Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Wizardry of Ozzie:
You Can Harness it or Fritter It Away  

Organizations, especially larger ones, have a tendency to underuse talent because of a habitual failure to do what Baseball is particularly good at: OMA (Observe, Measure, Analyse). Not that I believe Baseball is perfect at it (more on that later), but Baseball recognizes what most organizations don't: The Talent Is The Product. 

So in Baseball, the organization continually, relentlessly tests every contributor,  observes and measures the results and then analyses the outcomes to discern what each is good at and in what areas each needs improvement. Out of that comes action: And then they apply corrective suggestions, coaching and modified deployment of each individual talent. And then they repeat the practice. How does this differ Beyond Baseball?

One financial organization I've done a lot work for over the years is quite good at recruiting, but they habitually waste lots of the talent they bring in because they "play favorites". It's part of the organization's personality to take the careful impressions they had of the recruit's hiring interviews and resume, (and sometimes, but not always, the first couple of days of work as well) and form a concrete judgment of the newbie's skills and level of potential. Because they are way above average at acquiring talented people, this hasn't yet been fatal, but they tend not to recognize and promote their best performers or correct correctable limitations in their Golden Children.

One of the most competent managers in the organization, I'll call her Mrs. Quatermous, is one of the most egregiously lazy in the OMA practice -- and does it deliberately. Quatermous'll tell you her rationalisation: Early indicators are decent predictors, and it takes time to practice OMA, time that can more effectively be spent invested in other management activities and defending her turf in the fairly political organization (all finance-dominated organizations have high political overhead).

Overall, she's really good at her job, but she doesn't make use of all the talent at her disposal, and does only (and is qualified to do only) the most pro forma of evaluations -- which makes sense to her because her evaluation is TTOAE (think-through-once-apply-eternally). Her favored contributors get the recognition, the choice assignments, ergo the choice bonuses, ergo the promotions.

This is normal behavior in the business and academic and military worlds -- where the Talent can get Too Big For Their Britches To Fail (also known as the Peter Principle). In those endeavors where the field is very competitive or even zero-sum, The Quartermous Protocol can be fatal. In Baseball, the most competitive of endeavors (nothing less than the combination of excellence and a good deal of luck wins flags) it almost inevitably is.

If you know what a "walk on" is, skip to the next paragraph. A walk on is a college athlete who wasn't recruited to the school's athletic program &  isn't getting an athletic scholarship. Most programs allow for students who want to make the team to try out, walk on the field and show their stuff. And in most of the programs that allow walk ons, a few make it, sometimes only as roster-fillers, sometimes being allowed to show their stuff and earn, if they have the chops, a place as a contributor on the team. Of course, college isn't the professional world; team success and failure is relative, not absolute as it is in the Major Leagues. So college teams can, and do, waste walk-on talent without the repercussions a Major League team would suffer.

But in your own organization as well as in Baseball, it pays to pay attention to your own "walk ons", that is, the people you hire as temps or those who didn't look like Pulitzer Prize winners when you brought them on...because that walk on could turn out to be an Ozzie Smith or Ryan Howard.

The New York Times yesterday ran  Jack Curry's piece on walk on talent.

Eric Karros remembers being among the 60 or 70 prospects for one or two walk-on spots on the U.C.L.A. baseball team. Karros, a talented high school player, took batting practice alongside a few wannabes who decided blue jeans were their best choice as uniform pants that day.

Karros made the team, knocking the jeans-clad guys off the field. He was redshirted as a freshman, was a starter as a sophomore and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1998, after his junior year. Karros began as a college walk-on and surprised himself a bit by climbing to the peak of his profession.

“It ended up turning out well for me,” Karros said. “Playing major league baseball, that just didn’t seem realistic to me.”

When Brett Gardner was named the Yankees’ center fielder this month, he was the latest example of a walk-on who could have an impact in the majors. Gardner was a walk-on at the College of Charleston in 2001. Like Karros, he eventually earned a partial scholarship and reached the majors. Karros played 14 seasons; Gardner is in his second.

It is not uncommon for a walk-on to grow into a stellar player in college, but it is unusual for a walk-on, even one who has been scouted and invited to try out, to make it to the majors. Still, the list of former walk-ons includes some splashy names.

The Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who may be the smoothest defensive shortstop ever, walked on at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 1974. Ryan Howard, who was the National League’s most valuable player three seasons ago, was an invited walk-on at Southwest Missouri State, now Missouri State. George Sisler arrived at Michigan in 1911 with no scholarship. He pitched and hit brilliantly, and developed into a Hall of Fame first baseman.

Smith said he never considered his path abnormal and called it “just the route I took.” Because Smith was barely noticed out of high school, he went to Cal Poly to get more exposure. He received a partial academic scholarship as a freshman and earned a baseball scholarship a year later. His wizardry followed soon after.

“Being a walk-on didn’t discourage me,” Smith said. “It was a challenge. It was all about getting the opportunity. The one thing you have to do, whether you’re a walk-on or not, is, once you get that opportunity, you have to go through the window.”


In some instances, a player is a walk-on for a short period. Keith Guttin, the coach at Missouri State, said he ran out of scholarships before Howard’s freshman year, so he could not offer him any assistance. An N.C.A.A. Division I baseball team has a maximum of 11.7 scholarships, so players usually receive partial scholarships. {SNIP}

Read the whole piece...it's a pretty interesting presentation of a little-known sub-population of ballplayers.

But what's really enlightening to me is why there aren't, given the explanations above,  more successful walk-on candidates. I'll propose why.

My godson, The Big Train", was an odd triple crown winner in high school, winning the San Francisco Unified school district's batting average, RBI and ERA leads in the same season. But San Francisco's program is not the most competitive, so while he got scouted by the Phils, they didn't draft him and he went to college on his academic, not his athletic achievements. After transferring around for a while, he had great success in a community college's baseball program and when he transferred into UC Berkeley, he tried out as a walk-on and got a slot pitching mop-up assignments. He performed well enough to have an ERA of 0.00 after a half-dozen appearances, but the athletes with  scholarships needed to get their full chances for all the usual political reasons. The Big Train got few chances, and his first sub-normal performance was his last appearance.

Management had already decided what his potential was, I believe, when they didn't offer him a scholarship, and regardless of what he had shown, he wasn't going to get recognition or coaching attention that could be applied to the talent with scholarships. Not a sinister conspiracy, a merely lazy decision based on the general tendency of those scouted as the best turn out to be the best, in general. In exchange for saving a lot of time practicing OMA, you occasionally miss out on someone's serious or major contribution (the exception, not the rule).

I believe The Quatermous Protocol that probably lowered the ceiling on what The Big Train could have achieved exists to some degree in the Majors. Some of my favorite gearheads will be quick to point out that the correlation between how early a round a player was drafted and that player's ultimate major league career is awfully good, with the earlier picks being more likely to achieve more success.

But, and I believe this is true both in Baseball and Beyond, we can't be sure which is cause and which is effect. Earlier draft picks are more likely to get coaching attention, more likely to be stuck with through bad performance or adverse medical events. Because of the Quatermous Protocol, there is more on-going investment in the individuals pre-determined to be winners.

Even the most effective recruiting shops can be undermined if they under-invest in their walk ons. There are too many Ryan Howards out there, missed not because they weren't talented enough, but because some busy supervisor decided prematurely they knew as much as they needed to know about a talent to stop paying close attention. Except for Boeing, Microsoft and the US Army, I never worked for an organization that could afford the lost opportunities the Quartermous Protocol creates.

You...odds are you can't afford to let skipping a little daily OMA time stand between you and getting the most out of your staff.

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