Saturday, June 10, 2006

Part II: Getting Some Doug Melvin Process in Your Own Organization  

History & future protection come from the very same place,
Reality is just a conception, the truth will always replace.
-- The Sons of Champlin

In Part I of this entry, I described how baseball is way ahead of other lines of work in understanding the organization is really an on-going prototype that has to evolve every day -- most days just a little, but with the understanding that it was the norm. To do that requires both playing to win today while concurrently testing/experimenting to find aptitudes, processes, methods and relationships one can use to achieve future success. 

I gave an example of how one of baseball's best at this, Milwaukee Brewer GM Doug Melvin, played around with this, and how his protégés, Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton, talked about it in a non-baseball setting. The Pfeffer/Sutton book is one I haven't read yet, only a couple of long excerpts and the interview I quoted from in Part I, but what I've gleaned so far is worth the price of the book. Good, actionable constructs to help think through how to design action.

I promised to make some suggestions on how and where you might implement some experiments, Melvin-Pfeffer style.

I write about this in more detail in the new book, but all organizations face projects or quarters or initiatives that are blow-outs, bad and good. Way over- or under-budget, way- late or early, specs discarded with the project managers trying to put together the shards of what's left. Bad managers ignore the fecund opportunities to experiment in these spots.

In baseball with an 8-2 lead or deficit, this is where field managers use their bench players, try untested tactics, try players in new roles. Pitchers try different sequences or pitches they're are working on. 

Beyond baseball, most managers see being way ahead as an end, not both an end and a means...they'll say something like "Well, things could go wrong, let's just keep working overtime...if it ain't broke don't fix it". And running way behind or on a cause that's lost, they like to pretend if they just drive everyone as though they were going to be able to hit the finish line on time, it'll magically happen. It's nonsense.

Explain to staff and your own management this is where you get to try out new things that probably won't have much of an effect one way or the other on the current project, but could lead to gains in subsequent ones. You'll probably have some sales effort in orgs that aren't already doing this (that is, most of them), but it'll be worth it. 

I don't suggest you throw out everything you know works all at once (if it all worked you wouldn't likely be in the spot you're in). But test a few things at a time, like Toyota on the factory floor. Keep track of what your experiments reveal, and you're likely to find a few that you will propose to be default behaviors on the next initiative and a few you won't tough with a 60'6" pole. But if you can't find elbow room to experiment and test in blow-outs (winning and losing) you probably shouldn't be trying to manage in an organization in a competitive line of work.

There are myriad opportunities on ordinary projects and initiative to experiment, they're just not as risk-free. Unless you do what 97% of all departments should do to be effective, set aside slack in all your work. There's a lot more about slack, finding it and using it, in the book, and I won't belabor that here. If you don't inject slack in all your work, start doing it immediately.

Once you have slack, then you can use that to apply to experiments that might or might not work out. The scope of the experiments should be within the context of how much slack you have to burn up in case of failure. But you knew that already.

The fear of failure constrains the possibilities of success. Healthy organizations in competitive environments are, as Pfeffer said, on-going prototypes. Learn this balance between winning now and building for the future, how to work with it from baseball in general, and Doug Melvin in particular, and it'll give you a solid competitive advantage.

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