Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Detroit Tigers' Give a Lesson in Bounce:
Jim Leyland's Navigation After Adversity  

An organization's after-the-fact reactions to adversity
make more difference than
their success in the immediate moment of the challenge
-- Angus' Fifth Law of Organizational Behavior

Last week the turbo-charged steamroller that is the Detroit Tigers team had their first 5-game losing streak, the last 3 games of which were a drubbing every which way by their division rivals, the relentless Chicago White Sox. Everything was going so beautifully for this out-of-nowhere phenomenon, and then the sudden Mr. Bill haircut intruded.

Given the binary nature of management, the most common supervisorial reactions to adversity after a long period of either peace or success are:

  • Smugness in the belief difficulties can't continue ("what's worked before will still work"), or
  • Hyperreaction, in an attempt to obliterate what the manager fears is a new status quo.

The key is to get the right amount of change, emotional pressure, urgency into the message to the staff. While getting yer knickers in a twist is almost guaranteed to undermine future success, you can overshoot on the keeping clam side, too.

When I was a college freshman, I worked in the St. John's College Bookstore (Robin Dunn...I told you one day I'd relate this story to you). The manager was a super individual named Charles. Charles had been a monk for what I think had been over a decade. Charles was unflappable..he made Joe Torre with a 10 run lead over the Royals in the 8th inning look like Bobcat Goldthwait in comparison. Everything he did, he did gently, slowly, like a tai-chi master demonstrating part of a gesture. He sometimes walked as though he still wore a cassock, with his wrists crossed in front of him.

One day, one of the other clerks, Jack, was surreptitiously smoking a cancer stick back in the book storeroom, and as anyone who has worked around a lot of new books already knows, "book dust", small motes of paper that come loose from the cut pages, is not just flammable, but downright explosive in the right situation.


Jack set the storeroom on fire. Not a 1906 San Francisco Fire, but a fire nevertheless. My buddy Michael was the closest fully-conscious person to the back room and he circulate quickly to another staffer and to Charles. "You," he said, "tell people in that part of the store there's a fire and they need to leave, and you," he said to Charles, "go tell those people".

Michael extinguished the fire and when he emerged, he found Charles in conversation with people who were still there. Not converastion, actually. Charles was telling them in a whisper so soft and low-affect that it couldn't be taken as an instruction, arms folded in his imaginary hassock, body language wholly uncommunicative of urgency, "Good afternoon. There's a fire. In the back room. You should leave the store. Please". An outsider observing would have assumed he was discussing the best way to grow tomatoes in the Northern New Mexico climate, or mentioning that vespers next week would be half an hour late. And these were the first people he was supposed to alert.

Charles did avoid the over-the-top Full Metal Jacket panic most corporate and government managers inhabit when adversity strikes. But he undershot the required response, too.

Tiger manager Jim Leyland, though, has been right on target all year. Early in the season, he recognized the team needed additional confidence more than anything else he could add.

Clearly, there was something to his belief and his implementation. The got off to a very good start and stayed better than than that

DETROIT TIGERS - 2006 - By Month







April 16 9 (-1.5) 133 83
May 19 9 1.5 130 116
June 20 7 2.5 157 96
July 15 10 7.5 129 123
August (15th) 8 6 6.5 61 51

They had a great April, their great start justified by their ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. AT one point, they had a four game losing streak. May was not so hot from a Runs Scored and Allowed prespective, but they won games at a better clip, even with a three game losing streak. June they were one cruise, playing the equivalent of 120-42 baseball, although losing three in a row at one point. In July, they played their least effective ball, still a winning record and losing only two in a row at the most extreme.

But August came along, and as they entered the home stretch, external observers suddently started taking the Tigers' run more seriously. Pundits had been waiting for them to get flustered, either collapsing or perhaps just losing enough wind that the relentless White Sox or Minnesota Twins (who struggled early but had run off a pair of hot streaks -- 21-2 and 20-6 -- that made them look like a team of destiny) would catch them and the Bengals would go all 1964 Phillies on us.

The "scary" swath of time was their first 2006 five-game losing streak, the last three of which (last Firday, Saturday & Sunday) were to the White Sox who beat them every which way. What did their manager do (an what should you do when a project or effort that looks like a walk in the park suddenly looks very endangered very quickly?

Clearly, your response needs to be in proportion to the context...the level of the struggle and to its relative importance. In this Detroit case, here's the valuable managerial stance Leyland took and you should observe closely. Quoted by Daily Southtown columnist Phil Arvia:

"There's two things you can't do," he said. "You can't walk around like you've done something, because there's a lot of time left. And the other thing is you can't walk around trying to hang on. You've just got to go do what you've been doing all year — you've got to play. However it comes out in the wash, it comes out."

The exact homeostatic angle of repose required in this case. Neither arrogant passivity because you think you deserve it, nor sweaty-palmed anxiety. It just wasn't time for a chair-throwing, water-cooler dumping fallujah-fication of the clubhouse. It was a frelling five-game losing streak.

Let me provide some historical context for five-game losing streaks. Here are the ultimate two League Champions from each year for the previous six seasons, whether they had a five-game losing streak along the way, and what their longest losing streak was.



5-Game Losing Streak?

Longest Losing Streak

2005 AL Chisox Yes 7
2005 NL Astros Yes 7
2004 AL Bosox Yes 5
2004 NL Cards No 4
2003 AL Yanks Yes 5
2003 NL Marlins Yes 6
2002 AL Angels Yes 6
2002 NL Giants No 4
2001 AL Yankees No 4
2001 NL Diamondbacks Yes 5
2000 AL Yankees Yes 7
2000 NL Mets No 4

It's not impossible to make it to the World Series or win the Championship with a five game losing streak. Twice as many of the teams that made it had five-game losing streaks as didn't have one.

Leyland found the balanced approach that matched the context.

The Tigers had to try to pick up the pieces while still on the road, and against an excellent Boston team that had taken two of three from them during the Tigers' blistering June.

The result?

The Motor City team took the first two games, winning two different and telling ways. They took the first game by ripping off three runs in the 1st and a pair in the 3rd to put the game away quickly and decisively and establishing their intentions. They won the second, a close game, in the ninth on a lucky break, proving to themsleves they could win the close ones, too.

A Larry Bowa meltdown might have been good for the manager's stress, but it wouldn't have worked as well. A Charles The St. John's College Bookstore manager meditation with soft words might have soothed some listeners, but it wouldn't have worked as well.

Jim Leyland's masterful navigation of the middle, steady glacial pressure, found the spot. Look for that balance for your own post-adversity management. And keep in mind, the outcome is not so much about what happens in that moment of adversity, as it is about how you and your team handle what comes after.

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