Sunday, April 30, 2006

Monday, May 1: Contest w/Free Copies of Management by Baseball book at InBubbleWrap  

The business-book site, In Bubble Wrap runs daily prize give-aways featuring a business book. Monday May 1, the featured book will be my new Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning Management in Any Field. So if you register there and enter, you have a chance to win a free copy of it.

In Bubble Wrap is a fun-oriented project of 1-800-CEO-READ, which as of today (April 30) has the book in their catalog but is not selling it yet -- the work isn't available for purchase until Tuesday May 2, so perhaps their catalog page will change then.

Given the in Bubble Wrap guy's Garrison Kiellor Meets Gorman Thomas world-view/sense-of-whimsy, the Monday contest could be even more fun than the book.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Red Sox' Bane: Diffusion from Softball to Baseball, There's Method to This Maddon  

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays' new manager Joe Maddon hasn't even gotten a quarter into the season before he's provided a set of outstanding Management by Baseball lessons to his peers outside the game. He's adapted a 10-fielders-a-side softball scheme for placing his defense in trying to cope with the monster hitting ability of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz (as of today, tied for 2nd in his league's home run table). Thanks to Erik Hansen of Tom Peters' site for coming up with the pointers.

There are a ton of crunchewy bits in his recent move. Maddon has come to this because he's a student of metrics. Anaheim Angels' manager Mike Scioscia his former boss, told me Maddon was that team's dugout data guy, and his recent non-conformist process confirms that for me.

Some background on the innovation: Murray Chass wrote a nifty article for today's New York Times, To Combat Ortiz, Just Add Outfielders, discussing the move. Every paragraph is quotable here, a useful part of the overall info, so I won't excerpt it here -- there's noting to leave out. Just read it; what I write here will presume you're read it.

As he says in the article, Maddon uses "spray charts" like the one here on this page. They show where batted balls from a specific hitter land. The example I'm using is clearly the one Maddon looked at to deploy his "34" scheme, which he named after an NFL defense arrangement.

Now look at the Times chart of the Devil Ray defense scheme. Ortiz, a lefty who normally pulls the ball to right field does hit a few outfield flyballs to left, but "nothing" (just one exception) towards left field through the infield. Leaving the 3rd sacker stationed there is like Starbucks putting a Starbucks store inside Salt lake City's Mormon Tabernacle (a waste of space for an asset that won't get anything hit its way).

When you match these two charts, it's pretty obvious the deliverable (the fielding configuration) is fit, like a Birkenstock, to the historical record (Ortiz' 2006 perfromance).

Why wouldn't a manager do this? he same reason managers beyond baseball don't -- because it's not standard operating procedure. Odd shifts, though rare, have been part of the game for a long time -- the most famous being one the St. Louis Browns deployed against another Boston Red Sox slugger, Ted Williams (infield only, shifted around towards first base). But Maddon has gone beyond that standard -- he's gone to softball methods & created a clear fourth outfielder, and perhaps another half-outfielder (in softball terms, a "rover") out of one of his other infielders.

The definitive work on innovation makes it clear that a lot of successful innovations (a lot of unsuccessful ones, too) come from borrowing wholesale at first, then fine tuning, a process from another discipline. Bringing together tools everyone has but not everyone uses, with a classic innovation path produces an experiment worth trying. Ortiz may adapt by starting to hit the ball the other way (a guarantee of depriving himself to a degree of the very thing that makes him so feared, in exchange for the possibility of making it up with a new technique). Maddon 1, Ortiz 0. It's always worth considering analogically experimenting with a process innovation from another field in your own -- it won't always work out (this Maddon tweak may go away or stick), but you won't know unless you try it.

Maddon is not deploying the shift in every Ortiz plate appearance. As he told Chass, they won't use the scheme when there are runners on base (infielders have some responsibilities for basrerunners) or when Ortiz comes to the plate with no outs and fewer than two stikes (because Ortiz, as slow as he is, and he's tectonic-plate slow, could conceivably beat out a bunt with the Method to This Maddon defense on).

So the Rays are approaching this judiciously. They are starting where it has the best chance to succeed -- against a deadly opponent, in specific, lower-risk situations. And there's another, related contextual factor that doesn't have anyhting to do with the game on the field, so it becomes...

...when it comes to innovation, anyway. Chass even mentions this explicitly in his article, saying the Yankees aren't likely to try it no matter how much success Maddon has. Bceause the Yankees are competitive with the Red Sox and a win in either direction between them could make a big difference at the end of the year. Maddon won't say this publically, I suspect, but I'll stick my neck out an assert Maddon knows the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' 2006 championship hopes season won't hinge on the failure of a fielding experiment against one batter or a dozen of them. The Rays' best case is not, frankly, an AL East flag.

And that's liberating. Standard operating procedures don't favor the Rays so the relative risk of innovation goes way down. Maddon, like most baseball managers, is fearless enough to innovate when the odds either work in favor of it or are unknown but reasonably could work out in favor of it. ¿And if Maddon can't innovate now, where there's so little to lose (strategically), how can he ever hope to do it once the team is established?

Beyond baseball, most managers fritter away their "First 100 days" trying not to offend or upset anyone or any established norms, and that's a pitiful waste of a resource one gets once and then is gone forever -- the ability to get a little forgiveness. Finally, though, a caveat for Maddon and for managers outside baseball in their enthusism to innovate processes...

When I spoke with Joe Maddon last November, I found he wasn't really a numbers geek. Cognitively, more a "business analyst" (numbers as means not ends) as opposed to a "statistician" (the endorphins come from the numbers themselves). That could work to his advantage or disadvantage in this particular Ortiz/Method to This Maddon "34" Defense because if he's only looked at David Ortiz' 2006 spray chart and not previous ones, the Rays may be in for a little sting themselves.

Look at Ortiz' 2005 spray chart hitting at his home stadium. While there's still a predominance of the infield action on the 1st base side, there are enough grounders to the left-field direction to undermine the return on the new Maddon tactic. If Maddon is lost in the romance of his new numbers, he may have missed this. A good statistician would be careful about putting too many eggs into a small basket of recent events, but most statisticians aren't managers, responsible for acting, and therefore forced to act before information with 99+% confidence is available.

The great thing about baseball management, a lesson every other single line of work beyond it could benefit from, is if this scheme was deployed prematurely, Maddon will fix it, and smartly. He won't throw it away entirely never to be considered again. He'll erither adjust, or, if he takes it out of circulation, he'll have it eternally in the back of his mind, idling, waiting for a context in which it would again succeed.

I urge you to set aside a little time to think about how you could experiment in low-risk ways with processes that don't currently work well. And follow Maddon this season, especially early, in his "First 100 days". He's a pathfinder, a manager with excellent emotional intelligence, an enthusiasm for data combined with a mind that's pretty good at using it & a massive dose of fearlessness.

How could your organization benefit from having a manager like that?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

MBB in Fast Company  

I spent almost a full day talking with Fast Company staff writer Michael Prospero in Peoria (Arizona) in early March. He's a really sharp guy and we had a good time.

The product was this article in Fast Company. He asked some questions and covered some ground never covered here.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Enron Field Meets Dilbert:
Corporate Naming Rights for Management Flubs  

Corporations' executive teams like to shell out their shareholders' money for the rights to name almost everything related to baseball. We have stadia like Enron Field. We have the In n' Out Burger Seventh Inning Stretch. We got the 2nd National Trust of Marshallton Bring in The Reliever golf cart. We haven't yet bar-coded the radio color-man and sold him off ("Here's The Citibank Ralph Kiner Postgame Interview"). But my astute colleague Martin Marshall sent me one of those classic apocryphal internet messages because it had great Management by Baseball lessons in it.

It was an epiphany. Because this "Stupidity in Action" message contained what were allegedly the top ten "Dilbert Quotes," stupid things managers said. Since the boneheads' corporate affiliations were made explicit, I think each of these sayings give the corporate owner naming rights over a classic baseball blunder.

How about...


Dilbert award winner from an alleged UPS manager: This project is so important we can't let things
that are more important interfere with it.

Gene Mauch is one of the most respected, and least successful baseball managers of the second half of the twentieth century. He was respected, because he knew what all the moves were and how to make them. He was a great role model for many more successful followers. His limitation was, he didn't flex much. "The Book" is heuristics, a flexible set of guidelines, and Mauch just had his probability tables in his head and followed them. After a while, other managers could predict with very good certainty what Mauch would do, undermining his effectivenes.

Most baseball managers, and the handful of really good ones beyond baseball, react to system feedback. Most managers would have realized they were being scoped out and they would tweak their approaches to meet competitors' moves. Mauch never let that get in the way of what he knew. One manager who faced Mauch a bunch said he could play the man like a fiddle -- if he wanted to get rid of a certain pitcher early on, he'd put up a specific pinch hitter, knowing Mauch would react just so. In 26 seasons, many of them for dreadful teams he inherited or for an expansion franchise, Mauch made the playoffs twice. He was a good sensible solid manager, but not a winner. Like UPS' corporate flub dude, he never let more important things like winning interfere with the core precepts he knew were really really important to his own world view. That's why Gene Mauch posthumously gets the United Parcel Service Failure-to-Flex Self-Immolation Habit.


Dilbert award winner from an alleged Delco (Delphi) manager: Doing it right is no excuse
for not meeting the schedule.

The Mariners' Michael Morse is one of the most enthusiastic, aggressive players in the game. He's really fun to watch. He plays with an almost-Cuban baseball joy and flair -- but unlike a Cuban player, without a shadow of a dream of a shred of instinct for the task at hand. He runs the bases as though speed in getting to the next base was the end in itself, not being safe. I've seen him picked off, gunned down trying for the extra base on a single, smoked trying to steal. He's comparable to a really confused beer-league softball baserunniner in the late innings after a feww to many brewskis. The thing is, for a guy his size, he's kinda fast. He knows it. He likes it. He's desperate to succeed. He simply has no idea how to do it right.

Goal oriented people who hate "the process" can be effective as long as they are aiming at the right goal and they don't let quality suffer more than the goal can handle in the end. Like Michael Morse, the managers who sent the Space Shuttle up in out-of-spec bad weather against the objections of their scientists, ignoring the advice because they were trying to privatize the program and needed an aggressive schedule to prove its potential profitability, meeting the schedule, not doing it right, became the goal. Morse, of course, never killed anyone with his lack of acuity, the NASA managers killed a bunch, as well as vaporizing assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars and setting back their agency's program several years.

So Mike, until you accidentally kill someone with your Runaway Train routine, you are the proud recipient of the Delco (Delphi) Willy-Nilly Quality is Job #8 Failed One-Out Steal of Home nod.


Dilbert award winner from an alleged AT&T Long Lines supervisor:
We know that communication is a problem, but
the company is not going to discuss it with the employees..

In the American League's 1940 campaign, the strong Cleveland Indians' squad had a real martinet of a manager. Ossie Vitt was a good-field, no-hit third baseman from the 1910's (a common model for that era that's almost extinct now as a result of the livlier ball which downplays the returns of buntng) who was in his third season. His management theory was "If you don't have soemthing insulting or cruel to say, don't say it".

In June, the team revolted and many, perhaps all of the players on the squad (the story varies and an ugly incident like this is bound to plaque up with apocrypha like a bad artery with cholesterol) signed a petition to have Vitt removed. When the talent is the product, and the talent's feelings are running strong, it pays in all endeavors, not just baseball, to do what the talent wants. If there's a clear right and wrong, you can make a decision based on it. But when the core of a conflict is generational difference or a matter of personal style, there is no right or wrong, only the need to make the correct, highest-yield decision. Cleveland's principal owner took the manager's side against most/all of the talent because...well, hard to tell. From a management perspective there's no rational reason. By reduction, one can only assume it was one of those "we're management, we can do anyhting we like" moments where people in power want to impose their will on the talent because they can. In Bradley's case, it went much farther. He enlisted the press in ad hominem attacks on the players, and the writers who covered the team labelled the individual players "crybabies". The fans joined in with some McCarthyism of their own, using the term the press had coined adding to the bad stress.

The team, surprisingly, didn't collapse. They just started playing less well. Through June, they'd played 42-25 (.627 )ball and after June, with the "Crybabies" harangue clanging in the papers and from the stands, they went 47-40 (.540), not a collapse, but just not good enough to stay ahead of the Detroit Tigers who beat the Tribe out by a single game. There's no mathematical proof the Indians would have won it if Vitt had been replaced with an equally talented manager but one without a behavior disorder. But it's been my experience that shops with good talent working for non-communicative or martinet managers always underperform at least a little, and I believe there's a strong argument to be made that the 1940 Indians without the quotidian barrage of ad hominem attacks would have fared a game or three better, and maybe more.

When the talent is the product, it always pays management to communicate with the talent, listen, respond, and treat it with a modicum of respect (even on days it may not have earned it). And even when the talent isn't the product, even when "management" is the warden in the Red Chinese prison factory where they made your DVD player, the treatment of the captive labor "talent" is reflected in the deliverable's quality.

It's less common than it was in 1940, but allegedly at AT&T Long Lines, at least, The spirit of Ossie Vitt is still alive. And for that, Ossie gets special mention during the AT&T "We're Management, We Can Do Anything We Like" Lineup Card Ceremony.

¿Got any Corporate Naming Rights you'd like to see sold for Management by Baseball moments?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Curt Flood: Doing The Right Thing As a CLM (Career Limiting Move)  

In a healthy organization, managers who attempt to redress long-standing "survivals" (behaviors or processes that have been in place so long, they have become implicit and accepted without examination) are allowed to question those survivals.

In truly unhealthy organizations the "normal" managers will always measure the neener-neener factor (the ability to bring down a potential rival by any means necessary) as always outweighing the net benefit of retooling the dysfunctional behavior.

And in the middle of the spectrum of health, vaguely-functional organizations, the pattern is most often a mixed model: The first and sometimes second person to challenge the status quo is sacrificed on the altar of the Bitgods (the "back in the good old days" crowd that assumes the virtue of however it was done when they were cutting their teeth on it has earned the credibility of one of the Ten Commandments), but eventually, without ever admitting the sacrificial victims were ahead of the game.

Baseball is in the middle of that spectrum. Sacrificial case in point: Curt Flood.

Alex Belth's new book Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights (Persea Books) describes in great detail not only the causes and results, but all the subtle factors that come into play and how the survival is ultimately overcome. Stepping Up is a lot more book than that -- it's a full life bio of Flood with good details of his playing career. The player comes through well -- Belth is a capable analyst who understand sabermetrics, but the most engaging aspect of this book is the way Flood the human being comes through so clearly. I almost felt like I had met him. It's a solid book, very readable and informative, especially if you weren't watching baseball on the field and in the courtrooms closely from the 1950s through the 1970s. It's not an uplifting Summer read like An Almost Perfect Game, but it's a serious page-turner..

Note: If you want to read a concise remembrance of Flood's on-field career, Rich Lederer at Baseball Analysts wrote an insightful overview.

FLOOD CONDITIONS I'm not going to explain why Curt Flood alone among his peers came into baseball with an uncommon set of attitudes that would let him view the reserve clause (that bound players to teams as long as the teams chose with no employee recourse) as a form of slavery. That's about sixty pages of the book. I'm simply going to explain his action and the organization's response to him.

Flood was a veteran player who'd been drafted by the Cincinnati Reds but traded to the St. Louis Cardinals while still a rookie. He never took it well -- he viewed getting traded without consulting him as tantamount to the Reds & cards viewing him as a piece of property. He made a pact with himself that if it happened again, he'd refuse it. Unlike a lot of people who make pacts with themselves, he was stone-cold serious about it (as this person of principle was with just about everything). When in October 1969, the Cards traded him to the Phillies, and to add insult to injury, the team's front office decided to have a low-ranking staffer tell him after the fact, he decided not to accept the trade. In the rules of baseball then, that meant retirement, or, sometimes, a negotiation to get more money. Flood retired and the Players' Association helped him sue Major League Baseball to try to kill off (as an antitrust violation and as a violation of the U.S. Constitution) the rules that allowed baseball to behave that way. The case worked its way up the judicial hierarchy until three years later when the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in favor of MLB.

Flood and the Players' Association didn't count on winning. Flood just did it for the good of the system and because it was the right thing to do for his honor, for the good of his fellow players, and, ultimately, for the good of the system. He was whacked around in the sports and business press like a Brian Mohler hanging breaking ball. He was vilified as a man without principle, a guy who was posturing to make more money (such antics had happened before). The Bitgods saw overturning the MLB-labor status quo as scary. Front offices were comfortable with the way things were...not only did it anchor an asymmetry of power that benefited them, it was well known, easy to work with and something they could about do in their collective sleep (like so many processes beyond baseball, eh?). For the team negotiators, it was somewhat about money, but in most cases, it wasn't their money, it was the owners' money. The core pain point for front office types was the inconvenience of having to learn new ways to do things.

Organizations can be really effective at squashing advocacy for change. They can pretend to know the results of change will be destructively earth-shattering, and since there's no evidence to the contrary (the change isn't implemented yet) nobody really know what would happen "if". The dominant Bitgods can enlist the people inside who would benefit from the change to actually resist it through fear of worst case scenarios. Overcoming traditions, even overtly dysfunctional ones, will face resistance even from uninvolved parties (individuals who have no stake in the outcome) who have such a neurotic fear of change they will oppose the change even more violently than those who have an actual stake in preventing it. In the Flood case, he received death threats in the mail and on his locker, threats not from the owners, but from the outside world, from people who were not actual stakeholders.

Belth explains that in Flood's life, it turned really ugly. While was prepared going in for the resistance he would face and while he never thought he had made a mistake, it started eating him up inside. Seemingly the worst pain came from the absence of support from his fellow players. It wasn't that they opposed him (a few, like Carl Yastrzemski, did), but the rest kept their heads low, as Flood's road trip roommate Bob Gibson admitted, because they didn't want the fallout to get them, too.

Three and half years later, the movement Flood took point on won its big victory. In late 1975, an impartial arbitrator ruled the reserve clause as written did not allow team's past behaviors, and the change was effected. Flood never benefited directly. He was out of baseball and would have been 38 years old by then anyway and unlikely to have been an All-Star. But he knew he had set in motion the chain of events that overturned a dysfunctional survival.

BEYOND BASEBALL This is quite common beyond baseball, though usually not as well-reported or visible.

Managers who are getting a paycheck to work for an organization owe their employer their best judgment and the effort to act upon it. Managers in big organizations who do this, though, in the face of survivals that are limiting the organization's effectiveness, are usually sacrificed by the Bitgods or political infighters the way Flood was. When I worked at the InfoWorld Test Center, the reviews editors operated from an old mandate that they should do as many reviews as possible, regardless of quality. The founding mission of the Test Center was to assure quality, so we always pushed back on quantity demands that would violate minimum quality standards. The first two Test Center directors were sacrificed by weak-minded and weak-willed executive management that wasn't capable of defending it's own stated mission. The next two were merely incapacitated by the confusion. It was the fifth director who got it under control, a control that never would have been possible without the efforts of the first two and some of the efforts of the next two.

The husband of a friend of mine works for a company where the manufacturing facility's layout was designed by the owner's son while the youngster was getting an MBA, seven years ago. It's completely dysfunctional, costing the medium-sized company human-hours, calendar-time, misplaced inventory, a few injuries and a lot of bad morale. The owner has tossed a whole series (at least three that I've heard of) operations managers who immediately saw how deranged and inefficient the layout was and wanted to change it, only to told they couldn't, but at the same time held accountable for the results. Aztec Human Sacrifice Time. The current operations manager just makes no waves and points the finger at his employees for all shortfalls and wasted costs.

¿Should YOU become a sacrifice, undermine your career-potential in an organization to do the right thing? I guess it depends on your circumstances, your job prospects elsewhere, and how easy it is you find it to sleep at night taking money from someone to undermine what's best for them. I do know a lot of people who are comfortable following the pattern of the operations manager who's survived by sluffing a sense of responsibility. I'm just not sure I'd ever want any of them working for one of my clients.

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.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Building "Character" Teams -- Four Conflicting Necessities = Challenges to Winning  

There's a trend in MLB, in part because of the trophy-winning 2005 campaign of the "character"-rich Chicago White Sox. That rage is an attempt to emulate the winners' focus on what that organization defines as character, and character is a very slippery object to define. In the ethnically-Albanian parts of Yugoslavia, the thicker a woman's moustache, the more character she was perceived as having. At the early Microsoft, the volume of character you were thought to have was directly proportional to the amount of unpaid overtime you worked.

For the porpoises of this entry, I'll simplify what baseball considers character: a Three Musketeers all-for-one-and-one-for-all set of conduct, a positive work ethic that recognizes hierarchical authority lines and an ability to be fan/community-friendly.

Each franchise will define character a little differently. Evaluation will be different in each organizations, too. Some will try to measure, the way the Colorado Rockies do, with the aid of testing. Others will just collect scouts' unrigorous observations.

There's no doubt attitude and personality make or break teams and non-baseball organizations are subject to the exact same gravitational fields. People evaluating baseball teams' competitive standings will frequently forget these, especially if the evaluators play Rotisserie or Strat-O-Matic-style simulations where individual personality and group dynamics are missing (almost completely) from the outcomes that establish the probabilities of winning or losing. Beyond baseball, too many managers pick one of the binary choices: they ignore character because they can't measure it easily, or they allow it to dominate their hiring decisions too much, and as I've explained before, binary decisionmaking is Russian Roulette with Five Bullets.

A recent nifty Amy Joyce story in the Washington Post presents a lot of the research that shows that amiability in the workplace -- the factor I believe most often gets equated to "character" beyond baseball -- is strongly valued in hiring, in promotions, and in how hard employees will toil for a boss. Go read it, but here's an important extract:

According to a Harvard Business School study released last summer, people choose work partners based on, naturally, their competence on the job but, more notably, on their likability.

The study, which surveyed both managers and regular employees, broke these criteria into four categories of people: the competent jerk, who knows a lot but is unpleasant to deal with; the lovable fool, who doesn't know much but is great to have around; the lovable star, who's both smart and likeable; and the incompetent jerk (do I even need to describe that one for you?).

The majority of respondents, of course, said they wanted to work with the lovable star, according to the research. When managers were asked which choice they would make in hiring and promotion, they said competence always trumps likability. But the research showed the opposite was true. "We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it's almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won't want to work with her anyway," said the authors, Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, in their research paper. "By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer."

(Go on, you've done it: "But he's SUCH a nice guy. Do we really have to fire him? He was really good on that project seven years ago.")

Here's the thang -- while "character" is a completely viable approach to building winning teams in baseball or beyond, there are a million ways to fail and only a few ways to succeed. Here are the challenges:

(1) Because character is not an either/or factor. There is a continuum of behaviors each individual holds, so to measure character requires one to measure shades of gray -- with various tints. Character has some context, so different components have different meanings. Let me give you an extreme example because it's so easy to see the complexity in it -- but realize that in organizations with less extreme ways of being, it may be harder to break out pieces of behavior and decide what the critical factors are.

One of my godsons, The Big Train, was selling mortgages for one of the bigger national operations (its totally unmemorable name has the prefix "Ameri" but there are several and I've forgotten the suffix). The basis of the model was to pitch worse-than-average financial status people with deals that weren't very good for them but were very good for Amerisuffix. The deals were generally not all that easy to sell but each was very lucrative. My godson experimented with trying to give the customers better deals, some of which already existed in Amerisuffix's portfolio of options as fallback offers if the customer declined the initial (getting râpéed) option, and some of which, I think, he invented, and then aggressively pushing them to tout his services by word of mouth. His core idea was this: that if you increased volume while leaving a little on the table you'd initially break even but over time, the word of mouth would bring you low-cost, pre-enthused leads, so the dollar net would be positive. And the moral-qualms net would be positive, too, for those salesfolk who were capable of feeling them.

It looked like a win-win to The Big Train, and it was apparently working. But within Amerisuffix, specifically, The Big Train's plan looked like a failure of character. Character was defined more as adherence-to-the corporate-plan and less to increasing net, and I suspect but don't know, that management also believed, regardless that he had sold his plan as a revenue enhancement, that The Big Train was having moral qualms which equated to a weakness of character.

I suspect that at Amerisuffix, the poster boy for their version of character would also blow out of their system pretty quickly, because at the extremes of their practices, their behavior edged into the illegal. To succeed there, a person would have to have a set of traits within an acceptable range shades of grey, neither altar-boy nor Captain Barbossa.

(2) Because character is going to be defined subtly differently in any organization (see Amerisuffix above).

(3) Because appropriate "character" is going to evolve over time so that whatever is now making you stronger might kill you later.

(4) Because the balance of the shades of grey you have in the workgroup is a dynamic, interactive recipe that will either cause to you excel or undermine you. Optimal "character" includes some unchanging elements and some that evolve over time or need to be thrown away for occasional circumstances.

Leo Durocher once said, "Nice guys finish last". He was wrong and he was right. He was right in that a team of "nice guys" wouldn't, in the long run, win in baseball or most endeavors. Neither would a team of Leo Durochers...he wasn't very talented within his major league peer group, and an entire roster of irascible dirt-kicking roller-derby folk fight strong quaquaversal gravity fields that tend to make them drift apart and lose cohesion. Leo himself was a critical ingredient with many of the teams he played on -- the components of his "character" made the overall competitiveness of specific teams better even though the ingredient as a standalone is not much of a virtue (like baking powder in a cake recipe). With two Leos, you might take off, while three or five might cause you to implode.

Hiring, as the Harvard study suggests likeable people is a "nice guys" dead end. I've hired plenty of Leos in the past...some work out fine, some blow up in my face, but if you consistently bypass difficult, very-talented people in favor of likeable, adequate people, you end up with a vapid group that can't do what it needs to do to succeed when faced with adversity.

So, scarily to some, recognizing and acting on these four truths are all necessistes, and yet they conflict with each other. Yes, you need people who follow management's guidelines almost all the time, but you need some who can transcend the organization's rules to preserve the organization's survival, a subtle and challenging set of grey areas best understood by people who are in Kohlberg's stage five of moral development (read the Heinz Dilemma story if you want to see how this most closely relates).

If you can separate "character" from the more squishy "likability", by all means, try to define character and hire/fire based on it. Keep in mind you have to define each trait, the minimum and maximum and norm you're lookinmg for of each, and how many people who are outliers you need and should limits yourself to. Applying the four necessities above is a great way to start.

It's not that building a "character" team is not worthwhile -- it is -- but building and maintaining a "character" team is very challenging and requires a very deft touch, the kind the 2005 White Sox front office and manager and coaching staff had. Few organizations are as evolved as baseball in having the courage and skills required to try and win at it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

When the Talent is the Product,
Talent-Acquirers Determine the Inflatus Point  

Almost without exception, the North American enterprises that survive the next big competitive shakeout coming at the tail end of this globalization cycle are going to be outfits that recognize The Talent Is the Product. Baseball, as the U.S.' most explicit model for strategy in competitive industries, exemplifies this trend beautifully as I've said a bunch 'o times including here and here and here.

There's a point I make with clients well beyond what I've stated here in the past, and the baseball example burst forth today like a frozen rope off the bat of Roberto Petagine. The USS Mariner weblog hosted a get-together today at the Mariners' Seattle stadium and the keynote guest was team GM Bill Bavasi. He was asked about scouting and how closely did he as a GM get involved in the evaluation.

Bavasi reveres his team's scouting leads, Bob Fontaine and Bob Engle. Bavasi quickly answered that his involvement is this: if Fontaine asserts something, Bavasi accepts it as solid. He trusts Fontaine's and Engle's judgment and doesn't meddle because they know more in their specialty than he does.

Her then went on to say (paraphrased here) that people like he and a few other top Mariner front office folk were executives, and basically replaceable and that the real talent in the front office resides in the scouts. It's a kind thing to say, perhaps a little exaggerated, but it recognizes a key point.

When the Talent Is the Product, the level of talent of the people acquiring the talent strongly shapes your success.

HR or HC departments tend to be treated poorly. In my more provocative moments, I've suggested straight-faced to some corporate clients that the outsourcing cult's entire savage rite was done simply to escape having to work with HR departments. I've had a straight-faced nod in response. HR can be part of an organization's problem, but for enterprises that plan on doing well over the next eight or so years, good HR, great recruiting, great talent acquisition (capturing and keeping and keeping motivated) is as essential most everywhere as it is in baseball.

The talent of finding talent in a competitive endeavor is, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, the "inflatus point", where life is either breathed into the organization's core or sucked, irrevocably, out of it. Think it through -- ¿If a baseball team's scouts aren't doing a great job, how is the team going to acquire enough talent to compete persistently? ¿And in the same way, if organizations in competitive fields have HR groups that aren't doing a great job, how is the org. going to acquire enough talent to compete persistently? If it can't be made to work in baseball, how do you imagine it can be made to work in other competitive fields?

Running away screaming from HR is only a solution if you can give it to some other group that can do a consistently excellent job of it. Not likely, eh? There are some exceptions...I've worked with client companies that had individual managers who were exceptionally great, Carlos Delgado-vian, in their ability to consistently deliver B+ or better hires. But that skill gets compartmentalized to that manager's group. Make your HR do the job as solidly, it would permeate the entire organization's profile. Running away is not the answer.Fixingng HR/HC is. And don't even think of outsourcing recruiting -- ¿How effectively competitive would a team's scouting be if the organization's Fontaine or Engle also worked for other teams? If they were good, you'd be diluting the competitive advantage they could provide, and if they weren't, there wouldn't be much competitive advantage to collect, and what there was would be shared.

Do you have a Fontaine you can reliably trust, that is, are you hiring the best and the brightest to own and execute your recruiting from inside your shop? If not, how do you think you can overcome that handicap? And what can you do to help them achieve the success you need to thrive? Can you imagine what your organization would look like if therer were a small handful of Fontaines in your HR/HC group with the kind of authority Bavasi entrusts to his organization's scouts?

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