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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #4 of 17: Going Deep,
or Breaking Your Plan To Improve It  

The only dangerous thing about Agile Project management is that most people who try it don't understand it well enough to avoid failure. The Agile MANifesto has a pillar that is the most misunderstood:

Responding to change over following a plan

┬┐How misunderstood? Well, most misinterpreters think this either means "don't bother to plan at all" or "respond to change in the moment without pre-meditiation". The latter stance fits many young managers who cut their teeth on the kinds of video games labeled "first person shooters" where the path to victory is making instant twitch decisions in response to stimuli and having quick reaction time. Some Agile managers execute this way, and while the results are not always tragic (because in Agile, just-so-so-but-quick is most often a virtue), an investment in planning that the manager knows intimately but holds loosely usually pays off much better in quality without hindering time-to-decision.

In the last entry I explained a little about the necessity in a competitive environment of adapting to rapidly-evolving conditions and Agile project management, a constellation of methods that originated in Baseball and of which Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was a master practitioner.

Mastery comes from the combination of three things: rigorous pre-examination and creation of what I'll call assemblies (sets of decisions that go together well) to simplify decisions one needs to make quickly and the willingness to deploy occasional seemingly-radical experiments in real time, even during a vital project.

I'll use an example from La Russa's recent book, One Last Strike (p. 132-133).

Here's the situation. 2011 season, at the end of August (5/6ths of the season now gone) his Cardinals are 8-1/2 games out of first place, behind the Milwaukee Brewers. They are facing the Brewers in a series at home, and they've take two of three games already and there's one game left in the 3-game series. If they can sweep the series, it will be a powerful competitive statement, but if they lose the last game, it will mean that with 25 games to go, they "lost" two games in a turnaround.

Every single game is massive now, and this is one of the small handful left with the very team they need to close on.

Most planners would take the surest right-now advantage, playing as though this 136th game was the last game ever to be played, discounting the future entirely. Not La Russa; he's willing to try an innovation right here, right now. Bold and cold.

Then came a game I consider to be tied for first for the scariest I've ever managed

I made the decision to hold off on starting Carp (by far his best pitcher, and who was fully rested) in the final game of the series, even though it was his turn. His last outing had been a struggle, and after his five months of pitching, it make sense to tak advantage advantage fo the off day; also, he was usually oustanding against the Reds, who we were playing next.

In place of Carp, I sent out rookie Brandon Dickson (who, if you haven't heard of him, don't worry because no one else has either) This was one of the decisions that Jim Leyland and I call "Going Deep". Over a season, there are decisions that require serious deliberations on seveal levels. This one could have ben the mold. Why Disckson and not (Jaime) Garcia or Carp? Garcia would have had seven days' rest which was good, but then he would have missed the Reds and the Braves (two tough teams La Russa needed to beat, missed because by using him in this game, it would delay his day to be ready subsequently, which, when used, would delay the next start after, too). Dickson features a good hard sinker with a developing curve and a change-up. I was hoping unfamiliarity would get him through the Brewers' very good lineup a few times

In the end, I figured the last Brewers game was important, but not as important as setting up Carp for the rest of the schedule. I knew it was serving up a juicy topic for anyone interested. I only concerned myself with one group's opinion: our players. {snip} If we had lost the first two (games) then I might have gone with Carp because we would have been facing elimination with another loss. I'd agonized and agonized over that rotation, and pulling the trigger on this decision was so hard -- but flying in the face of conventional wisdom I strapped on the worry beads and and we all went at it.

The key points here are (1) he attempted a contrarian innovation even at a crucial juncture with the season on the line and (2) even though he had thought through the planning for his rotation for the entire season and all the contingencies, he was willing to adapt to the situation in front of him by breaking the protocol and take a chance on getting even better outcomes. And (3) he agonized over the decision. Agile doesn't mean low-stress; in many ways, it's higher stress, because your walking the hire wire without a net below (the every detail nailed down plan).

NOTE: In that final game of the series against the Brewers, Dickson wasn't very good but not awful, and the Cardinal offense outscored the opponent for a victory and a vindication of La Russa's decision. And, of course, the Cards went on to get into the playoffs and win the World Series. Agony paid off.

The final point about making any really hairy decisions: agony is what it feels like, unless you don't care. If you are aware of the possible consequences, then it's agony. If it works, then it's a good decision. If it fails, then it's a bad decision. You survive by working the process as best you can, which includes remembering that they pay you for using your best judgment, so use it.

To have mastery of Agile or Lean processes, you have to hold fear at arm's length, be bold, be willing to plan rigorously AND to innovate off the plan on the fly.

In Baseball they do it all the time. Can you?


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