Saturday, March 25, 2006

The O'Dowd Report II: Rockies' Unique Barriers
and Knowing What You Can Manage  

This is the second installment of a conversation Colorado Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd was kind enough to have with me. The first part is here.

In the last section, we finished with O'Dowd describing the experiments that underpin the front office team's ongoing efforts to understand the differences in Colorado's playing environment that make it more difficult for the team to succeed. In established management practice, you can usually answer with a decent degree of accuracy the questions, "within my span of control, what can I manage?" and "what's outside my management control?". O'Dowd's front office team have internalized the idea that the answers that are givens outside Colorado are different from the truth in their situation.

It's not an easy lesson to internalize. Beyond baseball, and especially in business arenas, managers facing very alien environments are most likely to practice a form of denial -- choosing to use old methods that come from a different context (in and of itself, not a bad first approach) and then not relentlessly monitoring the results of those old practices in the new environment. The absence of observation, monitoring and analysis in the face of radically changed circumstances is where the weakness starts undermining management performance.

So learning what you can manage and what you can't, where your decisions can change opportunities for the better, is a key prerequisite for success.

A: We feel really good about where we’re at. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s always going to have to be managed but we feel we have a much better approach than we’ve ever had before.

Q: Yes, though the one thing you can’t manage is the fact that there’s this significant difference in home-road environments. Short of selective home-road platooning…

A: I think the big thing you can do is manage the mindset. And I think that the most important responsibility in this organization…I’m only one of a group of people trying to focus on the right things. Instead of focusing on things that are more of a negative we have chosen to focus on a positive approach.

One thing I learned early on and painfully is character is a very important part of management, period. Character in our environment is crucial…I’ll explain that to you in more detail.

Offensive ballparks throughout the history of the game have leant themselves more to an “I, I, Me, Me” approach to playing the game of baseball. Runner on 3rd base less than two out, you’re playing in Seattle infield’s back you put the ball in play and you try to put that run across. You play in Colorado, you might expand your strike zone swing at more pitches, if you can get the ball in the air you have a chance to knock it out (of the park). It creates within you a (personal) numbers driven approach.

I think by focusing on character as much as we have…you know character players really understand the team concept and they understand that the biggest joy in this game…the only joy in this game is working together with your teammates and focusing on winning. I think from a management standpoint, I think we have totally changed what we look for. We have developed a 15-step criteria for how we measure character & we try to really focus on those attributes underneath character that are completely defined for us as the type of player that we want wearing a Rockie uniform. We take that into our amateur draft.

Q: Are you open to sharing that list of character traits on or off the record?

A: I’d prefer not to share it. Not that it’s proprietary; I just don’t want it to be the focus of what our plans are. It’s is based around things like ability to handle adversity, perseverance, mental toughness as defined by several things, is it a durable individual, the ability to relate to teammates, what kind of attitude they have towards life, upbringing. It has a lot of measures and each of our scouts have to answer about, whether we’re looking to acquire a player or when we draft a player or when we promote player.

It’s not the end-all be-all, it’s just that it’s given us a definite direction for our decision-making process.

Q; So you use it as a tie-breaker.

A: It’s part of the evaluation; it’s not the equation. It’s what I call one of our "separators”.

Q: Let’s get back to you. You’re in a unique position among the 30 teams’ GMs. Your whole work life is an experiment based on little or no precedent. It’s parallel to being a GM where there has never been one before, or actually more like it’s 1895. You don’t have “The Book” and what there is of it doesn’t work cleanly.

A: A lot of people just don’t understand that, even my peers in the game. When I try to explain it to them they just don’t get it. I think they would have to work in this environment and go through it to begin to really understand what it means.

I had to, too. I had my perceptions and presumptions, and I had my theories when I was on the outside looking in and when I started this job.

Q: You came straight from Cleveland, right?

A: Yes. And I think once I got into this it took me a good three years to get my hands around it. The mistakes I made were mistakes based on aggressiveness & on not taking my time. My perceptions didn’t turn out the match the reality of the particular environment.

There were certain constants that I knew of. The home-road difference…I knew it was there because they’re clear from the stats, but I didn’t know the core of the reasons. And the whole offensive-minded ballpark…how it creates mindset in the players…I really had no idea how that would play out. Finding out was really a valuable learning experience.

So every year I’ve learned more things that relate to this particular (GM) job. I feel like we’re on the right path now; whether that turns out to be the case or not, we’ll find out.

So O'Dowd and his group came in with preconceived notions but started experimenting right away and, as importantly, observed and measured and analyzed their results. They haven't stopped.

Note that you can have the best data in the world but that full data alone, while it certainly helps an analyst define problems, doesn't help in defining questions to ask or the answers to address known challenges.

Note, too, a Third Base skill O'Dowd has -- self-awareness. He knows his management actions tend towards aggressive approaches. He knows his tendencies meant he made mistakes. He doesn't pretend it's anyone else's fault (if anything, I believe, he may be grabbing blame for shortfalls that are outside a manager's control), and this accountability makes it possible to more easily dump past approaches and embrace new ones. Energy spent elaborating CYA strategies is energy that's not going into analysis or forward-looking decisions.

More to Come...

Monday, March 20, 2006

The O'Dowd Report: Rockies' Relentless GM Leads Expedition to Heart of the Unknown -- Part I.  

It's relatively easy for a decent manager to get adequate results just by re-applying proven successes from previous jobs. It's a common cognate for managers to first look for similarities in the new situation and apply the old lessons.

Because a good manager analyzes the new situation for similarities to the past, most good managers will know not to count too much on old proofs if the new situation is clearly different. But what happens when the new situation looks mostly like the one the manager has learned to ace? 

That's the toughest spot to be in. It's really different -- but it doesn't appear that way, so one starts by using proven tools, and then the tools too frequently underperform. Once-successful tools are hard to throw away, and if the environment is fooling one into thinking it's essentially the same, it's really tough to toss those techniques aside for untested ones.

Colorado is lucky to have a team-oriented general manager who, while he may not have found the successful formula for the elixir of winning, is an exemplar for any manager entering a situation where every evolved protocols has to be brought under the looking glass for reexamination. That executive, Dan O'Dowd, generously gave me a big slug of his time earlier this month to share a conversation about innovation when the protocols don't hold and how the front-office team's latest approach is designed. What I find extraordinarily virtuous in O'Dowd's point of view is less in the exact solution the group is currently trying, but his relentless composure, attention to system feedback and willingness to fearlessly innovate. 

There will be several essays that spring from this conversation. This is the first.

Baseball is close to a perfect arena for viewing the management tendency to hold onto the protocols. On its surface, baseball has rules and umpires and prescribed schedules and about 130 years of professional refinement that has made protocols viable. Talk about "known". But when the expansion Colorado Rockies started playing games in 1993, the obvious protocols needed reexamination. It's not that the front office couldn't construct a somewhat competitive team.

Colorado Rockies courtesy CBS Sportsline
Year W-L Pct. Finish
2005 67-95 .414 5th
2004 68-94 .420 4th
2003 74-88 .457 4th
2002 73-89 .451 4th
2001 73-89 .451 5th
2000 82-80 .506 4th
1999 72-90 .444 5th
1998 77-85 .475 4th
1997 83-79 .512 3rd
1996 83-79 .512 3rd
1995 77-67 .535 2nd
1994 53-64 .453 3rd
1993 67-95 .414 6th

In 1993, the Rox  had a decent campaign for a first year. They improved a little and by their third year squeaked into the playoffs with a better-than-.500 season. Success with that model looked attainable -- but wins flattened out and then started sagging. Players were breaking down. Team-building design tactics that worked for home games didn't work for road games. The design didn't change over those years, it was a steady Syncopation of Sybaritic Slug-A-Thons. The frustration went straight up. The previous GM, Bob Gebhard moved aside after the 1999 season to make way for Cleveland Indians assistant G.M. O'Dowd, and the new leader started twiddling with the formula.

We talked about what the Rockies front office team have been doing to cope with their very different environment and why they've chosen those paths. NOTE: there are a few unintelligible passages in here- sorry 'bout that.

Q:  You have one of the most interesting jobs of any general manager in baseball. You’re the only one who deals with a physical environment which is way out of specification compared to what all other teams face. The insanity that cascades as a result makes everything you do much more complicated

A: I think what it does more than anything else is make the basis of statistical analysis that exists in our industry – I’m not sure that most of those statistical theories, resources and methods, all of which I certainly used earlier in my career…in my Cleveland days…in fact we were kind of in the forefront there…a lot of that doesn’t carry over well in Colorado because of the unique environment we play in.

{snip – some generic conversation about pitching}

We’ve got a couple of things in place we think that have helped level the playing field for pitchers. I think Baseball has done a couple of things that will continue to level the playing field. The Humidor has made a dramatic difference; we think it could make more of a difference if we were allowed to use it the way we’d like to use it. We have specifications we have to follow – where we store the baseballs and what (temperature) we can store them in. I believe if we were allowed to crank (humidity) up a little higher, it would have even more effect on the games. One of the problems is really just this …this is not earth-shaking scientific method…it’s like when you leave an old pair of leather boots outside in the wintertime in Colorado and they dry up & they crack, they change their shape…the same exact kinds of things happen to a baseball. <something> contact changes dramatically, the leather itself becomes smooth like a cue ball. So it’s very difficult to hold the ball and do the things you normally would do in regular…sea level…conditions.

Q: The moisture on your fingers changes…

A: Yes, and the seams change. Your seams <something> and get a little coarser. We’ve had a lot of problems with blisters over the years in Colorado which we don’t talk about much but we’ve had to deal with.

The other thing that will change the game quite a bit I think is steroid policy and the new amphetamine policy. Those will also help level the playing field. The days of Monster Baseball…though it’ll still be there for some gifted players…as a whole, I think there’ll be a lessening of it.

If you look at runs scored in Coors Field during the middle 90s, and at home runs hit – I think those were the prime years of steroids in our game. Now, with some of the changes the time of games is down dramatically, runs scored have gone down dramatically. A lot of people have said, “well, Colorado didn’t have an outstanding offensive club,” but it wasn’t just our club, it was the clubs that were coming into Colorado, too. Whether that was an anomaly or whether there was some human adaptation, we’re not going to know until some patterns hold for a while.

We studied weather patterns last year. And the weather patterns weren’t significantly different than they had been in other years. I had thought maybe there was more moisture in the air, perhaps more rain, but it turned out the rainfall was similar to what it had been in other years. We’ll just have to see if somehow the game is changing.

Anything we can do to normalize the game can only help us competitively, because I do believe it’s very difficult to play two completely different styles of game, one at home and one on the road. So I think the more the game is normalized, the more it’ll help us competitively.

Q: You have been relentless experimenters. I read that before the 2005 season you all were considering the 4-man rotation (Instead of the standard 5-man), an idea Bill James and Rany Jazayerli had argued for a few years previously. It seems to me it takes courage to try something like that that’s so out of step with standard practice.

A: We thought that taking the pitching rotation to go to not really a true 5-man rotation, but a 4-man rotation and an 8-man bullpen where they all pitched two or three innings every time out.

Q: How far did that experiment get?

A: You have to train your pitchers completely differently. I think the physical wear and tear on your pitching staff would not allow (implementing) that. One of the things about playing at altitude...number one, I’m not trying to make excuses here and number two, I’m just stating facts, but because you play at such a high altitude, your relative lack of oxygen content, it takes a lot longer to recover and creates a lot more soreness.

One thing we’re working on and that we’re excited about is developing a home-grown pitching staff and training our guys mentally from day one through the organization on what to expect has helped dramatically. You also get more of what you focus on from your management standpoint — so we no longer focus on what can’t be done in that environment, we focus on what can be done in that environment..

And we have normalized the game somewhat through the use of the humidor, not getting the results we would get just playing in San Diego or L.A. or San Francisco, but you get dramatically different results than we’ve had in past years.

I think, overall, creating a better mindset. We train differently — we train harder on the road than we do at home — physically we changed our patterns. We don’t follow the habit of what is done every day in baseball; some days we won’t take any early work, some days we won’t take a formal batting practice. We’re beginning to understand the cycle of rest and recovery a lot better than we ever understood it.

Q: Do you actively measure aspects of recovery? Is it more based on expert observation?

A: We’ve done some testing with some blood analysis, for altitude testing…mostly on our coaches and training staff…with the players it’s a more difficult thing to approach. Our medical staff (Brad Andress the Strength Coach and Tom Probst the Director for Medical Operations), they really have dedicated a ton of their personal time understanding the cycle of rest & recovery at altitude.

We feel really good about where we’re at. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s always going to have to be managed but we feel we have a much better approach than we’ve ever had before.

The Rox may be the only team among its competitors that's trying to innovate through medicine. They are applying somewhat-known protocols, not from their own field, but from medicine and psychology, to try to cope with the differences. The Humidor...well, that's from other realms of research.

More to come...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

In Which The Detroit Tigers Teach Us

There are two giant lessons that are absolutely core to my knowledge that I've never talked about even once in the years I've been writing this blog and in the two Management by Baseball books I've written. The inimitable Repoz at Baseball Think Factory (who, though built like Gary Pettis, once won a World Championship Wrestling Elimi-Ganza against the heavyweight class Al Roker and the dreadnought class Andre the Giant simultaneously) posted a piece today by Mike Cobb of The (Lakeland, Fla.) Ledger that covers both simultaneously.

The article is based on a talk with the new Detroit Tiger manager, Jim Leyland. The two lessons are:

#1 - There Is No Corporate Culture. There are almost no organizations (~5%) with a functioning "corporate culture". About 10% have what I call a "corporate personality". The rest have nada, zip.

#2 - Organizational inertia, the weight of a shared emotional constellation, is very difficult to change, even if the current setting is undermining the group's success.

I'll get to those in a second, but here are some snippets of Leyland's observations about the Tiger team he's inherited.

Tiger manager Jim Leyland likes his team. He likes the talent. But as he's watched them go through their work this spring, he noticed something missing and for a while, he couldn't quite figure out what it was.

Every night, he spends time in his office going over things and thinking about his team. Tuesday night, it came to him. They're just too nice. They need a mean streak. They need to be a little ornery. They need a few more. . . well, guys who aren't always so nice. {SNIP}

He likes the talent. He thinks they're capable of playing winning baseball. He just wants them to be a little meaner when they take the field. {SNIP} "This team has no personality. It has no charisma.

"It's got good players. It's got the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet," he said. "I wish people would rant and rave a little more. I'd like to see somebody swear once in a while when they strike out."

Leyland's not sure exactly how you teach that, or even if you can teach it. For the most part, it's something that's either there or it isn't. That's either in a player's personality or it isn't. {SNIP} He wants his players to show more passion, more confidence and less acceptance of losing. {SNIP}

Identifying the problem was the easy part. Correcting it the hard part.

As someone with a degree in anthropology, I use anthropologist E.B Tylor's definition of culture. Culture is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by humans as members of society. Cultures are organic because they are the product of (and in turn the producers of) a myriad of individual personalities of the humans and environmental factors. Like a crunchewy food substance, cultures both have stability and an innate ability to change.

In almost all cases, they adapt year after to changing conditions in ways they need to for them to survive, and they do this without hierarchical management. In almost all cases, organizations' complexes of knowledge, belief, etc. as described by Tylor are crazy-quilts of the random brain-spasms of individuals with high rank in the hierarchies. Which is why some organizations can actually achieve something I call a "Corporate Personality".

Cultures are evolving survival systems, so for the rare organization that has an actual culture, they are invaluable competitive structures.. A personality, even a healthy one  is both less consistent and less adaptive than a culture is.

Two of the winning-est baseball teams of the last decade had personalities. The 1998 New York Yankees (114-48) really imprinted on manager Joe Torre's personality: ultra-competitive, zen-quiet-still, humane, dignified, ultra-competitive. The 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46) imprinted on Edgar Martínez personality: focused, glacial, relentless, quietly predatory.

When I worked at Microsoft, it had a corporate personality. In a 500 person company with a single-digit integer's worth of trained managers, the team was being guided by men (and a tiny handful of women) who had gotten management positions through seniority, having a job unique or duo-nique to the company and then having to hire a department under them to handle the growth. In the absence of acquired knowledge about how to manage or conduct themselves, most individuals who had decision-making authority asked themselves WWBGIIID -- ¿What Would Bill Gates III Do? They consciously (mostly) imitated the behaviors of one single person. They did this not just in decision-making, but in clothes, the frames of their glasses, their vocabulary and other, less visible choices.

Microsoft had an almost perfect corporate personality -- it was able to succeed at anything that <billg> could succeed at (or that Steve Ballmer could bulldog through over the wreckage on the occasions that approach failed) and found it had to throw megatons of excess resources at any problem that didn't match his skill set and personality. Enron and General Electric when Jack Welch as in his glory years were other organizations that had a personality and not a culture.

Personality, the imprinting of a single human's constellation of behaviours, is more than most organizations have. Most have nothing at all, unlike individual humans, all of whom have a personality no matter how desperately shallow or defective it might be.

Whenever you see an organization with completely inconsistent ways of handling challenges or change, they have neither a culture nor a personality. Home Depot stores are like this, as is Northwest Airlines, as FEMA is now (though in the past, it apparently had an actual, functioning culture)

Whenever you see an organization with rigid dogmæ or fat written procedures manuals or codes of conduct, they have neither culture nor personality. The Army is like this, as is Boeing.

NOTE: One question I've never been able to answer is this: Is an organization with a personality less likely or more likely to be able to create a culture? I suspect less (something's already occupying that niche), but I'm not sure. I welcome your opinions on that issue.

As experienced and successful manager Jim Leyland says, specific cultural threads either exist or they don't and the manager can't just make them happen. As part of an overall change management initiative, structured and executed with energy and resolute determination, a group of managers can create an ideal environment that will help propel a group towards a culture. Management needs to be relentless in seeking the right staffers and blend of different staffers (hiring a uniform herd of the same kind of person in different bodies might result in a personality, but not a functional culture). Staff stability is required and a commitment to not grow faster than a culture can sustain (you need roughly three enculturated people over roughly two years to imbue each new hire, so this suggests you can't grow staff more than about 16% in any year).

The effort to create a culture requires rigorous planning and deft execution. And more patience than most organizations (especially publicly-owned) have. The Detroit Tigers are thinking about it and that's a great place to start. Are you as evolved as the Bengals?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Inventors Gone Wild: Krispy Kreme Donut Burger
Klimbs to the Akme of Mt. Krisco  

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought. - Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi

Most inventions in baseball, in natural evolution, in life, in business, are failures. And that's okay, because inventors who fear failure fear invention, and that limits their effectiveness. To zero. Great inventions tend to be bold -- an essential element shared with the greatest belly-flops.

Baseball though, as the U.S.' most evolved and highly sophisticated innovation-processing engine, has some good illustrations of the exxxtreme innovation as the managerial equivalent of spontaneous human combustion. This week's Invention Gone Wild: the fat bomb known as the Gateway Grizzlies' "Best Ball Park Hamburger". Hawkeyed Sean McNally at Baseball Think Factory pointed to an article on ESPN describing the concession offering for the East St. Louis Frontier League team. It's a concoction that blows away the scary 30 year reign of the Baltimore Memorial Stadium incumbent Baseball Concession Lord 'o Lard.

I am going to tell you about the Grizzlies' extraordinary kulinary kookiness, but first a little about the de-throned incumbent. Memorial Stadium proffered the truly scary comestible...deep fried "burritos" A teammate of mine, Burly Betts, used to go the games with me and then would order & then actually eat one. A by-product was I couldn't go to the bathroom and give him my scorecard because it would get an Exxon Valdez-autograph-model grease slick on it that would render it write-proof, immune to both pencil and any kind of pen I had access to. Deep fried burritos were not just scary, but Edgar Allan Poe-scary, and something that would not be dislodged for the Chamber of Concession Horrors for decades to come.

But now it has been usurped by the Grizzlies' Krakatoa O' Adiposity. According to the ESPN story:

Homer Simpson would love the newest taste sensation in minor league baseball: the donut burger.

The Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League promised to create "Baseball's Best Burger" in time for the team's opener in late May. And they appear to have succeeded. The ballpark sandwich will include a hamburger topped with sharp cheddar cheese and two slices of bacon -- all between a "bun" made of a sliced Krispy Kreme Original Glazed donut. {SNIP}

Calorie counters predict the monster will set you back about 1,000 calories and 45 grams of fat. {SNIP} (Grizzlies general manager Tony) Funderberg, who has said he has eaten at least 10 of the Grizzlies' new creations as part of a "sampling process," said the team hopes to sell 100 to 200 of them a night at $4.50 each. He calls it a bargain, considering it is a meal and a dessert in one.

I'm not, as Dave Barry would say, making this up. For those of strong constitution, here's a pic.

LONG PERSONAL & ETHNOGRAPHIC ASIDE: I've never "gotten" the Krispy Kreme thing. I have always loved doughnuts, but the name of that brand alone scared the hell out of me -- the idea of eating anything called Kreme, something that seems assured to use as ingredients no actual food products but was probably intended for use as something like this, seems pretty sci-fi to me. ¿Worse, who wants their cream to be Krispy? What kow delivers krispy kreme? OTOH, back when I drove a Yellow Cab in the D.C. metro area, about the only Peacemaker a group of cabbies I worked with had was the local Krispy Kreme outlet. They were from all over (Biafra, Nigeria, Palestine, New Mexico, Pakistan, to name a few points of origin) and basically worked as zero-sum competitors even if they worked for the same company. Arguments would explode over lines and fares, politics, religion, the best way to get to the corner of N. Vermont St and N. Vermont St. -- yes a real corner guaranteed to fry the skulls of the poor sots who tried to ease the stress of the job by smoking reefer -- and whether the dispatchers were on the take. But one one unifying passion was the consumption of hot, fried fat, a comfort that soothed, and expanded, the savage breast of almost all hacks. The inescapable conclusion of 20th century cultural anthropology was that healthy societies survived by gathering and distributing protein; I guess there must now be a 21st century corollary: that other-than-healthy societies thrive by gathering and distributing fried fats.

The Gateway Grizzlies play home games a mere 3½ miles from the Midwest's most pungent olfactory landmark, East St. Louis' Monsanto plant, normally a bad thing, but I'm thinking that in this context a positive -- they make (or used to, at least) make most of the aspirin used in the U.S. in that factory, and the grease-hangover headaches demand a gargantuan supply of analgesics.

BEYOND BASEBALL But the Grizzlies "Best Ballpark Burger" is as innovative as it is distasteful. It's originality factor is very high. It's a risky invention in that they aren't simply adding something you'd normally add, or tweaking one of the ingredients (remove catsup, add mustard, for example). It's bold, it's original...it's repulsive.

In part, what makes it seem so repulsive is that it's a specific form of invention called an "intensification". Intensification is a primitive idea, an it can work. It's one of the simplest forms of invention, and it's easy to implement because it doesn't require creativity. Because of that non-requirement, it is the most common form of innovation. It just says "whatever we're doing that seems successful, let's just do more of it." So if customers think a two-blade razor shaves closer than a single blade, ¿why not three blades? And if you think your competitor will re-tool to make three-bladed shavers, preempt her by going to four blades. Automobiles' rear fins grew and got more ornate from 1957 (like this) to about 1962 (more complex like this) and even bigger through about 1964 and then stopped. Designers intensified what buyers wanted until the model failed and they were forced to invent a new look.

This has worked both in the prepared and processed food industries over the last quarter century. Taken as a market, Americans love eating fat, and more is generally more popular. The percentage of American adult who are merely "overweight" by federal standards has been pretty consistent over the last 25 years, but every 12 years, an additional 9% of the adult population are building their bodies into a configuration defined as "obese" (that is, very overweight). If you are skeptical, take a look at this CDC chart that indicates two-thirds of American adults are overweight and three out of ten are obese.

In general practice, intensification may make the product of invention more effective or not, but frequently consumers will feel like it did because it seems logical. If a ballpark cheeseburger satisfies because of its very high fat content, amplify the appeal point...throw on bacon (two slices please). And if the bacon cheeseburger maxes out the design possibilities for fat transmission, go straight for what ounce for ounce, is the third most potently concentrated source of fat I can think of: the glazed doughnut (a little under two ounces and roughly 12 grams of fat), not as scary as this one I ate this year.

Inventors will go wild at times. The bolder the initiative, the greater risks they take and the greater likelihood of remarkable success they have. But when the kreme is krispy, the kuisine is kreepy and it can be either a kickstart to karmatic konsummation or a komplete klunker.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Change Insight 3 of 3: 2006 White Sox -
Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger Kills You  

Most teams than win a World Series look through the windshield towards the road ahead with the thought that the most important thing you can do is not make a mistake. And the people who run a team that just won the World Series are pre-disposed to think that what got them the trophy was "not a mistake" because they won. And once a human mind is focused on successful "not a mistake", that mind is most comfortable right there and it takes a lot more effort to discard what won you the trophy (past tense) than what can win you the trophy (present and future tenses).

The poster front office for this syndrome was the 2002-2003 Angels of the O.C. who, having won the trophy, worked very hard to preserve the exact configuration of the team that won, pretending time, space, competitors, chance, and Scott Bakula didn't exist. I wrote about that disaster in detail in Anaximander, the World Champion Angels & Peter Drucker. As Anaximander spoke of, Change is inevitable and change changes in unpredictable directions and at unpredictable rates. Stasis in a competitive arena doesn't guarantee First-to-Worst

Bill Stoneman and the Angels were not an exception except Stoneman consciously pursued stasis, whereas most victims aren't choosing that course through intention but through laxness.

In the same New York Daily News spring training wrap I quoted in the first two parts of this series, Bill Madden scribed thusly about the World Champion Chicago White Sox:

TUCSON, ARIZ: The defending world champion White Sox hardly rested on their laurels, adding Jim Thome from the Indians to replace Frank Thomas as DH, Javy Vazquez from Arizona to replace Orlando Hernandez as their No. 5 starter, and Rob Mackowiak from the Pirates to replace Geoff Blum as an all-purpose utilityman. In addition, the focus will be on two homegrown products, 6-7 righthander Brandon McCarthy and center fielder Brian Anderson, whom the Sox are counting on to be impact players. McCarthy will be eased into the rotation by performing long relief while Anderson takes over for the popular Aaron Rowand. On paper, the White Sox appear deeper and even better, but with the emphasis on repeating, manager Ozzie Guillen will keep a close eye on Thome's suspect physical condition, McCarthy's ability to adjust and Anderson's bat.

Humm baby. That's a lot of voluntary change for an incumbent World Champ. White Sox GM Ken Williams has internalized the Anaximander philosophy as much as any manager in America. He has an unusual public personality trait -- an extreme modesty and self-deprecation that I'm guessing is a technique to keep himself sharp. No matter what success he accomplishes, he tells himself that he is not that great, that maybe he was just lucky, that he needs to prove himself all over again. His zero-complacency project seems like a daily routine, but as exhausting as it must be, he seems relentless about it. Winning the World Series seems to have amplified his caution about counting on luck.

For the middle of their batting order, the White Sox replaced one old, used-up guy who probably has little left but who was their franchise player (their franchise player) with a slightly younger guy who, in spite of some injury questions, has managed to put up 40% more plate appearances over the last three years. . This reinforces the message to every player on the team that change is necessary. I reminds each individual that the team is more about team than it is a collection of individuals.

The White Sox upgraded their 5th starter. As much as I respect El Duque, Vásquez is seven years younger as well as having more to prove than his predecessor. Williams appears to like hunger and probably suspects like I do that Vásquez has the capabilities of what would nromally be thought of as  #3 starter.

They even upgraded at utilityman, getting the more versatile Mackowiak to replace Blum. To me it's not clear that the new guy is intrinsically a better ballplayer than Blum, while they both seem to be primarily third sackers by nature, Mackowiak has a better set of skills to back up the outfield and is a little less scary in middle infield. If they hadn't made the other moves, I wouldn't think it mattered. Normally a utilityman upgrade would be a piece of leger-de-main by a team trying to pretend it was making moves when it wasn't, but in this case, given the way manager Ozzie Guillen uses his bench, it's a real piece of the puzzle.

Further, the Sox are putting two inexperienced young players into key pieces of their plans, one pitcher and a center fielder. The pitcher will get the classic ease-in through long relief, pretty much continuing what he did last year, and the center fielder will get instant trail under pressure. Regardless, they will be hawk-eyed by management, because that's what this team's management does: they measure every day and monitor results every day.

That makes change easier to execute as well as more likely to succeed.

If only non-baseball institutions were as relentlessly capable as the White Sox, monitoring closely and making changes before incumbent processes and tendencies become become problems.

Most American businesses got used to cheap energy and incorporated expected costs into their forward-looking plans. More dangerous, energy-intensive businesses, like airlines and auto manufacturing, weren't much different. Several airlines including Southwest realized that Middle East wars would cause the price of fuel to go up and that it would find a new equilibrium that was markedly higher for the foreseeable future, so they paid out money to lock in prices before they jumped. Before it became a problem that hammered their potential. Cheap fuel was the Frank Thomas of the airlines' lineup...a great part of their success for a while, but something that, as it turned out, should be in the middle of their line-up any more.

And automakers, who could have tweaked product mix back in 2002 when the policies that would cause the price hikes became obvious, chose to stick with their past-success lineup for the mass market, lard-ass trucks and sports utility vehicles that consume gas like Mr. Creosote after smoking reefer, delusional dream products for delusional suburbanites pretending they're real ranchers or construction workers who need such equipment for their real work.

Change doesn't mean throwing away everything that made you successful -- it's not a binary all/none. It's not easy to knwo exactly what to do because Change doesn't offer an  AAA Triptych to perfection. But change is inevitable and successful adaptation is more likely for those who diligently measure and observe in their present and act on their observations.

I've said it before: Whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you.

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