Saturday, January 20, 2007

Part II - Insight Man Joe Maddon on 1st Steps in Tampa Bay's Turnaround  

The practice of turnaround is a specialty among the practices in general management within and beyond baseball. Turning around an established organization that's failing requires skills from quotidian management methods, but some additional ones that if missing (and most managers are missing several of them) just about doom the turnaround to fail or under-perform critically. 

When the new ownership of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and its new upper management team recruited a field manager, they recognized they needed someone as capable on the field as predecessor Lou Piniella, but someone who could either not get in the way of the turnaround they had in mind, or better yet, someone who would actually add torque to their drive towards a new model. For that key role, they chose Joe Maddon, who is, based on my experience in a lot of turnaround initiatives, perfectly suited to the task.

Listen to him carefully - there are few practitioners as perceptive as Maddon, and almost none willing to share their processes.

In this second part of the interview (there's more for another entry) I'm going to cover most of the talk we had about turnaround practice, how it affects the product on the field now and in the future. I've changed the order of the sections as they appear because I was not as structured in the conversation as I could have been -- we were having a good time, and I wandered off course a few times.

This is an important aside. A lot of people have judged the Rays' post-Naimoli reality, their front office, field management and coaching, against the putrid record they finished with last year. While their judgment might conceivably prove true someday, I think it's nonsense to take on this stance at this point. The team made decisions to trade away present to get future back; on July 12, the team sent their presumptive "best" player, Aubrey Huff, for minor leaguers, and within the next six weeks, they'd trade Julio Lugo for a top Dodger prospect, Joel Guzman and another minor leaguer, as well as trading Russell Branyan for a minor leaguer. At July 12, they were 39-50 (.438, projecting out over a season to about 71-91), not great but 11 wins better than the 2005 squad was at that date. Some ticket-buying fans would rather see a 2006 win than a 2008 win (or even three of 'em), and I can sympathize. But the front office decided to sell off a face-saving -- if inevitably futile -- 2006 by choosing to peddle marketable, proven, if not stellar veterans in exchange for young players who might prove to be stellar. After July 12, the team went 22-51, a .301 "clip".
     There's an important duality among sports fans and front offices. Some strongly prefer being continually, consistently competitive, while others prefer highs and lows because you win more pennants that way (and struggle more, too). Both theories can bring "success" over time, though the environment  in which a team plays affects the comparative level of the success one is likely to achieve relative to the other. The Devil Rays, battling in the zero-sum crucible in the AL East against two of the best-funded and best-run organizations in baseball, can make a rational argument that it makes more sense to be really bad and lose 100 games a couple of years and win 100 games a couple of years than it is to win 85 games in each of those years. In the NL West, it makes more sense to tilt the other way. If I paid for D-Rays tix and if I'd lived through the Naimoli era, I might feel differently, but as an outside analyst who doesn't and didn't, I think their plan is more likely to work than what they might have achieved if they'd kept the vets.

So here are a mess 'o Lessons from Maddon & The Rays on Turnaround.

When you inherit the mantle in a turnaround initiative, departmental or the whole organization, it pays to think of it as an expansion team. You have the "right", perhaps even the mandate to build everything from scratch. In a turnaround, you have residual plaque...process, habits, technologies, staff. You should ask yourself, "what would I do if I was starting from scratch?", and "which of these existing pieces fit or can be remolded to that ideal?". As Paul DePodesta has said, you have to ask the naïve question, and don't take on the assumptions of your predecessors (after all, if the predecessors' assumptions were all correct, this wouldn't be a turnaround situation. Picking up the interview from where we left off last time...

Joe Maddon (JM): Absolutely. And for me that is my primary goal right now…that the clubhouse is good, the interaction and communication are good. When I came, my #1 goal was to change the culture in the clubhouse and this group.

Jeff (JA): I want to hear more about that. I want to hear about changes and about what you’ve deliberately set out to do. How much study were you able to do before Spring Training or did it start then. Did you get reports? Because this is classic turnaround practice and this has so much value to people outside of baseball. As I said earlier, people don’t get to see the guts of turnaround practice in other fields. 

So the team is about seven or eight wins ahead of where they were on this date a year ago. And it’s not like your predecessor was any kind of a bum…

JM: His agenda was different from mine. I think if you analyze a manager’s approach, you have to first establish what the person’s agenda is. 

My agenda from the start was to come in here with the new group of people…young people… I saw the developmental situation as a challenge. I always thought for if I was going to leave the Angels, the best way to do it would be in an expansion situation. Which is what I consider this group to be.

I’m very competitive. You build up this competitive nature against these other teams that have existed for many years. Whereas the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have only existed eight years. I’ve not built up any negative feelings towards this group (as a result of the competitive nature). SO I can come in here and it’s like it’s all new. 

I feel like this is the Devil Rays’ first year. So you lock into that and the first thing you have to do coming in is to listen to people; ask the question “What is it that has been wrong around here”. Because from the outside, you can make assumptions…perhaps it’s incompetent people, there’s been no organization, there’s been no communication, there have been competing agendas. From the outside, those are the assumptions you’ll make seeing a group doing poorly.

But then I met the people who were in the front office – they were highly competent. Yes, there were some new people, but the ones who were left over were tremendous. Hard working, I thought, cared about winning. So I saw this wonderful group of people, bright, creative, so what’s gone wrong here?

Once your take on Maddon's insight that Turnaround is like starting an expansion franchise, it frees you from making assumptions about the past (good and bad). That end is mandatory if you're going to make the required changes, and Expansion Team is a nice technique to put you into that mandatory frame of mind.

I've never met a totally raw manager who is good at turnaround. Conceptually, it should be entirely possible. A very bright, well-trained by the book, untainted by office politics talent should be able to ask those naive questions and come up with right answers. But I've never seen it work in the field (btw: have any of you? I would love to hear of such cases and in what contexts it worked).

Anyone who ever planned on being a manager should have been keeping index cards or a thick mental filing cabinet of ideas and proactices...bith successful ones to follow and failures to be avoided. A rookie manager shouldn't automatically follow those cues...context changes the benefit/cost of everything, but it's a great list to start with (and usually better than the list the people who hired you to manage can put together -- if their skill sets were tuned to fixing the existing mess, it likely would have been addressed successfully already).

I think Maddon's tack is a close to perfect as I can imagine anyone executes.

JM: I went to Spring Training and met the players and the coaches. There were things I liked and things I didn’t, but one has to ask questions. I did not want to try to do too much too soon, to come in and just open my mouth and all of sudden say “what you guys have done for years is wrong and this is the right thing to do”. That would have been the biggest single mistake I could have made.

I got all that under my belt. But at the same time, I wanted to start getting out some of the concepts that I thought needed to be out there. The things I had had success with in the past, especially those that are always successful, wherever you do them within baseball. Whether it’s offensive concepts or defensive ones or pitching. Teaching the fundamental aspects. There were certain things I wanted to throw out there and have them done in a certain way – boom, right from Jump Street and I wanted to make sure that people understood the biggest part is made up of the little things. That it was important that everyone know not to overlook something as “insignificant”. In the end, nothing is insignificant when it comes right down to it. That is all part of the culture I wanted to change. We went about it with meetings and making things a little different for them. Let me jump ahead a little. I thought the <unintelligible> of the coaching staff was vital.

JA: You worked under a lot of different skippers.

JM: Yes.

JA: And when I looked back your record, I was surprised to see you had been “interim manager” more games than maybe anyone else in modern baseball.

JM: About 70 games. Yes, a significant number. And you’re right. I worked for so many different people and I really try to draw from the best and from their worst, too.. The people who you thought did things poorly…you don’t want to replicate that either. So it’s always important to learn from the people you think don’t do things well.

JA: Yes, there’s a section in the book called “Management By Taking Exception”, about Paul Richards.

JM: Yes, I read that.

JA: Richards started with the list of those, because of his personality. He was a bitter guy, but it made him good.

JM: I work more from the other end, things I want to do, but I certainly keep those in the back of my mind. My prior minor league managing experience was helpful, too, especially this year in regard to staying with the plan, realizing there were going to times that it would be horrible. Even in Spring Training, I told the guys, “there is going to be some point that we stink. And the major accomplishment out of that moment is that we’ll stick together, that we don’t point fingers, and that we do support one another. Those are the kinds of things that have to be in place before the hit-and-run, hitting the cutoff man, making the pitches n the 2-2 count. That’s where I think sports people get confused some times. You’re always looking for a physical, mechanical answer, and it could be the farthest thing from the actual solution. The physical/mechanical answer eventually shows up when everything else is in place in a functional, healthy way.

A quick side-observation: In Maddon's opinion, mental/emotional attitude is a foundation on which you build fundamentals. Personally, I see it as a loop -- that you can start on either, and each shapes the other. His insight, though, is food for thought. I might need to redesign my take.

This is not the science of hitting the Rocket's heater, it's more like hitting a Kevin Jarvis spinner, but I've never met another consultant who will tell you this. The single most common missing management ingredient in bad departments is feedback. Managerial feedback to staff, as long as it's true and reasonably polite, always is a general benefit. It can be verbal or written, it should cover positives and negatives and questionables, it should be prompt (and if you're sure the feedback is correct or needed, then it should be immediate).

JM: But then I met the people who were in the front office – they were highly competent. Yes, there were some new people, but the ones who were left over were tremendous. Hard working, I thought, cared about winning. So I saw this wonderful group of people, bright, creative, so what’s gone wrong here?

They had never been recognized before. They were doing their work on a daily basis, but there’s was no one saying, “Hey, nice going, nice job, I appreciate it, thank you and all the other stuff people need to hear if they’re going to continue to do a good job. So I found out that group was a lot better than I’d thought, because from a distance you think maybe they don’t have a good infrastructure in the front office, but they did.

The previous era was a disaster in every respect, on and off the field, exceeded in wall-to-wall incompetence only by the Wal*Martified Kansas City Royals the Glass family has foisted on the Midwest.

So it's no surprise that the awful management team gave either no feedback or (next most common in weak management teams) feedback that is only given in the most extreme of circumstances and then only on the negative. An under-30 Bill Gates III once said in a brainstorming meeting, "That's the single stupidest thing I've ever heard anyone say, ever." The mid-1980s Microsoft was a beacon of the weak no-feedback-except negative model.

I have at least one more chunk of Maddon interview worth sharing. But in some ways, this is the most important section, not just for the chance to hear a natural turnaround practitioner's insights, but for observers of the Devil Rays, filling in some flip pages of the comb-bound Cosmic Triptik of their planned journey to the top of the American League East.

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