Saturday, March 25, 2006

The O'Dowd Report II: Rockies' Unique Barriers
and Knowing What You Can Manage  

This is the second installment of a conversation Colorado Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd was kind enough to have with me. The first part is here.

In the last section, we finished with O'Dowd describing the experiments that underpin the front office team's ongoing efforts to understand the differences in Colorado's playing environment that make it more difficult for the team to succeed. In established management practice, you can usually answer with a decent degree of accuracy the questions, "within my span of control, what can I manage?" and "what's outside my management control?". O'Dowd's front office team have internalized the idea that the answers that are givens outside Colorado are different from the truth in their situation.

It's not an easy lesson to internalize. Beyond baseball, and especially in business arenas, managers facing very alien environments are most likely to practice a form of denial -- choosing to use old methods that come from a different context (in and of itself, not a bad first approach) and then not relentlessly monitoring the results of those old practices in the new environment. The absence of observation, monitoring and analysis in the face of radically changed circumstances is where the weakness starts undermining management performance.

So learning what you can manage and what you can't, where your decisions can change opportunities for the better, is a key prerequisite for success.

A: We feel really good about where we’re at. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s always going to have to be managed but we feel we have a much better approach than we’ve ever had before.

Q: Yes, though the one thing you can’t manage is the fact that there’s this significant difference in home-road environments. Short of selective home-road platooning…

A: I think the big thing you can do is manage the mindset. And I think that the most important responsibility in this organization…I’m only one of a group of people trying to focus on the right things. Instead of focusing on things that are more of a negative we have chosen to focus on a positive approach.

One thing I learned early on and painfully is character is a very important part of management, period. Character in our environment is crucial…I’ll explain that to you in more detail.

Offensive ballparks throughout the history of the game have leant themselves more to an “I, I, Me, Me” approach to playing the game of baseball. Runner on 3rd base less than two out, you’re playing in Seattle infield’s back you put the ball in play and you try to put that run across. You play in Colorado, you might expand your strike zone swing at more pitches, if you can get the ball in the air you have a chance to knock it out (of the park). It creates within you a (personal) numbers driven approach.

I think by focusing on character as much as we have…you know character players really understand the team concept and they understand that the biggest joy in this game…the only joy in this game is working together with your teammates and focusing on winning. I think from a management standpoint, I think we have totally changed what we look for. We have developed a 15-step criteria for how we measure character & we try to really focus on those attributes underneath character that are completely defined for us as the type of player that we want wearing a Rockie uniform. We take that into our amateur draft.

Q: Are you open to sharing that list of character traits on or off the record?

A: I’d prefer not to share it. Not that it’s proprietary; I just don’t want it to be the focus of what our plans are. It’s is based around things like ability to handle adversity, perseverance, mental toughness as defined by several things, is it a durable individual, the ability to relate to teammates, what kind of attitude they have towards life, upbringing. It has a lot of measures and each of our scouts have to answer about, whether we’re looking to acquire a player or when we draft a player or when we promote player.

It’s not the end-all be-all, it’s just that it’s given us a definite direction for our decision-making process.

Q; So you use it as a tie-breaker.

A: It’s part of the evaluation; it’s not the equation. It’s what I call one of our "separators”.

Q: Let’s get back to you. You’re in a unique position among the 30 teams’ GMs. Your whole work life is an experiment based on little or no precedent. It’s parallel to being a GM where there has never been one before, or actually more like it’s 1895. You don’t have “The Book” and what there is of it doesn’t work cleanly.

A: A lot of people just don’t understand that, even my peers in the game. When I try to explain it to them they just don’t get it. I think they would have to work in this environment and go through it to begin to really understand what it means.

I had to, too. I had my perceptions and presumptions, and I had my theories when I was on the outside looking in and when I started this job.

Q: You came straight from Cleveland, right?

A: Yes. And I think once I got into this it took me a good three years to get my hands around it. The mistakes I made were mistakes based on aggressiveness & on not taking my time. My perceptions didn’t turn out the match the reality of the particular environment.

There were certain constants that I knew of. The home-road difference…I knew it was there because they’re clear from the stats, but I didn’t know the core of the reasons. And the whole offensive-minded ballpark…how it creates mindset in the players…I really had no idea how that would play out. Finding out was really a valuable learning experience.

So every year I’ve learned more things that relate to this particular (GM) job. I feel like we’re on the right path now; whether that turns out to be the case or not, we’ll find out.

So O'Dowd and his group came in with preconceived notions but started experimenting right away and, as importantly, observed and measured and analyzed their results. They haven't stopped.

Note that you can have the best data in the world but that full data alone, while it certainly helps an analyst define problems, doesn't help in defining questions to ask or the answers to address known challenges.

Note, too, a Third Base skill O'Dowd has -- self-awareness. He knows his management actions tend towards aggressive approaches. He knows his tendencies meant he made mistakes. He doesn't pretend it's anyone else's fault (if anything, I believe, he may be grabbing blame for shortfalls that are outside a manager's control), and this accountability makes it possible to more easily dump past approaches and embrace new ones. Energy spent elaborating CYA strategies is energy that's not going into analysis or forward-looking decisions.

More to Come...

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