Friday, October 27, 2006

Magical Thinking is Not a Strategy:
Rainouts, Cargo Cults & Beer League Softball  

When the umps pulled the plug on World Series' Game 4 after an extended rain delay, both teams' managers and coaching staffs needed to go back to the planning routine. Some things would be the same, but the environment, most especially around pitching, would change. Prospective starters would each get a day of rest, bullpen arms harvest an extra day of recovery for varying levels of benefit. Management reworked almost everything. It was still Game 4, still the same rosters, but the extra day affected a host of pre-game decisions, tactics, and even to some degree, in-game decision factor weightings.

Beyond baseball, say in business or government, how often do you see people plan for an event, like a product roll-out or a thorough inventory or a competitive analysis confab, and when the event gets delayed a little, and then everyone comes to the table with the same plan they were taking to the meeting on its original day? Just about always. And that's exactly how the Maginot Line and the 2006 Kansas City Royals were delivered.

The underlying environment against which you design a solution or make a decision changes every day. Sure, in some cases, those changes don't demand anything more than tiny fine-tuning thunks, but organizations that don't emulate baseball and take a close look try to stay the course and at least consider changes end up like the Soviets when they tried to fight their war in Afghanistan. Dead Meat. Carne Muerto. Roadtripkill.

That's a good MBB lesson. But there was a larger, Rich Garces-sized one that surfaced in an MLB.Com feature-fluff-filler story.

Magical Thinking, one deadly fuel for Management By Wishful Thinking (MBWT), which is a pandemic in American management beyond baseball. There is one small useful application for it, which I'll drop on you at the end, but fighting MBWT in your own organization is a necessary but unending task.

Here's the essence of that MLB story:

Tigers aim for new outlook after rainout

ST. LOUIS -- Now the Tigers may be ready to start roaring. The rains that fell Wednesday, forcing a postponement in Game 4 of the World Series, could have also dropped the green flag to get Detroit's crawling offense out of the blocks.

After all, the Tigers followed up their previous rainout this postseason with seven consecutive convincing wins over first the Yankees, then the Athletics.

Game 2 of the Division Series got washed out, after the Tigers' 8-4 loss to the Yankees in the series opener. They dried out and swept away New York and Oakland.

"I hope we'll see the same scenario and we'll be able to come back [Thursday] and even the series," said Detroit first baseman Sean Casey.

Anyone who bites at that brass ring will get her teeth chipped.

Baseball, like most endeavors, is filled with superstition and good luck charms. Larry Stone once issued a Top 10 list that included reliever Charlie Kerfeld's good luck Jetsons t-shirt, & the allegation of attracting bad luck of being looked at by a cross-eyed person. But managers almost never act on Magical Thinking as a substitute for management. Tiger manager Jim Leyland and his staff certainly didn't (though burning Joel Zumaya's glove in a ritual sacrifice to the Dieties of Sloppy Beer League Softball Defense & 59-Foot Breaking Pitches might have served up a soup├žon of emotional benefit).

In case you don't know it, there was no magical causality between the previous rain-out and the team's 7-game streak off tough competition; the ALCS rain-out didn't cause the team's sweeps. Rainouts don't cause teams to play better or worse. The resulting day off may change a mood if management or a player makes a conscious point of trying to tune the attitude. It may provide the pitching an opportunity to set up better (but for both teams, one of which may end up benefiting more than the other because of specific personnel issues). It may provide injured players a slightly better interval for recovery (again, for both teams, though one may benefit more than the other). It may relieve mental fatigue managers and coaches may be suffering after 160+ games that count. But the rain-out is not The Prime Mover, merely a happenstance.

Of course, you already knew all that. But so do the managers beyond baseball who behave as though they didn't...as though they were Cargo Cultists..

Whenever measures of success are difficult to nail or an organization doesn't mess with all that numbers stuff & operates by the seat-of-the-pants, management tends to substitute MBWT for management practice. Marketing, having many components of "soft" disciplines when done properly, is sometimes high jacked by people doing an MBWT thang.

I had a food-processor as a client and they were struggling against fast-growing competitors who were capitalized enough to take years of losses to put others out of business. Their greatest apparent asset in this game had been an excellent sales woman who knew the products (her own and others') inside and out, was very striking looking. She could always get a meeting because of the latter I suppose, and she was excellent at closer because of the former. Whenever they got close to the edge, she would always pull off a coup and save their soy bacon.

The company saw her as their good luck charm, whereas she was really their star talent. She came to the job fully equipped to succeed. There were two other salesmen in the group who had been heavy-hitters in other companies in the same industry. The rest of the sales force was untrained, the sales manager didn't insist staff be steeped in product ("a good salesman can sell anything", a somewhat valid first stance to take), and they didn't generate the kinds of questions the star could so they didn't flank big competitors' loss-leader prices as a barrier. They whinged about their company's unwillingness to slash prices, and the sales manager agreed. To the sales manager, his star' success was magical, even after he had been on calls with her. He missed the buyers' decision factors being shaped, though in his defense, he realized her looks were a significant initial factor. But his thought was to hire good looking women, and they weren't in a position to do any hiring.

This one ended up not being one of my successes, btw. I did some work with the sales staff and got them to collect answers from their customers on a set of questions. One of  the clearest findings was the customers knew the competitors' low prices were unsustainable and that sooner or later, not only would the prices go way up on these lines but, with fewer surviving competitors, they'd go up enough to make up for previous losses. I was pretty confident that in that environment, a pricing strategy of long-term stability with a long-term contract would be a win-win that the customer might see as a win-win. My client didn't have the courage to try it even as an experiment. They counted on magic instead, which didn't work out at all for them.

I mentioned I'd offer the exception -- a circumstance where Magical Thinking actually can be a benefit.

When all is lost, when the data won't support any constructive approach and your conduct and execution can't affect the outcome significantly and the only chance for winning is a lot of luck, there can be a small morale advantage in the superstition-based go-get-'em. That's because the one thing you can do is proceed with a relentless energy and maybe luck into positive results, results you wouldn't get if you were passive or Droopy Dog about the moment.

The Tigers aren't in that zone yet. The odds of coming back from down 3 games to 1 are not very good, but it's only three games they need to win and good teams have crafted three game win streaks against other good teams all season long. Chilling out and not playing Beer League Softball defense would be a great start -- a much better start than wearing a Jetsons t-shirt, not changing their lucky socks or avoiding the stares of cross-eyed individuals.

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