Monday, July 25, 2011

Baseball Umpires' Staff Development Genius:
Balancing Winning Today With Winning Tomorrow  

Baseball is sharper about managing in competitive environments than corporate or military or government arenas are. It's zero-sum (for every win there has to be a loss) & transparent, both of which mean failure can neither be hidden, denied, or without consequences. So if you manage Beyond Baseball, learn this lesson about one of the hardest things to do in Baseball and Beyond.

You need to balance your resources and staff time/energy not only to win today but in all the tomorrows coming up.

...managers do it, front offices do it, even the Umpires do it. The manager in the dugout needs to win this game unfolding today. You put up your best available rested pitcher, skipping anyone else even if it's their turn. You save your best pinch hitter for the most important situation you intuit may come up. You try to put out on the field your best line-up of today's available talent, and craft the line-up for the best possible immediate results. At the same time, in the same game day, you need to give your other players chances, because if you don't, you're going to end up late in the season with rusty skills and when some key player gets injured or tired or slumping, not only are you slotting in a lesser talent, but one who's not tuned to succeed at even her own level. Further, by not using your subs, you're losing valuable chances to see what they are best at, where they succeed and fail, and the chance to refine their game through coaching informed by observation.

Front office management has to assemble winning rosters right now and for the future but they will not be in their jobs long if they trade too much of their future for some immediate this-season advantage. And the irony of it is, if they do the reverse, build a sensible plan for an elevated long-term success without winning enough right now, they may be cooked before the planned schedule for improvement gets to the intended results (case in point, Seattle Mariners GM Jack Jack Zduriencik's attempt to turn around a team that unwise ownership has undermined now for close to a decade, an effort that looked on the surface like a four- or five-year plan that's now in year 2.5, is in a hazardous position because the team on the field today has a truly sorry present and at the 2.5 year mark, unsurprisingly, hasn't gotten to Year 5 of the Five Year plan yet).

And, I just found out Umpires do it, too. I've been reading Bruce Weber's fantastic book on Umpires, As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner, 2009). On the surface, it sounds like a marginal topic, but the New York Times' Weber is not just a good writer and insightful observer, he went through one of the two official schools for pro umpires, so he understands the work as an insider. I'll write a review of the book in a later entry (if you are already convinced, his Fresh Air interview was cool, too), but the joy of it is the same frisson a management person gets on an industrial plant tour (like the Rainier Brewery tour or the Tillamook Cheese factory tour or the -- now decommissioned -- IBM PC factory tour). It gives you a ton of insight and knowledge about an everyday "object" or endeavour you think you understand, but from such a different -- and intimate -- perspective, that it opens up your eyes to a big world you thought you pretty much understood.

One of the great moments of this book is a Management By Baseball one: How the Umps balance putting their best product on the field today without strip-mining their future.

Playoff and World Series umpiring crews are balanced with more-experienced individuals and promising younger professionals. Okay, well that's normal throughout Baseball and one of the reasons Baseball is the most effective endeavor in North America at professional development. But the mechanics of how the umpires deploy the talent is worth thinking about and a wonderful example for anyone who manages staff and wishes to deliver best effort today while not undermining best effort tomorrow.

Weber explains how they do it with the six umps in a World Series crew (one at each base and two added umps for the outfield lines), all top notch talent in a field that has been hyper-winnowed already, so they are Seven-Sigma, at the very top of the top notch of a top notch.

Generally, the crew chief...works the opening game, dealing with the initial spectacle; then the crew rotates in order of reverse seniority, so the younger umps get their experience, and the older ones take their turns as the stakes get higher. In a seven-game series, the crew chief returns to the plate for the ultimate game.

Sounds reasonable as a way to balance opportunity, but for the minority of managers who read this blog who haven't already noticed it, it's a perfectly crafted staff development scheme.

Game One...everyone has butterflies (yes, even the umps), so the crew chief handles the most calls by being behind home plate. You don't know where the toughest calls are going to be (Weber explains why), but you do know the home plate arbiter will have the highest quantity and the most eyeballs for the most time, so they go with the chief talent. Then, the rotation puts the least senior ump there and as the games progress (and are more apparently consequential) the experience level gets higher until, if it does get to the ultimate zero-sum crucible, a seventh game of the World Series, the most experienced talent, the crew chief, is at home plate to take the pressure and deliver the needed work.

I'll know I'll get mail (I always do when I write on balancing winning today with tomorrow) pushing back (usually it's from finance people or sales managers) that try to convince me I'm wrong & that corporate management is wiser and that this balancing thing is over-rated.

Not close, IMNSHO. Most people who work inside publicly-owned corporations labor in shops that almost never preserve their resources for some later date and overlook testing/training opportunities for the less-experienced talent to get their cuts at what they haven't mastered while observing, measuring and analysing their performance so the manager can deliver targeted coaching. So the best stay the best, even if their skills decline, because the prospects don't get built up as a matter of course. They may develop on their own, but can you imagine what would happen in Baseball if management never provided targeted coaching and opportunities for prospects? Exactly, they'd be the 1981-86 Pittsburgh Pirates or the 2004-2008 Seattle Mariners, dreadful teams dominated by older talent simultaneously getting neither younger for the future nor better for immediate wins.

Upper management can make line management act this way even when line management knows it's counter-productive. If every project/effort is sold as the Most Important Thing Ever, if every Pet Rock is sold to employees and stockholders as The Pyramids at Giza, no one ever gets a test or a rest. The trend, therefore, is Gene Mauch 1964...your best get worn out, becoming less good, but it becomes (realistically) scarier to take a chance on the other talent because they are untested. So the best may still be the best, but they are not as good, and the others are not as good because they haven't been studiously developed, so (and I'll get push-back on this conclusion because, amazingly I always do, especially from the innumerate people who dominate both finance and sales management) the composite average performance of the workgroup goes down. And simultaneously, the options for the future are diminished, too, because of the lack of development.

It's a corporate habit that's lose-lose: In trying to be stronger right now and ignoring the future, they undermine their present so they can be weaker in the future (hey, maybe it'll be someone else's problem).

Learn from the umpires, a much more difficult and transparent craft than your own. Be meticulous with staff development to be great fright now and be great for the future.

This play-for-today-only ethic is a form of strip-mining, to heck with the future. It's bad business for Baseball, and it's bad practice for your own organization

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