Friday, December 17, 2004

Free-Falling For "Franchise" Falderal  

This is the add-on to an entry from a few days ago that discussed how acquiring actual mega-talent ("franchise players" or extraordinarily-gifted managers and executives) can make decisionmaking better through simplification. At the same time, that benefit creates buyer need that can be exploited through marketing in a way that leaves less heady buyers acquiring less-spectacular talent for the price of mega-talent.

Too frequently, a buyer goes into an acquisition or negotiation with specific aims, even well-defined ones, but ends up coming away with something different than they came to the table to get.

Sometimes the difference is for a good reason -- the resources didn't match up well, the environment changes, other events happen that require the planner to tweak the plans or even craft a complete makeover. Skilled managers tend to do well with their mid-course corrections, or don't allow themselves to commit to a course that might change to something fatal.

Here's an example. Late last season, the Dodgers traded their good-hitting-for-average catcher (Paul LoDuca) to the Marlins for a good innings-eating starter (Brad Penny), an ingredient they needed more in their stretch drive. It was Dodger GM Paul DePodesta's plan to turn around and trade Penny for a high-impact starter, perhaps Randy Johnson, but Penny was injured, Johnson made himself unavailable, and Penny gave the Bums very little. But for all the angst in Los Angeles about the intangibles LoDuca brought to the team that they were giving up, they played about as well without him. The intention (LoDuca for Johnson) didn't work out, but the failure to complete the compound deal didn't leave the Dodgers lost in space.

More frequently, the difference in an ability to find that happy medium that rests between rigid adherence and what I'll call monkey-mind.

Rigid adherence is Soviet-style commitment to an original plan made with assumptions that may even have been true in the exact moment the plan was forged.

Bill James in his book on Baseball Managers, takes to task Lee Fohl, a very successful dead-ball era manager who was still managing when the owners juiced the ball and many hitters started taking advantage of it in the early 1920s. According to James, Fohl stuck with his "small-ball" approach, limiting the effectiveness of his player acquisition strategy and the success of his teams on the field. At least one researcher who's an expert on that era, Steve Steinberg, believes James' characterization of Fohl is questionable.

It happens beyond baseball, too.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they imagined a basically conventional war with their superior training and (relative-to-rebels') superior equipment and superior resources matching up well against disorganized loose units made up of nationalists and wacky fanatics. The puppet government they were supporting there was determined to advance the country's health and education infrastructure in exchange for adherence to this outside power's imperial vision. Their plan wasn't doomed to failure at the moment it was hatched. But once it started spinning out of control, the Soviet "planners" didn't move the objectives around, meet changed circumstances. They kept trying to fight the war they had started, not the war it had become, which was creating people willing to die for a country that barely existed in what most of the world would barely define as a country. The deluge of body bags making the return trip home and inability to successfully confront irregular forces with their "superior" equipment and training (and bureaucratic unwillingness to admit their mistakes) planted them firmly in a classic quagmire. And what those Soviets let loose still reverberates in global security implications today. Rigid adherence to plans in baseball or beyond it isn't guaranteed to fail, but if anything goes wrong, there's rarely a graceful fallback position.

In baseball, you'll sometimes see a G.M. go into an off-season trying to fix the apparent worst shortcoming the team suffered the season just finished. Perhaps it's starting pitching (like the Yankees focused on before 2004). They get so determined to fix that problem, they stop measuring the reward/risk ratio of individual decisions, and end up with starting pitching, certainly, but forgetting that each of those decisions had specific risks and that when assembled together, might not deliver the set of results the plan had been aimed to deliver.

Too many people gravitate to extremes, sometimes on failure intentionally throwing themselves to the extreme opposite stance. The opposite of the Soviet Rigid-Adherence model is Monkey-mind.

Monkey-mind, the constant fluid changing of objectives and even goals, is pervasive, too. You see this in some baseball teams' evolution over a number of seasons. The Devil Rays, for example, drafted aging speed when they started in 1998. After losing with a lack of power, they tried to corner the market on slugging veterans, and when this failed, they went to snot-nosed youth.

Beyond baseball you see this approach, usually unintentional. My friend the Italian Stallion and I used to go to the horse races in Seattle. We'd spend a day and a half crunching numbers out of the Daily Racing Form, I'd run reports on track bias, he'd comb through class and pace indicators, and we'd go to the track armed with thorough research and a set of picks to vet at the paddock (looking at the horses to make sure the horse in real life looked promising physically and wasn't having a bad mane day). To some degree, I would second guess myself when I looked at real horses -- most handicappers do. But he would send himself absolutely quaquaversal and almost invariably move to a different bet than he had planned on...while his original bet paid well.

Decision simplification (the very advantage a "franchise player" can provide) is one way to overcome the blizzard of competing thoughts the Monkey-mind victim is blown around with.

It's not surprising that Monkey-minded GMs are more easily sold a bill of Almost-Goods when the words "franchise player" bubble up in a talent acquisition effort. The temptation to simplify the mindstorm is too juicy to ignore.

Flexibility is important, in moderation. Working from either one of the extremes leads to closing on choices that weren't right.

Scott Boras doesn't get paid to care if a team buys the services of someone who doesn't fulfill the dreams of the buyer. Neither do most executive recruiters. Protect yourself in these situations; take a deep breath and "go rational", examining more than paper credentials, and going all the way into your own dreams, comparing them to the situation at hand and coming up.

Don't be a Brezhnev or an Italian Stallion.

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