Thursday, October 09, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #16 of 17: Nepotism, Nasty Talent and Nitrates  

On any small-team project, Agile or otherwise, a critical success factor (maybe outside of keeping senior management from constant meddling, it is THE critical success factor), is the careful blending of skills and personalities within the team to be able to achieve and maintain high performance. Rejecting nepotism or Nepotism Lite (hiring friends because you like them and/or they are easy to work with) as a norm, while concurrently allowing for some exceptions is a challenging but key skill for the manager. Baseball has great lessons for the Beyond Baseball manager, and one fine documented case is Tony La Russa's succesful hiring of the ostracized Mark McGwire, a former player of his and friend, as the Cardinal batting coach. He explained the hire in his most recent book, One Last Strike (p. 300-6)

Mark had to retire prematurely in 2002 because of his (injured -- probably as a result of muscular overdevelopment, the result of working out too much, probably the result of outlawed supplements that enable hard working athletes to extend their workouts) back. Since then, his integrity over the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) had been widely discussed {SNIP}

After he left the game, I kept inviting him to Spring Training. He turned me down a few times, but I found out from his wife that about four o'clock every afternoon, once he'd picked up the boys at school, he watched games on TV. He'd watch a doubleheader every night, and he was really into analyzing the hitters. I'd talk to him once in a while, and he'd always tell me what he thought hitters, including our guys, were doing right and wrong, pointing out details like how well Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodrigues and Albert Pujols were getting on top of the ball and getting through it, getting that great backspin that made the ball carry.{SNIP}

The more I heard him speak, the more I felt everything about his approach would make him an outstanding candidate for our staff. In November of 2009, I decided to make an offer to him for the hitting coach job (for 2010). (La Russa and Cardinal front office management, though, made it a prerequisite that he make a public statement addressing his alleged PED use, to which he had declined to comment for years). We didn't know what he was going to say, just that he had to say something

I knew he would tell the truth, but I didn't know specifically what he was going to say. Mark admitted to using steroids and on the morning the announcement was made he called to tell me what was about to be all over the news.

McGwire and La Russa had stirred up a hornet's nest. The way the PEDs played out in the U.S., it was an emotional issue; most casual fans (though few serious fans) wanted every home run hitter of the 1990s & 2000s burned at the stake, as a start. Very Stalinist Show Trial environment, as I've written about before. By McGwire's silence, he angered the steroid-obsessed by giving them less excuse to rag on him for not confessing, but by either denying or admitting use, he was going to inflame them further.

It took great courage for La Russa to hire an ostracized friend and re-open an emotional knicker-twister of a topic in a profession that demands relentless hyper-focus by everyone on the team. Few managers Beyond Baseball would balance the potential gains of a 97th percentile performer who had massive credibility with players coaching those with whom he had credibility against the controversy.

Had La Russa hired a dud just to get him a job (what I call Nepotism Lite), without regard for his performance potential, I would be terminally critical. Every team of ~50 people can afford one or two middling talents who are vital to the team's morale, and every team of ~50 people can afford one or two very difficult people if they are 90+ %ile talents who get the job done. If you're hiring a difficult human who's ultra-talented, you are taking on more work (office politics, managing outside criticism, managing people's fears) to make more work happen.

After Mark was hired and made his statement, the media focused on my motives for hiring him. Some commentators may have wanted to compliment me, and others to criticize me for presumably hiring a friend out of loyalty and helping him to rehabilitate his career. Regardless of intent, I was insulted by those assumptions. I take my responsibility to my employers, fans, teammates, and the game itself to ever engage in that kind of nepotistic behavior. Mark was hired based on his merits.


La Russa then goes on to describe the incredible level of and number of skills (Beyond Baseball,anyway) required for being a successful coach/mentor to skill- based professionals.

He wasn't overwhelmed by the workload -- he was fired up by it. It was an attitude that we needed all our coaches to have.

This is the crux of why this Nepotism Lite is okay in this exceptional case. Nepotism and Nepotism Lite both GENERALLY suck oxygen out of your environment, like nitrates out of a river. La Russa hired McGwire because he had both high cred as a past performer, ergo, as a leader, and also the hire was determined to succeed.

On any small team, Agile or not, you will more often benefit more than not if you are willing to hire a high-performer even if that is a difficult individual or a person who requires you additional management burden. That's a contrarian point of view, of course, which means "Money Ball", that is, a relatively untapped high-performance talent pool you can acquire more easily.

You can be lazy and leave talent on the table, or you can be Baseball and channel La Russa to Agile success. You choose.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #15 of 17: When Being "No Fun"
Makes For More Fun  

In Agile projects, as in Baseball, your Fun Quotient doesn't have to be "at eleven" as a norm, but to get the best sustainable production, you certainly want to err on the side of building an environment that stimulates (not just allows) fun. In Agile, as in Baseball, that will mean, more often than not, you as the leader won't be showing off as much fun as the team, and that is, in most environments, a necessity.

Tony La Russa embodied this stance as brilliantly as any successful Agile leader has, and his transparency is useful to any Agile practitioner or aspiring leader. As he explained in his most recent book, One Last Strike (p. 103-105), it's critical both to actively promote the fun aspects of the project while also being the eye of the hurricane, the calm, unflappable go-to, solid, reliable, relentless make-it-happen center, even if that means you're not looking like you're having much fun.

La Russa wasmore than a master of hiding how much fun he was having (and he was having fun), he looked and acted when at work as impassive, unemotional, neutral as he could. If you ever saw him on televeision during a game, you saw that steely resolve. And having spoken to him a few times in his office when he managed the White Sox, I can testify he was like that off the field, too.

The book makes it clear that was purposeful...part of his natural character, but deliberate, too. He talks about his determination at the beginning of the season that he will retire at the end of it, regardless of the outcome. He, personally, wasn't thrilled with the evolution of the work, which was trending towards more corporate-like interactions, less personal, less Agile.

Put simply, it wasn't as much fun as it had been. That mioght sound strange coming from a person with my reputation for intensity and from someone who was often noted for not smiling.I took seriously the responsibility I had but I loved the competition, the winning and the losing, and the relationships we built

It's true I didn't smile a whiole lot during games. I wanted to maintain the same exterior whether things were going well or going badly. One reason for that is I wanted to set an example for our players and also to be a constant they could rely on.

This is a vital crux of Agile. The Coach or Scrum Master or whatever the team calls the project-organizing, customer-facing human should be the eye of the hurricane, she should be the "constant they could rely on".

Yes, there were lighthearted moments in the dugout, on the field, in the clubhouse {snip} but in the middle of the competition, I wanted to be that concentrated center in the middle of the storm.

I had to work at that because on the inside I was a festival of nervous energy, anticipation, excitement, anger, frustration, elation and about just every other emotion you can name. {snip} I will say this about my intense level of concentration: I have zero regrets about how I went about my business, day in and day out. I might have made plenty of mistakes, but none of them came from lack of interest or from lack of attention.

The effective Coach has to be a La Russa-ian manager...relentlessly paying attention to the big and little factors, personalities, issues, risks, and freeing up the rest of the team to do their work. And that means even at the cost of the opportunity to lean back and ease off for some of the fun things the team should/must do.

Ultimately, none of this was ever about me; it was always about the players and about winning. Call it "old school" or whatever you like, but the level of seriousness I brought to my job was purposeful and long-standing. {snip} I couldn't alter who I was as a person to conserve my energy or to take shortcuts. I couldn't slow down.It was either do it or don't do it.

And that's the essence of Coach or Scrum Master, too. If you're going to do the role, do it like the project's success depends on your relentless, serious attention. In Agile, as in Baseball, that may mean you don't always get to publically show the high and lows the rest of the team does.

But the Coach's relentless commitment to holding things together does mean the team can have more fun. And more fun delivers generally better quality and quantity, more sustainably, in Agile as much as in Baseball.

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