Sunday, May 17, 2009

Joe Maddon: When Genius Screws Up,
It's Time to Tighten the Screws  

She had an unequalled gift... of squeezing big mistakes into small opportunities.
-- Henry James (Bill James' brother)

The prologue to today's horsehide struggle between the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays, featured Rays manager Joe Maddon & his staff making a big, honking, impossible-to-hide error. Now, given that a manager in Baseball makes a couple of hundred decisions per game, it's never gonna happen that a manager will get through a whole game without making a less-than-optimal decision and beyond extraordinary when none of those decisions turn out to have been in error. Just as in your own management experience, most of these turn out to be negative but not catastophic decisions (think Pat Bööne's heavy metal album w/the leather-drenched cover of Guns 'n Roses' Paradise City).

But sometimes errors are not reversible and you have to live with them for a while. This is infuriating, especially the bureaucratic errors of protocol. So when the Rays handed the home plate umpire a line-up card for the day with both intended 3rd-baseman Ben Zöbrist designated as the 3rd baseman and Evan Longöria, the Rays' (most-days 3rd baseman but) intended DH for the day also designated as the 3rd baseman, there was a mandatory heck to pay once the first pitch of the game thrown with the error uncorrected.

The rule imposes the toll: The offending team loses its designated hitter for the day. The pitcher, Adny Sonnanstine, had to (gulp) hit for himself. The St. Petersburg Times' Marc Topkin reported it as it happened, with all the intrinsic confusion you normally get. And the blogosphere and my buddy Jon Wells (a remarkable guy...both entrepreneur/publisher/editor of Grand Salami, the independent Mariner magazine I wrote a column for & one of the unheralded rugby greats of his sub-generation) got their knickers in a twist because the managerial talent I've sometimes called a genius, Joe Maddon, had made an ugly error.

Worse, Sonnanstine had to bat third, a severe dis-optimization of a lineup. Oh, the rending of garments and hysteria...Oh, The Inhumanity.

¿So how did the Rays & Maddon proceed?

To kick axe, that's how. Because in business, as in Baseball, it doesn't pay to overblow the anxiety or fear or sadness when you've blown it.

As I write this, the game isn't over yet, but it looks like the Rays (up 7-3) have a fair chance of winning it. If they end up winning (or losing for that matter), I can bet you Joe Maddon will be self-deprecating and funny in his post-game confab gab n' chew with the press. And tomorrow will be another game, another chance to make an avoidable mistake.

And, btw, Sonnanstine, batting third, had an RBI double in the 4th inning, kinda par for the course for him, even without advance notice he was gonna hit for himself. Sonnanstine batted in two games in 2007, and in his first game, went 2-for-3 with an RBI. His first game as a batter in 2008, he went 2-for-3 with an RBI. Maybe he'll repeat today.

I do think these kinds of opportunities come up all the time in business and government. And to a significant degree, our success as managers hinges on how we handle these (inevitable) moments and how we keep the team involved & loose.

I've seen a sales team or two fold like a cheap Made in Red China By Slave Labor card table the last week of a quarter when it's been apparent they wouldn't make a quota-based bonus. Laying back a little is not always bad, if they use the time to gather up their forces to plan how they are going to succeed and get a little rest in, but in general, forging ahead and playing to win/succeed is usually least as good and frequently a lot better.

It's worth noting how often screw-ups happen even to the best managers. And it's well worth noting how some managers regularly come out of these with their cause intact, while others, perhaps equally-error avoidant, have such situations degenerate to bad final results.

Personally, I'm not sure of the reason, but I know Maddon is one of the good managers who seems to more often survive the Bartman moments. Until I'm sure, my inclination is that it's his relentless but mature attitude combined with his (and his organization's) team-building methods that accentuate how challenges are inevitable but are to be faced head on as a group. So when the management/coaching combine screwed up, the team came together to tighten the screws on what they could make a difference with, the game itself.

I believe that attitude and method would work just as well for you in your own endeavor. Put a little Maddon in your Methods.

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