Saturday, April 15, 2006

"Jittery Jon" Daniels: A Texas Rangers Lesson in the Limits of Managerial Control  

It's what you learn after you know it all that counts -- Earl Weaver

When a manager starts a new job, especially a young manager, it's important to listen to people, validate what can be fixed quickly, grab control and apply one's vision clearly & con brio.

When a manager gets instant good results, it's exhilarating. But how about when the carefully-constructed plan's early feedback is all bad?

There's a great baseball lesson for managers in all endeavors in this first 10-days of the 2006 season, especially in the struggle of the Texas Rangers. The Rangers went 2-9, and as written by Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star Telegram (thanks to Baseball Think Factory):

Over the last two weeks, since the day before the Rangers broke camp, Daniels has watched helplessly as his No. 2 starter, Adam Eaton, was lost for three to four months with a finger injury; his No. 5 starter surrendered a major league record six home runs in his first game; his red-hot rookie second baseman dislocated a thumb; his veteran closer blew a ninth-inning lead and his team lost seven of its first nine games.

Oh, and did I mention that the outfielder he traded a power-hitting second baseman for was on a record-setting strikeout pace? Or that Robinson Tejeda, the young pitching prospect who came to the Rangers in the David Dellucci trade, has already been torched twice at Oklahoma City? Or that Daniels' $60 million free-agent pitching ace, Kevin Millwood, is off to an 0-2 start?

Daniels is under somewhat more scrutiny than most new GMs would be. At 28 years old, he's chronologically young (probably the youngest-ever) for the GM job. And while he has had solid experience (multiple baseball jobs and in multiple franchises), he appears to have had a significant promotion each of his five years in the line of work, so to many observers, it would appear to be a "groomed" situation. He got the job over a lot of more senior men and women with a lot more years under their belts, some of whom had been working on the staff of teams that had made the playoffs (that is, demonstrably successful).

The expectations for the Texas Rangers this season were going to guarantee a little extra heat. They play in a balanced division with no dominant team meaning there's going to be realistic hope every year. And after going from 71 wins in 2003 to 89 wins in 2004, they boinged back to 79 wins like a noisy piece of over-flexed plexiglas in 2005. The 2004 campaign had given fans a lot of hope in a team of youngish high-achiever batters, somewhat fluffed up by a home park, The Ballpark in Arlington, that enriches offensive events as much as any park in the American League.

Reeves' impression is that Daniels is taking it really well, considering.

When I found him Wednesday before the Rangers and Angels wrapped up their three-game series, surprisingly Daniels wasn't poised on the top row of the upper deck at Angel Stadium, ready to take the plunge off the other side. There was no arsenic or hemlock in sight, no loaded firearm stuffed into his pants pocket.

The GM remains calm, lucid and reasonably sane, even as the world he spent six months constructing crumbles around him. {SNIP} Now Daniels' wife, Robyn, who sat beside him during Tuesday night's gut-wrenching, 5-4, ninth-inning loss and then flew back to Texas on Wednesday, that's another story all together.

{SNIP} "She only sees one side of it. She sees not just me, but [assistant GM] Thad [Levine] and others, how much time and effort and work that we've put in, and the sacrifices I make on a personal level, and then to not be able to control the outcome, that's the part that everybody struggles with, and that's the part she's learning about right now." For the uninitiated, like the wife of a first-time, first-year GM, it's a painful lesson in realizing, once the season begins, just how little anyone, even a sharp, eager and energetic general manager like her husband, can actually control.

So what part of the decision does Daniels really own. Well, the Millwood signing is his. The Adam Eaton acquisition was his, too, but if Eaton's injury either cames with him from his previous employer, the San Diego Padres, Daniels is not on the medical team. Not his albatross technically, though if a pattern emerges of medical misfeasance, he'd better recognize that early. But his #5 starter blowing up and being left in the game long enough to set a 21st century record for homers bounced off his ERA is the manager's call, and most of the rest of it "is just baseball". That is, random steps on the way to an outcome that will just as easily be different as what it looks like right now.

Daniels seems to have internalised one of the hardest lessons for young managers -- that no matter how much skillful planning you do and how much control you have over certain parts of the process, other parts can just fall apart through lack of competence or lack of decent luck. Luck, as Branch Rickey said, is the residue of design, and he was right, but some systems are so complex or just beyond any reasonable chance for a manager to affect strongly that one can have what I'll call "bad luck" that's not one own fault. So, it appears, Daniels understands he'll last longer and make decisions as long as he doesn't feel like he owns all the flaws and bumps in the road. At the same time, btw, he needs to publicly take the hit for anyone else in the organization who might have been responsible -- you protect the people who work for you at least in the public eye and up the hierarchy, unless you have a strong reason to believe they did it on purpose.

He has, of course, internalised a second lesson, a lesson everyone in baseball but the early George Steinbrenner has successfully internalised: You can't let the first ten games of a season instill panic in you -- while there's much to observe, the heuristic of the overall solution can't be settled out yet.

That second lesson is one every organization beyond baseball would profit from internalizing. I've seen panic set in with managers running big initiatives who find glitches in early efforts. Baseball, of course, is much better at pairing on-going experimentation/pilot-testing with progressing on actual projects. All successful baseball managers and many of the ordinary one know you have to test rigorously before you commit all your resources to one approach, all your at bats from a position to one young player.

Beyond baseball, managers need to be experimental early on with less life-&-death aspects of projects and jobs, as well as open to feedback. It's a little less incompetent than it was a decade ago, but I'm still amazed at the number of executive teams that take on mission-critical initiatives with running a pilot test of key components at the beginning.

But it's the first lesson that's a tough struggle, especially if one's management success has come from organizing and forging improvements. I know a hundred self-inflicted Mr. Bill Haircuts, related to needing to be resigned to the limits of one's control. I'll give you my own Mr. Bill Haircut moment with it, and I wasn't even very young at the time. I was working at a software company, a director running most of the marketing functions, and sales were flagging. Changes in the market were eroding the utility of the very wonderfully executed traditional channels and sales techniques. Sales were down a little, margins down sharply, and margins were the lifesblood of this company. Sales, run by someone smart but fearful and inexperienced, didn't want to try anything different, she just wanted to drive her people harder. So I came up with the idea of an Integrated Marketing (targeted print advertising + targeted mailings to segmented lists 'o readers + telephone sales pitches soon after the mail piece arrived) program I could run out of our departments to peddle our highest priced, highest margin luxury item. The software suite was still getting finishing touches, but what a super way to launch it into the market. The program worked like a perfectly-executed hit-and-run -- the talent in this marketing department was outstanding, our planning was clean and the staff implementation was nothing less than brilliant. The conversion rate was breathtaking.

Just one tiny little wafer-thin dinner mint of a problem. The product we were selling was buggy, so we could either ship crap (fine for a big company like Microsoft or Ford, fine for a politically-connected military supplier), or delay shipping, taking the wind out of the sails the program had built up and the margin out of the company's (thinning) coffers. When we launched the integrated marketing program, we didn't know the software was going to be intractably buggy, and had we waited for shipment, it would have undermined the power of the plan. As it turned out, we cancelled all the transactions and (ultimately) the product was quietly killed. With 20-20 hindsight, I know we shouldn't have launched the program whose very success made for an ugly mess. That said, though, the exact failure points were beyond our control. That said, it was my responsibility.

You can't own everything emotionally. It's too early for Jittery Jon Daniels to judge whether his moves worked out or not. Managers in and beyond baseball have to own up to failures and learn from them without owning them emotionally. Embracing them will only diminish the manager's ability to attack the next project/season/initiative/change aggressively. The focus for the young GM and for us should not be what the Rangers record is today, but what Jon Daniels learns from what's happened before.

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