Sunday, June 18, 2006

Do Not Attempt This At Home --
Or In Schaumburg, Either  

As pointed out by my blog buddy SlackerManager, the Northern League Schaumburg Flyers are going to try to become America's Minor League Team by resurrecting the old Bill Veeck idea: Let the fans manage the team. This includes managerial decisions such as the batting lineup, fielding positions and the pitching roster for the second half of the club's season. As a team rep said, they aren't going to allow wild choices such as playing a catcher in center field, some thing that used to be done, but hasn't been since Craig Biggio became a Jardinero Central. 

SlackerManager Bren wrote about it here and he's (again) well worth reading. He believes it's highly-risky and likely to fail for a lot of good reasons. And I agree with him. 

His reasons:

  • Players may resent being managed by amateurs,
  • The "manager" is a faceless group of fans (who might change day to day), lowering accountability,
  • "There’s just too much nuance to the aspect of teams and teamwork that customers/fans will never see or experience".

I think the middle reason is the most powerful. The essence of successful management is accountability, either the sense of obligation to the employer or to one's own craft. There are just too many decisions most managers should be making or thinking through that someone disengaged is likely to be successful over time. In a society like ours, where the dominant religion is commerce/money, many people who pay to participate in this Schaumburg arena are likely to have a sense of entitlement (¿and who's to say it's not merited?).

Bren's sense about the first point is well-taken -- competitive professionals are reallyunlikely to want a manager you can't have a one-on-one (one-on-4,000?) with, And it's the last point that goes to what I believe may be the mis-conception behind the idea if it's designed to succeed in the W-L department. The team is going to be trailed by a "reality tv" crew with the thought of making money by delivering a serial show -- kind of like Big Brother With Tuf Skin & Crackerjack, so if you measure success in the ability to sell logo-wear or gross income, it might be successful...but it won't be baseball.

I think the Flyers might be assumin' that the fans won't make many mistakes and that'll lead to "good" management. In competitive environments in and beyond baseball, merely not making mistakes rarely leads to success. The "Wisdom of Crowds" idea popularized by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki and turned into a popular readable book explores the belief  that crowds acting together can make smarter decisions than individuals experts acting alone can, and then presents examples that support the arguments and the conditions under which "the wisdom" thing works. Many people though have simplified this simple idea, ignoring the limited conditions under which it works and turning it into a weapon to bash expertise, to pretend that a tax attorney in Brooklyn can be just as successful at running a family farm in Iowa as a fourth-generation family farmer who has an Ag degree and has been doing it for 22 years (or that the farmer has the potential to make as effective a counselor as the Brooklyn codger). The idea as morphed by simplifiers feeds a powerful underlying current in American thought -- not a bad nor a good one -- that expertise is overrated and that anyone can do anything if they just set themselves to do it (bootstrapping, Horatio Alger Hiss-style). 

Populist, native, and in this particular case 99% false.

Surowiecki makes explicit that the places the "wisdom" are effective are those removed from "skill", so his best examples involve items like guessing the # of jellybeans in a jar, the temperature in the room, or what group opinion will be on issues. And I'm not telling you anything you don't know that managing a baseball team (or running a non-commodity business) is anything like that category of decision/guess.

The book is very approachable and fun.  For a more rigorous and actionable view of how to implement the value of the wisdom of the crowds, the unsurpassed blogger/essayist Dave Pollard delivered a two part entry (this and this) on how to think through creation of a system to take advantage of the wisdom and how to deliver it. You will never find a more specific and valuable actionable description anywhere. I love Pollard's work, not just because his entries make mine look terse in comparison but he's experienced and knowledgeable and he knows his stuff in a wide, polymathic swath of practice.

If the Flyers front office is interested in actually trying to apply the "wisdom of crowds" to deliver winning baseball, I recommend at least one reading of Pollard's polemics. It's not quite as approachable as Surowiecki's (meant to be stimulating and entertaining, not applied), but if you can't dedicate enough time and effort to wrestle Pollard's description into something you can deploy, you probably shouldn't attempt the beautiful of context-sensitive and risky model.

After all, unlike creating cheesy reality tv show concepts, management takes skill.

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