Monday, August 24, 2009

Metroasexuality: The Clipboard & The Stopwatch as Potemkin Metrics  

Baseball podcaster Jimmy Scott does weekly interviews, most frequently with ex-players, and the gem of his recent interview with former American league pitcher Dick "The Toledo Titan" Drago was during a discussion of various managers Drago had played for.

Drago, btw, had an unusually interesting career. He started with an expansion team; he was a jack of all trades...after his rookie year, he was a starter for four years, a swing man for one and a reliever for the last seven seasons -- one of them as "the closer" for a legendary World Series hopeful, the 1975 Boston Red Sox).
He outed his second manager, the dreaded Charlie Metro, as a purveyor of Potemkin Metrics. (If you go to the podcast and get to about the 11:40 mark, you can hear the tale recounted).

Metro was the worst kind of bad manager (beyond Baseball, anyway): the manager (usually a guy) who believes that being a stern disciplinarian is the most effective way to reach your goal. According to Drago:

...he was a tyrant. Charlie Metro was in the organization, and he was one of these disciplinarians who had crazy ideas that didn't work...One of his favorites was he was always running the pitchers. he always had a stopwatch in his hand. We'd go out and do our sprints and he would have his watch (and time everyone).

We ended up finding out the watch didn't even work.

Classic Potemkin Metrics...pretending to use numbers to analyze events to deflect opposition and stifle dialogue about methods. In this case, for good and other reasons, Metro wanted his pitchers running. And you watch pitchers train or prepare for games much, it's obvious most of them not named Carlos Zambrano don't relish running. So if your basic setting is "disciplinarian", that is, you don't ask or cajole or tease or act above it all confidently, you only have two approaches to use: commands or as a fall-back, "expertise". And it's easier to pretend you have expertise than to actually gather it. Management is tough work, and as a rule, disciplinarians expend all their energy investment in gripping the reins ever-tighter.

One of the first surprises I learned to prepare for in my management consulting work was innumerate managers who faked being in command of their numbers. They generally choose one of two techniques to blind you with pseudo-science:

  1. Waving around, locked elbow style like Jack Cust hunting a flyball, a Balboni-size volume of output that is waaaay too elaborate to be of any use because you can't ever find within it the handful of points that were insightful or actionable, OR
  2. Fabricated nonsense, usually proprietary, they could claim you couldn't possibly understand (and, secretly, they don't either). I call this nonsense Potemkin Metrics.

When you meet managers who wave #1, the way to bring them to a halt is to make them point out their six most important numbers. Specifically. And then make them accountable for them.

When you meet managers who use #2, made up spit, especially numeric spit, it tends to be not only someone who's innumerate, but someone whose management "theory" predominantly involves ideas that usually get resisted, and they're going to try to shove the objected-to practices down employee throats using the impression that they really know what they're doing.

It that Metroasexual Thing...and usually with the same success. The Charlie method helped the team to a 19-33 record to start 1969, and a doubleheader sweep that cemented a six-game losing streak sealed Metro's doom. It was still an okay time for disciplinarians with monsterous tactical depth (gents like Dick Williams & Billy Martin), but it was a challenging time for disciplinarians without monsterous tactical depth. It was the last time Metro got to manage in the Majors. And The Toledo Titan would give three cheers to that.

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