Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Hearken Hargrove: Tweaking the Team Meeting for Better Results  

Baseball management's openness is one of its great virtues as an instruction tool for managers outside the National Pastime. Occasionally, small process changes made in response to a set of circumstances make a difference. Outside observers wouldn't get to pick up on these by watching most organizations, so picking up good ideas from others' moves becomes more difficult. Baseball is different, "transparent", so we can get the benefit of Mike Hargrove's tweak of the classic team meeting approach.

The Seattle Mariner manager earlier this week was facing a grim situation with his offense. His two marquee middle-of-the-order batters are having a power outage worthy of an Iraqi electric utility. Richie Sexson (clean-up hitter) is hitting .195 with a home run every 41 at-bats and striking out in about 30% of his plate appearances (25% is really over-the-top; 30% is barely precendented). The team's most expensive player, 2004 NL homer champ Adrian Beltré, has one tater for 122 at bats this season, and while his batting average was at .221 (up from a nadir of .119), he's been hitting .286 since that nadir at the expense of hitting the ball for power -- with consistency, that could return later after they've built up his ability to hit the ball squarely.

So the M's offense, to succeed at all, desperately needs to execute, use the count to mine for better pitches, work pitchers harder by being discerning at the plate, pay attention to the game situations. They weren't. Hargrove & his batting coach had called a typical team meeting (everybody in one place at one time) and explained the objectives. Pick pitches, modify your hitting approach based on the situation, take pitches and go deeper in the count when it helps the team. Understandable overarching objectives. Not highly prescribed specifics -- you can't really do that in a team meeting because there are too many variants and possibilities even in just a single game (project). Everybody nodded. And then didn't do any of it. As Seattle Times' Bob Finnegan reported:

After Sunday's 2-0 loss to Cleveland, designated hitter Carl Everett spoke of the need for setup hitters to do more to get on, and for the mid-lineup hitters to get them in. He suggested that the Mariners should have taken more pitches from Indians starter C.C. Sabathia, and maybe bunted since that approach had been discussed before the game.

Hargrove indicated he appreciated Everett's sentiments, then said, "This isn't spring training where you can tell a hitter, 'I want you to bunt three times in a row.' Maybe you can get that specific in basketball or football. But in baseball you use more general terms — 'You can lay down a bunt on this guy.'

"Did we talk on the bench about bunting more? Yes. But the hitter has to be committed to that or you won't get a good bunt, and a bad bunt is worse than a bad swing."

Overall, they'd scored 15 runs in the last six games, five of them losses. On base percentage .289 during that time, batting average .237. They weren't hitting for average or for power, they weren't getting walks, and they generally weren't going deep into the count. They weren't knocking in baserunners, stranding at least 10 of them every one of those games.

What Hargrove did at the start of the season is what a lot of good working managers do in a mass meeting -- lay out guidelines, ask if everyone understands, and let his talent work it. He delegated to the talent the exact tactical choices, giving them rein to act, the way all Talent is the Product shops should most of the time. It just didn't work. So five games later...I'll let the Seattle Times' Bob Finnegan tell you:

With the Mariners unable recently to produce enough runs for wins, it was quite a sight to see every position player filing into the manager's office before batting practice Monday, the door closing behind them.

While players declined to give any specifics, manager Mike Hargrove denied any link between the gathering and an offense that has generated just 15 runs in the last six games, five of which were losses.

"It was nothing out of the ordinary, just a third meeting we've had to go over roles and our whole offensive philosophy, making sure no one is getting away from that philosophy," Hargrove said. "We had one of these meetings in spring training and another the second week of the season."

Having said that, Hargrove allowed that with the team in the lower regions of the American League stats in hitting, home runs and scoring, "there obviously was a little more to it this time."

"We wanted to check up on the frustration level, make sure that no one is coming outside of their abilities and trying to do too much," he said. "We wanted to remind them it is a group effort."

Instead of yet another mass meeting, he had individual one-on-one meetings to make the same point over again.

Main benefits:

  • A team member can ask questions without anxiety over peer judgement.
  • Knowing they know -- the manager gets to look each individual in the eye and ask, "you understand what I'm saying, right?", which one can't do in the group meeting.
  • By meeting privately & dedicating a lot of time to the whole exercise, accentuating just how important the manager believes this communication to be.

I like it. It's not guaranteed to work, even short term, but Hargrove also chose his spocarefullyll, before a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a team without a dominating pitching staff. Early success in response to change is a good reinforcer for desired behaviors. In the first two games following the one-on-ones, the Mariners have scored 14 runs with an offense based primarily on singles and very aggressive baserunning, batted .363, and, as that kind of offense will do, stranded a lot of baserunners (29). They've won both, and that's good reinforcement for now.

For the Ms to have success over this season, the power outage has to end. Even a Beltré batting .313/.353/.438, as he has in May so far, won't give the power jolt they need from him specifically. And Sexson has to be a considered danger (to someone other than himself) so the batters around him can benefit.

Most big organizations outside baseball aren't as focused on results as an organization run by someone like Mike Hargrove. In fact, I'd say the majority of company/workgroup meetings have no clear agenda. This is my estimate of big organizations actual meetings to communicate key objectives, and what I think they should be doing

% Now Type Ideal %
55 Group meeting, no actionable take-aways. 5
15 Group meeting, actionable take-aways 70
5 One-on-one, no actionable agenda 15
25 One-on-one, actionable take-aways 10

As a general forst try, it pays to communicate actionable information in groups. Everyone gets to hear the same thing and a question that has a useful answer gets shared by the group so you get to delegate explanation and follow-up. Sometimes, that doesn't work, so you have to resort to the Hargrove fall-back method. I'm not suggesting you replace all group meetings with the Hargrove method -- my recommended ratio is pretty small for them. They're valuable, but in a context that shouldn't come up too often if the group meetings have actionable take-aways. The meetings that just need to die die die are the big 100s of people standing around for no apparent purpose while Men in Suits bloviate about their arcana. I actually worked at a place that had one for the editorial staff of a weekly trade magazine where the Publisher, head of sales and editor in chief briefed us on the new executive compensation plan that might make them all very wealthy -- a plan that none of the attendees could profit from. The plan was very exciting for the top echelon of execs in the house, and they just had to share their good fortune. It took them about 20 minutes to realize staff didn't share their thrill at it. They finally realized it only because a woman I'll call Priscilla raised her hand to interrupt the masturbatory self-congratulation with the question, "That's all well and good, but what's in it for me?". After thinking about it for a few seconds, the epiphany crept in. Wild pitch.

One-on-one, no actionable agenda meetings help a manager and report work on less obvious issues, and tend to let both fill in information -- the manager about the reprt's workday and issues that might seem too small to report if the agenda is too prescribed, and the report about the same kind of subtle intentions the manager might have.

Keep Hargrove's method in mind for what it can be massively effective for: focusing people on the specifics when routine methods have failed. Baseball, unforgiving of mediocre management, produces a lot of very skilled practitioners of the management craft, like Mike Hargrove.

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