Monday, September 08, 2008

Planning the Intentional Walk: Succession Theory Baseball-Style  

I got a few interesting questions on my last entry about the Tampa Bay Rays' manager, Joe Maddon, intentionally walking Josh Hamilton with the bases loaded and a small enough lead that it put the winning run to the plate, a move that goes against a hundred years of standard operating procedure.

One question that first struck me as uninterestingly obvious was actually grist for MBB-thought.

"When an intentional walk is called for and the manager intends to pull the pitcher and replace him, why is it always that the first pitcher throws the four intentional balls, and not the replacement?"

Baseball has some conventional wisdom about this close-to-universal practice, some of which I think is just bullspittin', much of which is solid reasoning, and some of which is a valuable lesson for managers beyond baseball.

Management will frequently replace a failing team member with a new talent at the wrong moment, getting the new person to drag a late or inadequate project over the finish line. This can be even wrong-er when the replacement is a manager.

Let's look at the standard Baseball arguments for letting the pitcher who's getting replaced issue the walk.

#1 - It preserves the effort of the next pitcher, saving pitches for the person who's going to be doing more serious work. #2 - It potentially gives the incoming pitcher a little more time to get warmed up (not universally needed, and sometimes an additional increment of time that's a negative). #3 - It puts the E.R.A. accounting for that runner on the pitcher who got the team into the jam, not the subsequent pitcher, who's trying to rescue the incumbent. #4 - Controlling your best stuff is tough for most pitchers at the easiest of times.
So in trying to work out of a jam, why would we start the new pitcher's effort with a sequence of throwing not-strikes?

The various objectives of the s.o.p. involve the statistical/historical, the building or dimunition of morale, and, most importantly, the implications for execution.

A new client I had known only a little brought me in to help fix a department that was in a long-term morale morass that cascaded into attitudes that undermined performance. When I nosed around a little and started gathering people's stories and tales and myths about the history of the department, I came to suspect that the problem was a pair of really sorry management practices that combined to make a difficult situation almost impossible to get untangled. If they'd followed Baseball's intentional walk model, they'd have had a lot better chance to solve it. The department had had three different managers in the previous 34 months.

I could discern easily from employee evaluations he'd written and meeting minutes that the first of the three was a person who had craft skills in the department's area, but zero management training that took and was emotionally and intellectually disengaged from the requirements of running the department. He pushed the department into an accountability-free zone; people were almost never given feedback about good work and blame was assigned only when things got awful (denial being practised until other departments screamed in pain loudly enough). When the executive team decided to get rid of the failing manager, they hired a big-time consulting practice to audit the department and make staffing recommendations. The result targeted the manager and five of the eleven staff as underperformers who should be replaced. Ironically, the report used as a key element of the evaluation the employee evaluations of the useless manager (how masterful is that? And those guys charge 7x what I do).

Having paid the enormous pelf the big-time consultants charged, the executive team were bound to the results, though they skipped one piece of the execution. One of the targeted staff had been with the company from the beginning and no one wanted to lay her off though they were committed to laying her off. And they didn't want to lay off the others, leave her in place, only to have to lay her off later (creating multiple "layoffs"). So they made a sub-optimal decision to lay off the manager, recruit another and let the new manager execute the staff layoffs.

Manager number two lasted about eight months, and I'm pretty confident she would have worked out if not saddled with the staff layoffs. She hesitated to execute them until she'd had a chance to examine the files and see the individuals in action, and this accountable approach actually worked against her, because the executive team didn't want to relent a micron on the pre-fab decision and by the time she delivered the pink slips, the deed was associated with her. The remaining staff assumed the purge was her design, and did nothing to cover her back. Performance indicators hinted that process ran tighter, but morale just swirled the bowl.

Manager number two lasted a few months, but had little staff support, a reputation as a loser in the overall corporation, and, demoralized herself, left with zero notice (she told them Friday she would not be back Monday - a classic "at will" consequence) when she was recruited by an out of town rival who didn't care about her reputation but did care about her knowledge of my client's inner workings.

Manager number three was shipped in from another country, a star from a related company. And he was a star. But in the six weeks it took to bring him on, he was pre-victimised by a classic big-organization ploy; a peer manager saw the power vacuum as an opportunity to move a troubled worker with management aspirations herself into the demoralized & adrift department. By the manager number three arrived, the toxic ambition monster had asserted her right to boss everyone around and his first ten weeks were spent not addressing morale or performance issues, but cutting through the unofficial wall of silence about how Toxie was on his roster (the manager who done the dump was well-established with a lot of loyalty from peers and the executive team). Then he had to corral and then cut Toxie out of the herd. I could give you the whole Trail of Tears, but you can see how it inevitably all went downhill and why.

If you've been in the working world for a few years, you have seen some or all of these pieces on display yourself. Planning for succession (and success) is much weaker in the business and academic and non-profit arenas than in Baseball.

Baseball knows you don't dig a hole for the successor if you can avoid it. You do everything reasonable to make sure the successor doesn't carry apparent responsibility for the incumbent's jams. In Baseball, they try to give you adequate time to suss out the situation and get warmed up for it.

Why can't non-Baseball management emulate the National Pastime's s.o.p and let the incumbent issue the intentional walks?

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