Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yellow Dandelions Trump Black Swans & Blue Oceans  

"Luck is the residue of opportunity and design." 
John "The Bread Street Bomber" Milton & Branch Rickey

The global Business of Business Advice is an odd industry. People write articles or business publications on a theoretical idea. They try to spin the idea in an original-sounding way, and if a publisher thinks the sound resonates, it becomes a book. If the book and the publicity around it becomes widespread enough, becomes a cult. Hundreds of thousands of readers, some of whom have a lever, a fulcrum & a place to stand, think they might apply the theory in their own workgroup or organization.

Roughly, for about every 1,000 copies sold, I estimate there are about 1,500 people who learn enough about the underlying principle to talk about  the one sentence description of the core theory. I estimate 600 of the books get read through, maybe 30 people try to implement a project, initiative or makeover based on the theory, and of those 30, you can count on the normal rate of success (Angus' Second Law: 85% of corporate projects fail absolutely or are euthanized (or forgotten) before completion, 10% deploy based on their original goals and 5% deploy based on original goals and succeed). So for every 1,500 people who can relate the core idea, 2 (rounding up so as to be a bit optimistic) turns Business Advice into useful action. For the other 1,498, it's just plaque, perhaps entertaining or diverting, but nothing that delivers on the mission -- the explicit promise of business, leadership or management advice.

Two of 1,500 is only an average. It can go up (or, more likely, go down) from that proportion. There's an underlying reader trend that undermines the chance for implementation. As a mass, readers would rather read about big ideas than small ones, and they'd rather read about theory than practice. So the largest readership goes to the big theoretical idea books than the practical (something you do that creates positive action). And there's another factor that literary (book) agents will tell you, too: Readers don't want to act on any of this Business Advice - they just want to be entertained and feel good.

Here are two favorite examples of fun best-selling global Business of Business Advice that are pre-destined to never reach the 2-in-1,500 successful implementation norm: The Black Swan Theory and Blue Ocean Strategy. They are both giant ideas based that are probably quite true but close to impossible for any individual or team to apply to anything bigger than a lemonade stand. The Black Swan is based on the giant idea that, "A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences." Blue Ocean, "explains how to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant while charting a new path to capture new market space that is ripe for growth".

Well, Yellow Dandelions trump Blue Oceans and Black Swans...not for popularity and sales, but on two counts: 

  1. You can actually implement this idea in any organization, and
  2. The net benefit of deploying it will give you actual (not just theoretical) returns.

The Yellow Dandelion was second-sacker Fred Pfeffer, one of the first baseball players to write a book on "scientific baseball". As explained in Paul Dickson's exquisitely informative book The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime

In 1889, N. Fred Pfeffer, the bare handed infield star and tactician with the Chicago White Stockings of the 1880s...published a manual called Scientific Ball {snip} At the heart of his defensive science was a "Code of motions so perfected" that every man on a club knew what kind of ball was to be pitched next. "Knowing this in advance, the men can so place themselves so as to give the man in the box [the pitcher] the most effective support.


"Pfeffer believed that the fielder's job was to move at the very last moment, when the pitcher was in his delivery, and that once a play had begun it was imperative that the players knew how to back one another up. "Failure to 'back up' players and positions has probably been as disastrous a feature of losing clubs as any other which can be specified," he wrote. "Because of this fatal weakness, scores of otherwise well-played games are needlessly sacrificed each year."

The Yellow Dandelion Deployment is one that, because Baseball is so transparent and overwhelmingly meritocratic (both useful attributes wholly missing from corporate workplaces) you can just plain see works out.

The teams that grab the every-event, small but attainable advantages (in baseball parlance, "execute") tend to win more games because they don't leave games' outcomes as much to chance. If you watch a game for Yellow Dandelion Deployment, watch the fielders "cheat" on many pitches, cover each other on defense in a variety of ways based on the situation, you can see how absolutely effective this is. Sadly, televised games, while great to watch, rarely expose the Deployment. But I urge you to watch a major league game live (preferably from the upper deck as close to directly behind home plate as you can) and watch the extraordinary clockwork of a skilled major league team that has mostly veteran players. Pick one non-catcher fielder out for each two-inning span and try to follow what they do on every pitch, every ball in play. You'll see 120 years of refinement beyond Pfeffer's actionable principles, a level of teamwork and management acuity beyond everything in the non-MBB management world.

Unlike Blue Oceans and Black Swans, you can absolutely apply Yellow Dandelion tactics to your benefit in the workplace.

Make sure that on tasks that must succeed for your organization to succeed, each responsible person knows she has one or more teammates to back her up, own some responsibility for overall success. You have to start this overtly, not with a memo. Good managers always take on the responsibility themselves of each contributor's success, being there to back him up, but once a manager can break out beyond merely taking on that backing-up personally and deploy it to the contributors nearest the task-owner (not all others -- the right fielder can and will back up plays to 1st base but it's a waste of energy to have him try, futilely, to back up plays at 3rd) the useful contributors will learn the right back-up moves through repetition.

What's the best way to kick this off?

By both explaining the back-up theory in advance and then starting to assign back-up contributors to every task. These back-ups can be "editors", or "timers" or "ambassadors".

"Ambassadors" are most useful when a task is multi-departmental and the contributor assigned to the task needs to enlist allies or try to push through work happening outside her span of control; the ambassador helps with that external pressure.

"Editors" I use to be the second pair of eyes for quality control; the editor is someone the task-owner can bounce ideas off of and who can check deliverables for conceptual or trivial kinds of accuracy.

What I call "timers" are teammates who help the contributor stay on schedule and co-own the deadline. The timer is not a non-com issuing orders or applying pressure. The timer relieves pressure by being equally responsible for knowing the task schedule and helping out the task-owner without having to be solicited.

You probably won't have to delegate each rôle on each project. You can certainly invent other rôles that make sense within the context of your own endeavour, but invent a one- or two-word name for each, so you can use the name as a shorthand. But you should make a habit of assigning one or more back-up rôles to most every task.

At the completion of every meaningful task with an assigned back-up, you should get the participants to talk to the team about winning moves, or problems that would have been smaller with new back-up ideas.

After a series of successes, you invite contributors to deploy themselves as back-ups or invite back-ups on their own. (In Baseball, it's terribly inefficient -- that is, a losing strategy -- to have the manager assign every back-up on each pitch or every play in the field; players need to be able to do this for themselves based on established principles refined by their own practice and experiences.)

There are two common problems in Yellow Dandelion Deployments: non-accountable or otherwise anti-team oriented contributors, and over-or under-management.

Some contributors resist help, being too egocentric or believing teamwork shows them to be weak. Some of these people are tractable, for example, if you point out how hard it is for a single person acting alone to execute a double-play. But some are simply too insecure or introverted to be comfortable having back-ups. You have one of two solutions to this problem: if the person is a great contributor with great success (think Barry Bonds) then exempt her from the routine; if he's not, get rid of him.

And you can control the over- or under-management. Over-management is removing from the contributors the chance to have rôles delegated to them (which is the equivalent of a major league manager trying to coordinate all players on the field with every pitch). Under-management is not selling the teamwork benefits hard enough, re-deploying people to the rôles they seem to best while still giving them chances to be good at other rôles, or not monitoring the evolution of the system and its outcomes.

The odds of you becoming enriched through successfully identifying a Black Swan and then deploying a counter are not 2-in-1,500, rarer than a no-hitter. The odds of you identifying and deploying a Blue Ocean Strategy are no better.

But 1,500-in-1,500 managers in any organization that has seven or more employees can apply Yellow Dandelion Deployments with success. Not only does it work, but it's actually fun.

You may not actually ever have three hits in an inning, like Fred Pfeffer had in a game on September 6, 1883, but you can knock out a bunch of hits everyday using his "scientific baseball" principles.

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