolutely influence them and drive them hard”. That put it over the edge for me. We knew Chad was not going to do that for us. {SNIP}

There was a time during that year Tony had something like seven cortisone shots in his hamstring just to stay on the field. And he was driving Edmonds…you can look at Edmonds’ career, that was the big jump. J.T. Snow didn’t always over-perform that year but Tony would go into the training room and flush any player out, get them out on the field, and say, "what are you doing in here"…we’re playing today, you are playing. that was the big jump (for the team).

Tony has had his struggles in different parts of his life, but this guy made me think I could be a GM because of the way we played that year. That was our first significant trade…more nerve wracking than a free agent signing. Tony absolutely made that deal work. I’d give a bunch of players for one of those guys.

Bavasi didn't have to give up a bunch or even a single player for someone who might be one of those guys. He signed Everett as a free agent, something he considers less pressure than a trade.

This wasn't the first time he tried to clone the Tony Phillips gambit. He tried it again in May of 1997 with...Tony Phillips. Phillips had moved to Chicago as a free agent at the end of 1995. With the '97 Angels playing roughly .500 ball in May (20-19), Bavasi traded for Phillips again. The team was notably more successful with Phillips than without (61-50 in games he started, 23-28 in games he didn't), but it wasn't as young (young players being more impressionable and, in my opinion, more likely to be caught up in the currents that a Phillips can create). Even if they'd played the .550 ball they played with him starting for their whole season, it would still have left them about a game behind the divisional champs, the Mariners.

In 1997, the Phillips Gambit was positive, certainly not a failure. Many of the players who reached their baseball puberty from being exposed to the Phillips Gambit are still playing 11 years later, producing enough to be on major league rosters and also seen as intense competitors (Troy Percival, Jim Edmonds, J.T. Snow, Garrett Anderson).

The Mariners aren't exactly like the 1995 Angels in their make-up, but depending on late trades and signings, the Mariners could start the 2006 season with seven "starters" (everyday players and starting rotation) under the age of 28, a lack of experience that I believe cost them some incremental wins last season (while building for the future). The 1995 Angels started their season with eight "starters" (same definition) under the age of 28.

Everett's the age Phillips was, 36, when Phillips galvanized the 1995 Angels. Everett has the same kind of reputation Phillips had, tangling with umpires over bad calls and alienating some members of the media. NOTE: I interviewed Phillips several times when he was a player, mostly early in his career, and found him one of the very best players to talk with. I've never spoken with Everett. Everett has intensity, apparently has had an anger management problem, and values winning over comfort.

Everett is not an exact clone of Phillips -- I think Phillips was a more talented and probably baseball-intelligent player, but he would be hard for almost anyone to compete with. He doesn't have the defensive diversity Phillips had (Phillips started games at every position except pitcher and catcher) while Everett hasn't played enough games in the outfield in the last few years to accurately judge, but the fragmentary numbers or not positive. Everett has a history of being an effective hitter with some weaker seasons of late. He's not completely flummoxed by the Mariners home field (an OPS of 830 in Seattle in his last 64 plate appearances, a little better quality than the Mariners' current best left-handed hitter Raul Ibañez's performance there over the same time), a challenge for many players who come to the team.

According to a Jon Paul Morosi story that has had some translation details contested after the printing, the Mariners seemed to Ichiro Suzuki to be satisfied with their sub-mediocrity ("He was upset to see his teammates playing cards so frequently, and was dismayed that no coach or veteran scolded them for doing so."). A passionate competitor like Everett can turn comfort into a different state, and if an excess of satisfaction or comfort is the limiting factor for the team (they did finish 7 games below their Pythagorean win projection, perhaps indicative of a lack of determination to win close games or giving up in games they were already blown out of), then increasing the volatility of the mix could be a very effective tweak.

Trying Everett as a Phillips Gambit is reasonable chance to take. The M's are unlikely to contend this year making the risk of the method's failure lower, but Bavasi's 2006 Phillips Gambit might pay off surprisingly well.

Like Bill Bavasi this off-season, many managers have workgroups or entire operations that are in the doldrums. I'm surprised when I find managers themselves getting sucked into doldrums by this gravitational field.

Go back to methods or gambits that worked in the past -- not randomly, but where the situation has some parallels to what you were working with when they brought you previous success. I'm not suggesting it makes sense to crazy-glue yourself to everything that ever worked out in the past, just keep those methods active in your toolkit. They're not guaranteed to work, but run them out there once in a while until the feedback turns more negative, which it might never do.

Channel Bavasi's courage to try to change the direction of a team with therapy that might be seen as shocking. Find a Tony Phillips, or the best stand-in you can, and don't underestimate what many people in the press have underestimated about the value of a galvanizer to a group of people who have come to rest in a comfortable mediocrity.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Part III: Management Lessons from Terry Ryan:
Humility, Stability & Personality  

The constellation of traits that distinguish the Ryan Regime are not exactly absent in other baseball (or non-baseball) organizations. But within baseball, I believe the Ryan constellation is unique as a core foundation. General Manager Terry Ryan's front office leads with three stances which form a core foundation for action: Humility, Stability/Patience, and appreciation for Personality as a selection trait. Like their fellow-Minnesotans, the fictional residents of Lake Wobegon, the Twins' front office is unflashy in word and deed, assuming as much decency as is decently possible, and judging people by their character. This constellation of traits is all connected, annealed together. I'm just going to give you a continuous piece of the transcript and then my elaboration after.

So you care about how the prospects take coaching…is that an explicit concern?
Oh, it's a piece of it. Coachability, off-field habits, work ethic, adjustability….

So given that you have this focus, does this mean that when you're looking for scouts, you're seeking certain kinds of scouts who are good at…
Yes, we spend a good amount of time in our interview process w/a prospective scout. He's got to have a certain mentality as well. Most of it goes to their work ethic and the ability to go the extra mile. In scouting that's appropriate. It takes about 5 years for an area scout to become a good scout. So once you get 'em…it's quite a development process for that scout to get to know the territory & contacts and get a little flavor the places and times, finding the people who are willing to go out of their way to help you out. There's a certain transition for a new scout into a territory. And if you don't have friends in scouting, you're going to be in tough shape. You gotta have a personality that's not arrogant, that people will want to lend a helping hand. Covering 6, 7, 8 states is a tough little racket. You need those mentors. {SNIP}

A couple of years ago, another organization said they wanted to do things the way the Twins do. Do you think anyone else can do that?
Sure. I've been told many times over the last few years and it's very flattering, that people would like to pattern their approach after the Twins.
    Part of that is stability. Same owner, same GM, same farm director, same scouting director we've had for the past 10- 12 years.

So you have no overhead in adjusting to each other.
Occasionally we get someone new, but they adjust to us, we don't have to adjust to them. When you get a new GM, you're probably going to have a new scouting director, a new farm director, and that's a pretty big turnover. If you're going to do it the way we do things, you're probably going to have a lot of continuity and stability at the top. You don't have to guess what others are thinking about, you don't have to justify what you're doing, don't have to worry about people micro-managing and second-guessing. There's a lot of trust and loyalty in our organization. We don't always make the right decision but we're also accountable enough to say "we screwed up" and let's go on and not let it happen again. I've always given our staff…our minor league managers or scouts, we've always given them a lot of responsibility. They're running a club or running a territory, and you're going to have your year evaluated and your results. For a minor league manager we have certain criteria that are important: develop and win, keep your players healthy, no off-field problems, follow the rules, we want a good clean product on the field, we expect you to take infield and batting practice when possible.

Ron Fairly once said to me the reason the Twins are so good is that they're constantly getting really good A and AA players. Whenever they do a deal, they get these young players…
We've been lucky. We've had some turn out so it looks like we know what we're doing. We've been quite lucky. Our scouts have identified players who have turned out. There's an art to that. We've been fortunate that way…some of it has been luck and some of it has been skill.

Has part of that success been coaching, too?
I don't know, I wouldn't say that. If they had stayed in their organization, they would have turned out well, too. Because many of the things I identified early in this conversation (coachability, work ethic), those guys came to us WITH those traits. All we did is maintain their progress.

Humility comes in various forms. There's personal humility.

Ryan is not at all an "I" guy. He is the consummate "we" guy, making it very clear his front office team is a team that he is part of. He dresses and presents himself with a lot of humble gestures. It may be that this is his way and that it disguises that he holds all the important chips but likes sharing credit, and if that's the case, I suspect when things go wrong, he takes all the flak. This is a double-standard that works a bit like the Ray Miller Indirect Percussion technique I wrote about earlier this year (share all credit, take all blame), a little different from the Sparky Anderson technique (share all credit which naturally deflects blame, too).

There's organizational humility. He doesn't claim the Twins made players they acquired from other organizations (like Johan Santana, the AL's best pitcher over the last two seasons) the talents they are today. He suggests, for example, "If they had stayed in their organization, they would have turned out well, too". This works to buffer resentment. Instead of doing the football lineman sack dance over the Houston Astros' or Florida Marlins' front offices (neener, neener, neener, we got Santana you dolts and you don't) or self-aggrandizing over their superior abilities.

There's also intellectual humility. He works very hard to make this look ordinary. That, of course, is a competitive edge...competitors in any endeavor figure anything easy must not be a very important differentiator (bass-ackwards of course, but the erroneous mental algebra is that if it was important and easy both, everyone could/would do it and since they're not doing it and it's easy it, therefore, must not be important. Goofy but widespread thinking. As long as Ryan and his team make this seem like luck or just simple stuff, others won't feel like they're being outfoxed (which is not an incentive to deal with the fox again). And the managers know that they can make mistakes...by acting and being humble, they never get too comfortable with problem --> solution automation, continuing to practice self-examination, continuing to see if their decisions are working. A furthe side-benefit: this knowing-you-can-make-a-mistake diminishes (not eliminates) the office politics of assigning blame -- everyone knows that mistakes will happen and it defuses a lot of the harsher toxicity of office blame.

Stability requires patience. The Twins under Ryan had five losing years, all pretty bad. Ownership didn't carry out any purges or even moderately big turnovers. The owner let this team of people persist, patiently at their craft, applying their theories while the products of the approach bubbled up through the system. The Dodger owners weren't able to do this, in part because the Los Angeles market is very un-Lake Wobegon, but also because of their own impatience. This is very expensive, and encourages more turnover in the future. I call the syndrome Re-Org Addiction. Executives launch re-orgs and declare these are solutions. Everyone below jockeys for political advantage. The ones best at politics get the most advantages. They compaign for re-orgs (punctuated equilibria which disproportionately reward them politically), and this, in turn proliferates more re-orgs which further punish real work and reward politics. A frelling waste of energy and talent as a substitute for getting some actual work done.

Ryan says the whole operation has had this 10- to 12 year run of stable key folk. This lowers overhead, as anyone who has ever worked in a healthy small business. Operational overhead shrivels becaus people learn what others' strengths are, learn to trust and leave people alone to do their jobs. Once it becomes apparent that chronic office politics and effort invested in other overhead activities gets no organizational reward, people look for alternatives (like real work) with which to win brownie points.

But let me restate patience is a mandatory prerequisitive. Look at the way the Twins purged their reliever J.C. Romero. He's been seen as a disappointment since 2003. He had a blow-up this season with his pitching coach and manager over a decision to take him out of a game. But when they traded Romero to the Angels this week and Romero sounded off about his feelings (story courtesy of Baseball Primer), Twins personnel quoted disgareed with his take without being disagreeable about it. They rode his talent for a couple of years, and might have worked with him longer, but when he no longer expressed drive to improve in Minnesota, they moved him. I'm sure there are some Twins fans who wished Romero would have been sent packing earlier, but I'll argue Ryan's team are as good at evaluating talent as any front office. They took the patient approach.

I'm not convinced that stability within a competitive environment is a sure winner. In the Twins' case, it's part of a constellation of behaviors, and because it's such a rarity within the business, it becomes a competitive advantage.

Any large organization is going to have a range of personalities, and the Twins do, too. But they do select individuals (from players to scouts and elsewhere) based on personality traits. They get fewer time-bombs. Very Lake Wobegon. Ryan talks about "work ethic" and "going the extra mile". He talks about taking enough time with prospective hires to assess that, their ability to work with mentors, to make friends.

They care about personality, and they act on it pretty consistently. Clearly, they're not the only baseball organization that cares (Ken Williams and Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox enforce a social contract in Chicago, for example), but this is a reinforcing trait in the Twins constellation.

If you only care about character, you're hosed. If you only draft character guys, you're likely to miss out on talent. But if you are a good judge of talent, and you bias your decisions on that while others let it slide, you can eke out a competitive advantage, especially if this approach isn't being pursued by a lot of teams. Beyond baseball, the Ryan Regime approach can be made to work outside of a publically-owned operation. The participants need to relentlessly root out and strip out office politics and office politicians, understand that they are at risk for "time passing them by". In a publically-owned operation, it's more like the situation the McCourts are in -- the overwhelming need to show progress-of-the-nanosecond makes decisions with four- to six year timelines hellaciously challenging to stick to, and the whingeing of the Lasordas all publically-owned companies are filled with are a siren song that lead the individuals with the power to make strategic decisions to re-org instead of make choices based on enduring benefit/cost.

I don't think the Ryan Regime approach is easy, and it's not one I could counsel many to try, but it is very viable. The Twins' five consecutive years of winning baseball is an indicator if that approach's viability, and to the consummate skill with which Terry Ryan and his front office team execute it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Part II: Management Lessons from Terry Ryan:
Second Base Strengths  

Discussion at MLB Center Forums

In Part I, I described a little of the Minnesota Twins' teams that G.M. Terry Ryan and his front office team have developed. In this part, I'm going to share some of what Ryan told me about his background and I'll explain what I think makes him successful at management.

His background is unusual for a successful U.S. manager. In the U.S., most successful managers bring a range of work experiences from different kinds of organizations to their successful assignments. Ryan went straight from college to baseball and has worked only in the one industry.

Did you have some management experience outside of baseball before you got into baseball management? Ryan: No, actually. My first job out of college was as a scout with the Mets. That was all concerned about myself at the time. I was fortunate that the Twins brought me up to the Twin Cities to be a scouting director. That's the first time that I had to manage people. And that was a chore - very much a transition because I'd never had to worry about anyone's schedule but my own. All of a sudden I've got to be worried about other people's schedules, other people's results. <pause>

And you still are, though, right? I am more so now as a general manager. Now I'm overseeing almost every area, almost every area of operation.

So you didn't like it much but you got good at it... I'm not saying I didn't like it. It was a huge transition, because you're worried about making sure that there are 25 guys doing what they're supposed to for the good of the organization. Everybody's on a different agenda…you know that. Everyone has specific strengths and certain weaknesses but it takes all sorts to bring an organization together, and as you go though your relationships with these people you get to know exactly where you are, what you need to do to get the most out of them. Some people you gotta prod, some people you gotta push, some people you gotta beg, some people you can let go on their own and do their thing. It took me a long time to get a grasp on the 25 different personalities and who you should do what with. Fortunately, I knew a lot of them because I'd played in the Twins organization before I worked with the Mets and came back. So I had a prior relationship with many of the staff, I wasn't coming in cold by any stretch (of the imagination).

Note, his talk about the work is very much concerned with the people, not the mechanics. His focus is on Second Base in the Management by Baseball Model, people management. It's not that he and his front office team are not successful at the prerequisite First Base skills (the mechanics of operational management), but he sees the team's success as a result of their efforts in the Second Base skill set. The topics he hits on, blending aptitudes, customizing management techniques to match the personalities, even his mention of knowing his workmates from his previous Twins experience is an indication of his focus on people and the people-management aspects of the work.

One problem organizations outside baseball have is sustaining success or excellence. You've been running one of the few organizations that's done a successful of of it over a four or five year run. Did someone teach you or did you teach yourself how to think about how to make the next year successful? It's nice of you to say that…we're not there yet. We all (baseball GMs) think two, three, four years out in advance, and I do as well. But there are decisions that you make for the day, decisions for the month, decisions for the year and decisions for two-three years down the road. The depth chart changes so drastically over the course of a month, not just over a year. That depth chart is good for planning, it's good for me to take into ownership and say here's who we have at each position. It's just a diagram for me.

What other tools do you use? Like everybody, we rely so much on our farm department and our scouting. They're the ones who ultimately make us successful and sustain any success because we get a constant flow. And that's true of the Twins particularly because you're not going to see us involved a whole lot in the high profile free agents. So our minor league system is probably is more important to us than some. We've made a couple of good baseball decisions that have allowed us to be somewhat successful. We've been lucky a couple of times. We've drafted well over the last 5 to 10 years, and if you do that… I think we've got a manager and a coaching staff that's quite good. We've got a field coordinator who's quite good. I think we've got a pitching coordinator that's quite good. So it goes back to people again. It's not money - I don't believe in that at all. We don't spend the kind of money some others do, but we do pick and choose where we do spend our money. We spend a heck of a lot more money in scouting than a lot do.

{snip} Do you know what your competitors spend on scouting or do you guess? What kind of competitive intelligence do you use? The draft...we spend probably more than any other organization. I'm pretty sure. Of course, I'm not saying if all things were equal (we would have spent more)…we had way more picks than our competitors (therefore more work to do on the draft). We have these sandwich picks, consequently we need to spend more. We're going to have more sandwich pick opportunities than Cleveland and certainly Detroit and Chicago, but not more than K.C.

So you count heavily on scouting. Do you try to innovate in scouting? You seem to have an approach that to a relatively ignorant outsider seems very stable. We take an approach that's not very fancy. We think in terms that goes beyond just talent and ability, but looks at make-up. We draft for make up more than some…I think. I'm not talking like we're ahead of the curve or anything, but I just believe that there's such a low percentage of players who ultimately surface at the major league level…if they're going to surface, it's a little easier to develop a player who's willing and cooperative than it is to have to battle a guy. So we try to get good quality baseball players, and not guys that are raw-skilled.

Ryan values skill and acuity over money, which is probably a healthy world view given the organization he works for. Did he start that way, or is he making lemonade? I don't know, but I don't think it matters in terms of his managerial behavior. Either way, he has a mature approach that helps the organization achieve what it needs to. I suspect if you put him in Brian Cashman's job as the Yankee G.M., he'd be uncomfortable but he'd succeed here, too (and vice-versa, by the way).

THE CRUX The consistent theme here is Terry Ryan bases the team's strategy on his own background: scouting. In part, he was selected for his scouting background; that was and is the Twins' survival mechanism. But for a manager in any kind of organization who doesn't have a broad background in various endeavors, basing one's approach on what one knows is a great foundation, as long as one realizes one has to learn the rest of the job or hire complementary talents to cover those areas, or both. Too many managers, executives especially, foolishly pretend the title gives them some sudden magickal infusion of ability in any area that falls under their authority.

Ryan didn't have a diverse set of managerial experiences, but did choose to work in an organization that based its success on his particular strength and he did use his deep background in what he was successful at as the foundation for his team's progress. That's smart adaptation.

Ryan and his front office team have a very "Midwestern" style the rest of the country sees parodied in Lake Wobegon. When applied diligently, this cultural style can be a special competitive strength, and I believe it is one of the Twins' comparative advantages. It appears as humility, stability and personality, which I'll explain in Part III.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Management Lessons from Terry Ryan:
Weapon of Mass Construction - Part I  

In a business culture that rewards self-aggrandizement, humility can be a powerful weapon. In the Minnesota Twins' case, it's a key ingredient, a weapon of mass construction applied probably in many front office functions, but it's markedly noticeable in their head man, G.M. Terry Ryan.

Ryan has assembled the team that's had five consecutive winning seasons, a pair of pleasantly positive seasons bracketing three consecutive divisional titles. Winning a division title in a medium bracket like the AL Central seems easy on the surface: It's not been hypercompetitive since the Cleveland Indians first round of powerhouse teams petered out after 1999. The three years the Twins won their division, 87 wins each season would have taken first place. Check the context, and you'll see that ease is an oversimplification. Because you can win this division with a relatively low number of wins most years, most owners won't choose to invest a Star Wars missile Defense Initiative sized hunk of cash in assuring it's nailed. It's too easy to stay in contention into mid-September with a record headed towards 86 wins. Since 1996, here's how many wins an AL Central team was required to have to beat the second place team:

Year Wins to Beat
2nd Place Team
Year Wins to Beat
2nd Place Team
1996 86 2001 86
1997 81 2002 82
1998 81 2003 87
1999 76 2004 84
2000 91 2005 94

If you could design a team to win 87 games consistently every season, you'd have owned the title outright seven of these 10 seasons, and shared first place in another, a grand total of eight out of ten. Talk about the seduction of mere adequacy. Angus' First Law of Organizations...that all human systems tend to be self-amplifying...indicates that the gravitational field of mere adequacy will draw AL Central teams to get the highest benefit/cost by figuring out how to win 87 or 88 games a year.

ASIDE: Technically, of course, this isn't exactly true, because the first place teams did win more games than this and if they had won fewer, it's probable the second place teams would have won some of them, meaning to be assured of beating the second place team, you'd need more than this many wins. But you should be able to see the seduction ownership would feel here, and that management would see here -- the ability to be adequate would just about guarantee playoff contention through mid-September pretty much all the time. As long as no divisional rival gets lucky, or decides to shoot the moon, or has everything congeal beautifully, everyone can compete, like pre-Honda/Toyota North American auto manufacturers by being decent.

But it's not easy. Besides the Twins, how many teams have been .500 or better in each of the last five seasons? Seven. The Braves are management excellence incarnate with a multi-billion dollar corporate giant behind them. The Yanks and Bosox have each other to thank for merciless striving for 99-game targets. The White Sox and the A's are remarkable accomplishments by two of the most sophisticated and relentlessly modern organizations in their field. The Cards and Astros have had deep and broad management capabilities. And that's it.

Contrast the hand the Twins front office has to play. A notoriously stingy owner. Threatened contraction (timelines/horizons/budgets become unpredictable). The Curse of Jerry Zimmerperson. An unrivalled set of challenges within this group of eight teams. Okay, the Athletics had those oddly demented post-Haas owners, but those guys eventually let DePodesta and Beane loose on baseball. There's virtually no slack if the playoffs are the goal. Random chance, luck and injuries easily mean 6 games in a season, and if you're aiming for 88 wins, you could easily end up at 82 or 83, and maybe that would get you a division title once every four years or so. For the Twins to have made these targets successfully under these conditions is no fluke -- it takes skill, applied cleverly and consistently.

The Twins management team is very very good. The head man, G.M. Terry Ryan, shared some of his thoughts with me last month at the G.M.'s confabulation at Indian Wells and what he had to say has value to managers beyond baseball, especially those who are neither in the unlimited-resources fields such as military or petroleum or Google on the one hand, or holding on by their fingernails last-gasp fields such as airlines or fishing.

Ryan's team has created a strategy and a set of tactics that optimize for success in this environment. It works beautifully, and it would work in some other divisions, too, though not as well. It involves a lot of skills that are at Second Base in the MBB Model, and a stealth trick that, while competitors know Ryan's using it, still lulls them into underestimating him. As I pointed out in the opener, Ryan's humble exterior and simple-appearing persona, while not inauthentic, disguises a strong mind and a relentless focus on objectives.

In Parts II and III, I'll share some of Ryan's insights you can use yourself.

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