Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Curt Flood: Doing The Right Thing As a CLM (Career Limiting Move)  

In a healthy organization, managers who attempt to redress long-standing "survivals" (behaviors or processes that have been in place so long, they have become implicit and accepted without examination) are allowed to question those survivals.

In truly unhealthy organizations the "normal" managers will always measure the neener-neener factor (the ability to bring down a potential rival by any means necessary) as always outweighing the net benefit of retooling the dysfunctional behavior.

And in the middle of the spectrum of health, vaguely-functional organizations, the pattern is most often a mixed model: The first and sometimes second person to challenge the status quo is sacrificed on the altar of the Bitgods (the "back in the good old days" crowd that assumes the virtue of however it was done when they were cutting their teeth on it has earned the credibility of one of the Ten Commandments), but eventually, without ever admitting the sacrificial victims were ahead of the game.

Baseball is in the middle of that spectrum. Sacrificial case in point: Curt Flood.

Alex Belth's new book Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights (Persea Books) describes in great detail not only the causes and results, but all the subtle factors that come into play and how the survival is ultimately overcome. Stepping Up is a lot more book than that -- it's a full life bio of Flood with good details of his playing career. The player comes through well -- Belth is a capable analyst who understand sabermetrics, but the most engaging aspect of this book is the way Flood the human being comes through so clearly. I almost felt like I had met him. It's a solid book, very readable and informative, especially if you weren't watching baseball on the field and in the courtrooms closely from the 1950s through the 1970s. It's not an uplifting Summer read like An Almost Perfect Game, but it's a serious page-turner..

Note: If you want to read a concise remembrance of Flood's on-field career, Rich Lederer at Baseball Analysts wrote an insightful overview.

FLOOD CONDITIONS I'm not going to explain why Curt Flood alone among his peers came into baseball with an uncommon set of attitudes that would let him view the reserve clause (that bound players to teams as long as the teams chose with no employee recourse) as a form of slavery. That's about sixty pages of the book. I'm simply going to explain his action and the organization's response to him.

Flood was a veteran player who'd been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds but traded to the St. Louis Cardinals while still a rookie. He never took it well -- he viewed getting traded without consulting him as tantamount to the Reds & cards viewing him as a piece of property. He made a pact with himself that if it happened again, he'd refuse it. Unlike a lot of people who make pacts with themselves, he was stone-cold serious about it (as this person of principle was with just about everything). When in October 1969, the Cards traded him to the Phillies, and to add insult to injury, the team's front office decided to have a low-ranking staffer tell him after the fact, he decided not to accept the trade. In the rules of baseball then, that meant retirement, or, sometimes, a negotiation to get more money. Flood retired and the Players' Association helped him sue Major League Baseball to try to kill off (as an antitrust violation and as a violation of the U.S. Constitution) the rules that allowed baseball to behave that way. The case worked its way up the judicial hierarchy until three years later when the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in favor of MLB.

Flood and the Players' Association didn't count on winning. Flood just did it for the good of the system and because it was the right thing to do for his honor, for the good of his fellow players, and, ultimately, for the good of the system. He was whacked around in the sports and business press like a Brian Mohler hanging breaking ball. He was vilified as a man without principle, a guy who was posturing to make more money (such antics had happened before). The Bitgods saw overturning the MLB-labor status quo as scary. Front offices were comfortable with the way things were...not only did it anchor an asymmetry of power that benefited them, it was well known, easy to work with and something they could about do in their collective sleep (like so many processes beyond baseball, eh?). For the team negotiators, it was somewhat about money, but in most cases, it wasn't their money, it was the owners' money. The core pain point for front office types was the inconvenience of having to learn new ways to do things.

Organizations can be really effective at squashing advocacy for change. They can pretend to know the results of change will be destructively earth-shattering, and since there's no evidence to the contrary (the change isn't implemented yet) nobody really know what would happen "if". The dominant Bitgods can enlist the people inside who would benefit from the change to actually resist it through fear of worst case scenarios. Overcoming traditions, even overtly dysfunctional ones, will face resistance even from uninvolved parties (individuals who have no stake in the outcome) who have such a neurotic fear of change they will oppose the change even more violently than those who have an actual stake in preventing it. In the Flood case, he received death threats in the mail and on his locker, threats not from the owners, but from the outside world, from people who were not actual stakeholders.

Belth explains that in Flood's life, it turned really ugly. While was prepared going in for the resistance he would face and while he never thought he had made a mistake, it started eating him up inside. Seemingly the worst pain came from the absence of support from his fellow players. It wasn't that they opposed him (a few, like Carl Yastrzemski, did), but the rest kept their heads low, as Flood's road trip roommate Bob Gibson admitted, because they didn't want the fallout to get them, too.

Three and half years later, the movement Flood took point on won its big victory. In late 1975, an impartial arbitrator ruled the reserve clause as written did not allow team's past behaviors, and the change was effected. Flood never benefited directly. He was out of baseball and would have been 38 years old by then anyway and unlikely to have been an All-Star. But he knew he had set in motion the chain of events that overturned a dysfunctional survival.

BEYOND BASEBALL This is quite common beyond baseball, though usually not as well-reported or visible.

Managers who are getting a paycheck to work for an organization owe their employer their best judgment and the effort to act upon it. Managers in big organizations who do this, though, in the face of survivals that are limiting the organization's effectiveness, are usually sacrificed by the Bitgods or political infighters the way Flood was. When I worked at the InfoWorld Test Center, the reviews editors operated from an old mandate that they should do as many reviews as possible, regardless of quality. The founding mission of the Test Center was to assure quality, so we always pushed back on quantity demands that would violate minimum quality standards. The first two Test Center directors were sacrificed by weak-minded and weak-willed executive management that wasn't capable of defending it's own stated mission. The next two were merely incapacitated by the confusion. It was the fifth director who got it under control, a control that never would have been possible without the efforts of the first two and some of the efforts of the next two.

The husband of a friend of mine works for a company where the manufacturing facility's layout was designed by the owner's son while the youngster was getting an MBA, seven years ago. It's completely dysfunctional, costing the medium-sized company human-hours, calendar-time, misplaced inventory, a few injuries and a lot of bad morale. The owner has tossed a whole series (at least three that I've heard of) operations managers who immediately saw how deranged and inefficient the layout was and wanted to change it, only to told they couldn't, but at the same time held accountable for the results. Aztec Human Sacrifice Time. The current operations manager just makes no waves and points the finger at his employees for all shortfalls and wasted costs.

¿Should YOU become a sacrifice, undermine your career-potential in an organization to do the right thing? I guess it depends on your circumstances, your job prospects elsewhere, and how easy it is you find it to sleep at night taking money from someone to undermine what's best for them. I do know a lot of people who are comfortable following the pattern of the operations manager who's survived by sluffing a sense of responsibility. I'm just not sure I'd ever want any of them working for one of my clients.

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