Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gary Pettis: Management's Obi-Wan Kenobi  

Everybody should get the opportunity to play the game from Centerfield and get to see the game through the Centerfielder’s eyes -- Gary Pettis.

As it turns out, the rangiest living centerfielder is also one of the globe's sagest management pundits -- it you manage using the techniques he applied to his craft, you are guaranteed to have a better chance to succeed at your craft.

Gary Pettis now coaches for the Texas Rangers, but from 1982-1992, he patrolled the outfield for the California Angels, the Rangers and the Detroit Tigers. His range factors regularly blew away league averages for the position, and his career composite range numbers are high enough, even including the years when he had lost a step or two, are so excellent, most outfielders don't even reach his average in their very best single year.

 Year Ag Tm  Lg Pos    G     PO    A    E   DP    FP   lgFP  RFg  lgRFg FPRO
 1982 24 CAL AL  OF    8      5    1    0    0 1.000  .984  0.75  2.15   --
 1983 25 CAL AL  OF   21     49    5    1    2  .982  .982  2.57  2.16   --
 1984 26 CAL AL  OF  134    337   11    6    4  .983  .983  2.60  2.17  120 
 1985 27 CAL AL  OF  122    368   13    4    5  .990  .982  3.12  2.10  150
 1986 28 CAL AL  OF  153    462    9    7    3  .985  .980  3.08  2.06  150
 1987 29 CAL AL  OF  131    344    2    7    2  .980  .980  2.64  2.00  132
 1988 30 DET AL  OF  126    361    5    5    0  .987  .979  2.90  2.14  137
 1989 31 DET AL  OF  119    325    1    4    0  .988  .980  2.74  2.12  130
 1990 32 TEX AL  OF  128    285   10    2    4  .993  .981  2.30  2.04  114
 1991 33 TEX AL  OF  126    248    4    6    1  .977  .983  2.00  2.03   98
 1992 34 TOT     OF   60    164    2    2    0  .988  .983  2.77  2.12  131
+--------------+---+----+------+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+-----  +++
 Position Total  OF 1128   2948   63   44   21  .986  .981  2.67  2.09  128

FPRO is a thumbnail measure of range (and to a small degree,
fielding percentage, as a proportion of league average efficiency
at the fielder's position. So for Gary Pettis' CAREER, he was
128, producing about 28% more outs as a defender than the
league average at his position. Context: In most seasons, there is
a single outfielder with an FPRO of 128 or more. More Context: The
career 128 is well above Mickey Mantle & Ty Cobb, around Willie
Mays, clearly below Tris Speaker.

He made the challenging look effortless, but Pettis also had a special flair for "stealing home runs," leaping high and extending his glove over the fence to bring back a ball that had the distance and trajectory to escape the park if he didn't stop it..

Pettis was the kind of player who doesn't look as important as he was. He had no appreciable power, and until later in his career, he didn't eke out enough walks to justify that lack of power...on paper, anyway.

What Pettis could do was be so proficient in Centerfield (a key defensive position) that the teams he played on could put slug-like or even injured players in Left or Right and buffer the consequences. An extraordinary offensive blue-chip like Brian Downing wouldn't have been as easily afforded starts as a Left-fielder without an extraordinary talent like Pettis to cover his flank in the field. And I found out when I interviewed him in August that he's an extraordinary sage about management, as well because the special techniques he applied to being a great centerfielder are equally valuable for managers to use, too.

In this entry and the following two, I'll share a few of the most important ones with you.

I started the discussion asking him a question I ask all the great defenders when I can.

Jeff Angus (MBB): In your opinion, what distinguishes the great center-fielders from the perfectly-fine ones?

Gary Pettis (GP): The first thing for me, and this is not just center-fielders but all outfielders, is how they get ready. The guys who get ready when the ball is in the hitting zone are going to generally be the better outfielders.

MBB: And are they moving because the know what the pitch is? Or is it twitch reaction?

(GP): A lot of times, when you’re on-time, your body recognizes that, and when you’re not on-time, your body recognizes that, also. But when you’re not on time, you have a tendency to take a step back no matter where the ball is hit because you feel like you’re late.

MBB: Are there pieces to this? Do you break it down to abilities to, say go back well but doesn’t come in exceptionally well (like Ken Griffey, Jr.)? Or center fielders who have great range to one side or both?

(GP): No, I don’t look at it that way. But I know that in centerfield, because you’re looking directly at the batter, you get a better read. I know if you watch the ball from the pitcher’s hand all the way to home plate, you get a better read of when you need to get ready, and it takes the swing of the hitter out of play.

Some fielders get fooled. If they don’t watch the pitch the whole way, if you just look at it at home plate and the batter takes a big swing and if that’s what you’re watching, and you think he’s hit the ball really well, when he might have hit it off the end of the bat. If you follow the ball all the way, you have less chance of seeing the swing – you’re focusing on the ball going in and the ball coming out. {SNIP}

(GP): I always say it’s the fast-twitch muscles that make the outfielder special. I always say when you play balls off the bat, the ball doesn’t necessarily have to be hit to you for you to get something out of it.

If you don’t keep those fast-twitch muscles working, you’re at a disadvantage. For instance if I’m in center field, and I get ready when the ball is in the hitting zone, but the ball is hit to right field, if I don’t break that way, then I’m teaching my muscles to react slower. See? So when I react to a ball hit to someone else, I’m training my muscles to go that way. At some point during the game, I’m going to have to go left or right or forward or back. The ball doesn’t have to be hit to me for me to work on playing balls off the bat.

MBB: I think that works even in recreational ball. If you have an old s4itkicker like me, he's still going to be able to cover another outfielder’s miss if he makes a habit of breaking with the hit.

Beyond baseball, managers have to shadow Pettis' practice -- analyze the situation at hand and not just react to the actions taking place, but pre-act before the action takes place based on the most likely outcomes. This is most important with the kinds of decision that require quick action, as opposed to those that benefit from study groups and long discussion cycles. But if a manager can simply master this fast-twitch decisionmaking . Pre-action isn't the same as committing all your resources to an approach, but leaning and breaking in the likeliest direction gives you a head start in the correct direction more often than not. Practicing thinking "what would I do if?" means when you do need to act, you've trained your brain-muscle how to do it more decisively.

As a basic exercise, if you're not already doing this in your own management practices, start Pettis-izing.

As a more advanced exercise, pre-consider cascading consequences...pre-act to the action in your mind, prepare to act because when you need to, you'll have handled many of the details already, leaving your mind free for the more subtle decisions that separate the great managers (and centerfielders) from the perfectly-fine ones.

This "what would you do if?" exercise is intrinsic to Baseball (all coaches and managers play this game constantly, in-game and in preparation for facing specific teams). People in baseball are usually amazed when they discover most managers beyond baseball don't exercise their thinking like this at least daily.

Using the eyes, seeing the game through the Centerfielder's eyes, is a great technique, but a single great technique doesn't make for a great Centerfield or management practitioner

MBB: That fits snugly with something Rick Miller told me – you remember him?

(GP): Sure.

MBB: Miller said to me, ‘I listen to the ball. How the ball sounds tells me where I need to go.’

(GP): Yes. There are certain ballparks where you can hear the loud crack and you know that ball was struck very well. But I gauge when I should be ready by watching the ball from the pitcher’s hand to home plate.

For Pettis, the visual in the key data, and for Miller it was, too. But for Miller in most ballparks and for Pettis in certain ones, sound modified their decision as to where and how to play a ball.

Beyond baseball, managers too often use a single form of data (or none), rather than embrace a range of tools and data and staff input and academic work and common sense. The single form of data may continue to be the single "best" indicator, but that doesn't promote excellence, only relative adequacy. And like a great Centerfielder (Pettis or Miller), more data is not an excuse to practice analysis-paralysis to run the clock out on yourself; it's a way to fine-tune decisions and take more context into the final (quick, necessary) decision.

In the next entry, we'll continue getting insights from one of my favorite Druckers of the Diamond, Gray Pettis.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rick Peterson's Lesson In The Aikido of Managing Up  

New York Mets' pitching coach Rick Peterson's special knowledge isn't just unique in the Baseball world, it informs managers in all fields, in this case, because This Week in Baseball had him miked during what they assumed would be an historic game, and they captured and posted the video.

Peterson's principle edge is that he doesn't have a set of techniques. He has a vast toolbox that includes physics, stats, Eastern spiritual approaches to day-to-day living, dietary design and discipline, and psychological conditioning. It would take a Boswell (this one, not this one or this one) and a Thomas Pynchon-length volume to describe it all. Here, though, I'll give one great technique worth keeping in your back pocket when you need to manage way up.

Managers, to various degrees, need to manage up, manage the way their own supervisors or others up the hierarchy perceive them and manage them. From the organizational effectiveness angle, it is most critical to effectively manage up when you are trying to preserve the team that works for you or someone who reports to you.

This is different from managing down because the power in the manager's hands is diminished and so the set of skills the manager needs is very different (though related). But when you are managing way up, say four or five levels above you in a hierarchy (or the boss' daughter/employee in a small company, or an IRS auditor or other person completely out of the defined power grid in your organization), the techniques aren't even in the same galaxy.

The asymmetry of power between such a person and you means there's little back-and-forth negotiation to engage in. Such a relationship is exactly like a major league umpire and a manager, coach or player who disagrees with the arbiter's decisions. The ump holds all the cards in the immediate game environment and knows he's not going to be reined in. A ton of controversy over a bunch of incidents can affect the ump's career long-term, but in that moment, he or she is can act as a Greek God, omnipotent and as capricious as he chooses to be. They don't all do it regularly, but umps are certainly rewarded for going to that technique themselves periodically since it acts as a deterrent in the recourse-free arena where there is a gross asymmetry.

Of course, the clever manager on the short end of this relationship has some techniques to apply. If you don't know the deft art of organizational aikido, learn at least this single subtle move from Rick Peterson designed to manage way up to protect a staffer for whom he's responsible.

So here's the background that'll help you appreciate the lay of the land..

July 31, and Tom Glavine, with 299 wins, is going for his milestone 300th win in Milwaukee. This is not the old Atlanta Braves Glavine who worked the outside of the plate and pushed it out farther and farther. This is the Questec-era Glavine; umps won't make a gift of an extra inch or two outside. and today he's getting nothing from the home plate man in blue.

He walks Kevin Mench in the 4th inning and his shoulders slump. It's not the outing he wants. That shoulder slump, though, is a very public calling out of the ump's ball/strike calls. No one can argue balls and strikes with an ump. It's his unilateral power to call 'em. The asymmetry is absolute.

Peterson doesn't want Glavine or his catcher arguing with the ump who might get vengeful and either squeeze the Mets' staff strike zone (or if he ws already squeezing it, do it further). He isn't going to get anywhere by arguing. So instead, he uses an indirect maneuver, using the ump's own ego as his throw.

I've got the key piece transcribed below, but check out the video if you like. (No direct link, sadly...when you get to the TWIB video page, scroll down to the August 11th, 2007 show and select the "On the doorstep:" clip. Scroll forward to 3:00).

Announcer: Glavine not getting that corner.

(Shot shows Glavine slumping, shoulders down, exhaling, apparently frustrated)

Peterson: Where's that? Outside?
<unintelligible> Tommy stay right there.
(trots fast to mound, joins clot of players)
(to catcher Ramon Castro): What's he calling that? Is he calling that outside or is he calling that down?

Castro: Outside.

Peterson: Is that a strike? Or is it just missing?
(puts hand on Glavine's shoulder)

Castro: (nods) It's a strike.

Peterson (looking at Glavine): All right. Now wait till he comes out here and I'm going to say something to him, alright?

Glavine interviewed later: Sometimes his trip is to come out and just slow you down and give you a breather and let you re-collect your thoughts…

(back to mound shot)

Peterson: (umpire now standing directly behind and between Peterson and Glavine, but Peterson ignoring ump and talking directly to Glavine) Just keep making pitches right here. You gotta stay right there. He's a good umpire. I know he's missed some pitches but these are strikes right here and you stay right there.

Glavine interviewed later: He's got a constant sense of positive influence.
(Peterson and ump exit walking in parallel)

As they're walking back to their positions, Peterson is still talking to the ump, exactly what he's saying we don't know, but it's a continuation, something that gives him the chance to continue to campaign privately so the ump knows he's not trying to make him lose face, or perhaps he's letting the ump vent about something at him privately without having to show it to the players.

If you can catch the video, you can see how well-crafted Peterson's tone and body language and gestures are. You won't use those exact words but here's the core of the technique you can use to protect your own staff from your own unchecked hierarchs.

Like Peterson, you can use this technique effectively if you pay attention to the circumstances and the behaviors of the people you're trying to manage way up. And you need to know no matter how deftly you do it, you may not get the desired result (Greek Gods pride themselves on their power and will frequently execute on their torment, "because I can"). And Rick was tossed once for applying this technique.

Here are the essential components of this Peterson method.

1) Speak calmly, not to the target, but make sure you're heard.
Don't address the ump-like person directly, but make sure she's within earshot. You're really speaking to her, but express the point you're trying to make to a third party. Meetings, of course, are great venues for this indirect percussion not only because you are more likely to have a choice of third parties from which to choose and one or more of them may be sympathetic to your point of view and say or do something that constrains the Greek God.

2) Appeal to his or her ego; don't challenge his authority (nor be submissive), but use that authority to propel him in the direction he wants to assert it so that it serves you. In the communication, Peterson never disputes the ump's authority to make the call...in fact he refers it tangentially ("He's a good umpire"). But he does manage in the process to point out dude has missed a few. If you can see the video, note Peterson's posture and voice tone...not threatening but neither is it submissive; Peterson is not trying to make himself an equal in the power to make these decisions, but he is definitely making himself an equal in general. 

3) Keep it as public as you can. Sometimes shame at being wrong can move a Greek God if it's exposed widely enough, and rarely if it's just one-on-one. If Peterson and this ump had a history of conversations around calls, the one on one could have gotten ugly (as in this contrasting yet delightful example of Earl Weaver and umpire Bill Haller having something around their 29th run-in), but as long as Peterson is not doing the Weaver karate approach, the more other people there are around, the more diffused the situation. In general. As I mentioned earlier, Peterson got tossed once for using this aikido move, and I suspect it was because there were other people around -- that particular Greek God may have been more concerned about witnesses seeing his judgment questioned than having an individual actually question it.

So it's important to try to ascertain the ego of the individual Greek God you're dealing with. 

The ump in this Glavine case is relatively new-to-MLB Chad Fairchild. By July 31 of what appears to be his first season in the Big Leagues, he's already made a splash with tossing people. On June 22, he tossed the Atlanta Braves' Bobby Cox for an ejection that tied the then all-time record held by John McGraw; to an outsider not hearing the exchange, that ejection looked marginal. On July 22, Fairchild tossed the Mariners John McLaren in that new skipper's 1st ejection as a major league manager, and in that case it looked to an observer that McLaren was trying to get thrown out. And since the Peterson conversation, Fairchild has tossed the most genteel of managers, the Twins' Ron Clyde Gardenhire along with that squad's centerfielder, Torii Hunter in the same game (September 14).

It seems like a healthy number. In a study of this year's ejections through early August, Fairchild managed to harvest 4 of the Majors' 138 total tosses, not statistically significant in the slightest, but one that hints further observation could be worthwhile. Given 66 umps in MLB crews and floating, it's above the mean. Were players and managers hazing the new guy? Testing him for their own knowledge of how far they could push him? Is he particularly sensitive as a new guy to asserting his authority?

Whatever reason or combo of them it really is, these exact same factors happen Beyond Baseball. Pay attention to them. I suspect Peterson already knew about Fairchild's earlier tossings, or perhaps just thought any new ump needed a more delicate form of firm engagement.

You should, too. Rick Peterson really knows what he's doing, and that includes deft Organizational Aikido.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

America's Most Exemplary Innovator Works in Baseball
-- Sandy Alderson Part 2  

In the last entry, we covered a lot of ground with North America's finest and most successful manager, San Diego Padres president Sandy Alderson. He described an entire roster of his techniques that managers in any field can use to make their organizations adapt more successfully. In this entry, I'll share some of his insights about innovation (a key way to adapt to, or to initiate, change) and I'll explain what managerial attitudes he has make for a successful innovator. 

While it's indisputable that Alderson is North America's finest manager, I suspect that in the area I'm covering here, innovation, he has equals. Alderson, however, is one of the very marquee innovators who has worked out in the open, with initiatives' mechanics and results visible to the observations of millions. This is a case where Baseball's transparency and accurate statistical results make process something we can actually apply as an instructive example. 

If you can compete successfully in Baseball with its crushing zero-sum arena, you can compete in any field. Unlike your own endeavor, wins and losses are fixed - there are a limited number of wins to go around. 

What attitude did Alderson bring to the Oakland Athletics when he was G.M. and later President? The A's had had former Montréal Expo manager Karl Kuehl on their staff as head of player development during their first period of blistering dominance under Alderson's stewardship (1988-90). Kuehl applies and teaches a system of mental techniques for improving performance, very unlike standard practices, explained in a couple of books he's written. Kuehl hadn't been good enough as a field manager to continue in that role, but even with that specific failure, Alderson was willing to give the man's innovations a try. 

"Kuehl is an odd bird - he's a tough disciplined guy, but he's extremely forward-thinking, open to new ideas and the implementation of new ideas," Alderson explained. 

There are two important attitudes here that make innovation possible and a commonsensical fact that's worth remembering. First, while a lot of people mistakenly believe that creativity comes from lack of structure, that kind of environment usually leads to mere chaos. Organizationally, creativity almost always comes from a foundation of disciplined ways of testing, then observing, measuring and then analyzing results to shape the next tests. For success, one still needs willingness to change that structure in controlled ways one can test and observe results, but structure and discipline (the discipline to reject the status quo even when it' comfortable) are requirements. 

"And Kuehl is how we brought Rick Peterson in," Alderson added. 

Kuehl was recruited away from the A's by the Toronto Blue Jays to work in their front office. But they didn't have the will to incorporate his techniques and the A's got him back, bringing along with him a coach he met there, baseball's (now) most innovative successful pitching coach Rick Peterson. Peterson is an unusual individual, relentless about both devising new stats and analyzing them and about working with what he calls "the heart and soul" of each of his pitcher-students. 

"Rick is an odd cat with new ideas. When we hired Rick, we said, 'Let's take a shot and see what happens'," Sandy said. 

So there's the second attitude one needs to be successful - an open and reasonably optimistic view that acknowledges not every attempt is going to be a homer but that you can't know what's going to work or not until you take a couple of swings. Alderson unleashed Peterson on the A's pitching, and they incorporated the Peterson innovations. Importantly, Alderson repeated the method he'd been successful with in his implementation of the initiative to shorten games when he worked at MLB headquarters: He deployed it to the minor leagues as well as the Majors. This created a lot more chance of acceptance of the non-standard ideas, because pitchers didn't so much have to change over from one process to another as much as they got to grow up with them. 

Peterson's principles revolutionized A's pitching, the most important factor in their on-field success from 2000-3. Alderson's experiment, Rick Peterson, continues to innovate, never allowing the successful status quo interfere with efforts to improve, though now he's doing it for the New York Mets. But there's the illustration of the commonsensical fact: 

Usefully creative people recruit other usefully creative people. 

Just as Alderson recognized Kuehl's usefulness and didn't let the eccentric methods overshadow the practical value, Kuehl understood Peterson might make a significant contribution with his own original methods. Usefully creative people are a dispersed tribe and in most organizations they are isolated; when they run into each other, they tend to clump, conspire, collaborate, synthesize with each other. 

Healthy organizations don't just allow usefully creative people to act, they use them to scout and recruit other contributors. One of the usefully creative recruits that came into Oakland was Paul DePodesta who later, as the assistant GM, designed and delivered the research that was the hero of Michael Lewis' book Moneyball

DePodesta was hired to be GM in the Los Angeles Dodgers, built a team that immediately squeaked into the playoffs, only to have the owners pull a capricious brain spasm and lay him off. The Dodgers' loss was the Padres' gain; Alderson, by then with the San Diegans, snapped up his former talent for his new organization. 

And there's the extension of the commonsensical fact: Once you find that rare useful creative talent, apply it whenever you can. 

In a competitive line of work like baseball, innovation is not a single event, but an ongoing effort. By the time the book Moneyball came out, describing the Athletics' affection for relatively inexpensive batters who took a lot of walks and relatively inexpensive pitchers who didn't give up many, the A's had moved on to newer ways. 

Opening the kimono to their secret recipe didn't cost them anything because they were on to the next initiative and competitors were chasing methods the A's had already evolved beyond. In Japanese industry, this is such a common practice, they have a word for it: kaizen. The revelations in Moneyball actually helped the A's competitiveness. That's because when other team owners read the book, many leaned on their own front offices to emulate the deeds (managing walks) but not the intent (finding an undervalued approach and optimizing against it temporarily) of what Oakland had done. And managing walks lost its special value because so many teams pursuing that kind of talent forced the price of it up. 

Alderson understands a key factor in managing the innovative organization: You have to fight the urge to "do your job" as opposed to keeping your eye on the overall mission, and fight the urge to simplify your work by thinking about staff as "the workers" instead of a team of different professionals, each with their own strengths and limitations. 

"It's what I found out when I worked at Major League Baseball and I worked with the umpires, who were unionized: You can manage the Union or you can manage the staff. What I try to do is manage the staff, because they are the ones doing the work," Alderson said. "When I say manage the union, I'm talking about the hierarchy, the union's rules and issues. You can't ignore those issues, but what is your focus going to be? The focus has got to be trying to get the best performance out of the group of 68 individuals who are unionized. You have to take that into account and respect it, but you can't forget that's not your primary purpose. You've got to manage the staff to the benefit of the game, the mission." 

It would have been easy and normal for Alderson to view his work with umpires as the tasks in his job description, things like negotiating wages and working conditions with their union, campaigning for new processes to manage game time and enforcing the rule book's strike zone. It would have been easier for him still to try to launch all his change through the union, a single point of contact. In fact, that would have been the North American standard practice, not just for union issues but everything. Have a vision, consolidate authority, and offload/outsource/offshore/delegate the actual work of delivering the mission. Just keep core processes in-house and outsource the commodity processes that, as commodities, don't make much difference, that is, are undifferentiated, and therefore don't add/have significant value.

NOTE: Whenever you hear an offshore boiler room on the end of your customer service phone call, you're hearing this standard operating practice in action. Every time you hear that (customer service outsourced to another organization) ask yourself the key question, "How much actual (not lip-service) importance does this manufacturer/service-provider/vendor believe the customers have if they outsource the service to those customers?". The answer, of course is that every large company that outsources customer service views "the customer", that is, you, as a commodity, as undifferentiated, not a core concern to them. There are no exceptions to this, sadly. 

Instead of following the standard management practice, he realized, he needed to deal with the 68 individuals. Using the union as a go-between, while less effort on his part if he was just going through the motions, would make it much harder to get the result he was trying to achieve because the pressure would be diffused and the ability to tune the message for each ump erased. And it was particularly important to make the messages clear because on both of MLB's initiatives with the umpires, trimming game times and making the individualized strike zones more uniform, compromise wasn't going to do the trick. 

For either to work, reaching the goal was worth a lot but getting half- or three-quarters of the way to a solution wasn't going to be worth much at all. But not all efforts are the same. Like most managers, Alderson had other projects while at MLB headquarters that involved execution where only compromise would work. 

"With so many of the initiatives and issues, the All-Star Games, World Baseball Classic, the Olympics, advertising on uniforms, you have to balance 'baseball as entertainment' against 'the experience as the entertainment'," Alderson pointed out. While some fans come to the park for the game itself, others come to be seen, or to experience the park, the shopping, the walking around, or bask in the excitement of animated speedboat racing on the scoreboard or participate in "the wave". In every one of these projects, success means balancing both groups of fans' desires, a series of delicate compromises. 

Without the core baseball fans, the steady foundation to attendance, which is indispensable to business stability and generational continuity, the franchises can't expect to continue. But without the folk who come for the other entertainment, it's impossible to build high attendance that helps a team keep up with the pack. 

As I said, innovation is not an event, it's a process. It's not a single solution, it's an open-eyed design process. It's not a rigid plan, it's a series of experiments where you take a shot and see what happens. And it's not a concept or some theorist's blather, it's only real when put into practice. Sandy Alderson is one of the few executives in North America who's mastered all of that and can deliver Innovation in practice decade after decade.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

America's #1 Management Practitioner Works in Baseball
Sandy Alderson - Part I  

Major League games this year and last average about 25 minutes less than they did in 2000, but with every bit as much baseball action. For the 76 Million fans who attended MLB games, that represented a savings of over 31 million fewer hours of waste. For the blessing of less waste, we owe a debt of gratitude to a gent who is not just Baseball’s most effective management guru, but North America’s most effective working manager in any field: Sandy Alderson.

How Alderson, now President of the San Diego Padres, came to give the fans attending games last year somewhat over 31 million person-hours of their lives back without depriving them of a shred of on-field mano-a-mano is a fascinating story. It’s also a great example of intrepid skill and relentless negotiation that had to balance everyone else’s desires and needs but still come to the rescue of the fans who pay to see the National Pastime played out on Fields of Dreams and Schemes and even Screams.

Changing the behavior and processes of established billion-dollar institutions is the most difficult management feat. Changing them is much harder when the institution has an almost a religious role in our society’s view of itself (after all, how many centuries after Latin became a moribund language did it take the Roman Catholic church to give up conducting services in its original tongue?). And it’s harder still to get an institution to change when it’s on a hot streak of financial success, even when it knows it’s headed for a fall if it doesn’t change (uh, global warming anyone?).

But to appreciate how Alderson executed the initiative for Major League Baseball’s headquarters, it pays to know a little about him, where he comes from, how he became the wizard he is.

Alderson grew up a military brat, a great background for a change expert.

“I grew up moving around a lot. As I try to figure out what kind of impact that had on my life, aside from the impact it may have had on personal relationships, I think it makes people more adaptable,” Alderson told me. “A willingness to embrace change, not allowing yourself to be daunted by new circumstances…the ability to create new relationships and operate in different environments. And changing all that every two- to four years.” And, he thinks, living overseas, partially in other cultures, contributes to the military brat’s successful coping toolkit.

College and law school at Ivy League institutions (another set of eccentric cultures that require adaptation) sandwiched Alderson’s service in the Marine Corps and a tour of duty in Vietnam. On graduating law school, he moved to San Francisco and practiced everyone’s favorite profession.

He practiced business law, but not with corporate clients, customers who force professional service providers to learn more and more about less and less, and that take their upper management ever farther away from the actual details of the working, practical part of the business.

“They were smaller clients who had more practical problems than they did theoretical ones. I was less involved in corporate governance issues and more involved in how to make a safe pole-vaulting pit. I enjoyed a range of diverse clients. I had some clients in agriculture…a lot of things where you could kick the tires and be part of the business as well as provide legal advice.”

In 1981, Alderson became general counsel to the Oakland A’s, but, as he said, “we had a small front office…bigger than Charlie Finley’s, but not by much. So while there was legal work, there was a lot of baseball administrative work…knowing all the rules…I was involved in.”

And like all great innovators, Alderson used slack time to increase his knowledge about his line of work and others. “Being a general counsel wasn’t a full-time occupation. I could go to Modesto and watch minor league games, do various things that would add to my baseball education.”

He learned enough that in late 1983, he became General Manager, a position rarely given to someone from outside the game. Michael Lewis, the author of the best-selling book Moneyball stated Sandy was the initiator of the evidence-based analytical approach that would help lead the team to dominant years in 1988 – 1990, and that, once the team was sold to real estate developers who were resistant to investing in players, would become one of the franchise’s leading strategic advantages in competing against better -funded competitors.

But as team president from 1993 - 1998, Alderson was relentless in his exploration for new kinds of data and new uses for old data, it was human factors – hiring people like Billy Beane to be a scout and then general manager and the Merlin the Magician of contemporary pitching coaches, Rick Peterson, and Paul DePodesta to be assistant G.M. to revolutionize processes on and off the field, that he believes made the difference. Looking back on all the A.L. flags of the 90’s and the Moneyball A’s chronic success since 2000, it’s the group of people he put together and mentored of which he seems proudest.

“That means so much…and that so many of that group are still there is very satisfying,” he said.

And when the time came to move on from that endeavor, he left under his own power, and to take on more challenges. In 1998 he moved to New York as an executive vice-president for Major League Baseball where his job would be about helping headquarters be more operationally-sound and to build up processes to make them more effective.

He executed the emotionally-supercharged and politically sensitive league operations around a visit of the world champion Cuban national baseball team to Baltimore, and the logistically drenched and internally sensitive U.S. team that headed to, and won, the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But it was shortening game times that had oozed to over three hours that was one of baseball’s change management victories unsurpassed since the 1947 endeavor to take Jim Crow out of the game. And there are great management and life lessons in this victory.

The first lesson is that if you want to get change in a big, complex institution, you never waste your time with “voluntary compliance” or self-regulation”.

Alderson remembered, “In prior years, there had been some effort to speed up games. Steve Palermo (a former umpire) had been an advocate for speeding up games. But as there are so many times in life, ideas don’t always get translated to action or implemented properly when they do.

“Nothing really happened.

“When I got to Major League Baseball, Frank Robinson was in charge of time-of-game. He had three or four guys who would go around talk to managers and pitching coaches and say ‘Hey, hurry it up. Please do this or that’.”

Like any accomplished Marine NCO, Alderson said he’d never relied on personal persuasion as a long-term solution. “What I tried to do first was analyze the games themselves with the notion that if you can measure it, you can improve it.”

That’s the second lesson, which is while you’ll need that fuzzy and non-reproducible thing called “leadership,” to succeed, you won’t even get out of the starting gate without facts, evidence from which to design the new ways.

“We didn’t have a complete picture of the components of the game and it’s components and identify areas which were inefficient,” he said. “You can take all the actions in a game, get starting and stopping times and determine where you have slippage.

“You can have it between innings. There had been a lot of discussion about how we had more commercials than before and how that lengthened games.” But it turned out that when Alderson’s team analyzed that timing data, it wasn’t the commercials themselves that had caused time-between-innings to become blubbericious.

“It wasn’t the time of commercials, it was the amount of time it was taking us to get out of the inning, come back to commercials and then get back to the game. We losing a minute or 45 seconds every half inning.”

Sandy noted it was players getting out to their positions, but more markedly, “sloppiness among broadcasters who wouldn’t get out of their inning and into a commercial break fast enough to get back in time”.

And as far as the near-norm, at least on televised Mariner games, of missing the first pitch of a half inning, “That’s one of the problems of the lack of collaboration between baseball and the broadcasters.” Baseball aims to give exactly the contracted length for breaks, 2:05 for local and 2:25 for national. “But the game can’t hit that exactly every time. So we aimed to change it from about 3:15 for an inning break to something more like 2:45. If they sell 2:25, they’ll never make it in and out. But people get greedy…we had one club that was selling its own ads and selling them right up to the edge”.

That’s the third lesson:if you want a chance for success, leave slack, leave enough room that even with imprecision, you can succeed.

And the fourth change management lesson, at least for the tough ones, might be the most important. Because while the easier changes are built around a one or two big behavioral changes (turning back the nationwide proliferation of lead poisoning by lowering the lead content of two systems that transmitted the most heavy metal into citizens, gasoline and paint), the tough ones require managers to pay attention to everything.

Fixing time-between-innings wasn’t enough to bring game times to the target length of 2 hours 46 minutes. Batters needed to set up more quickly and to step out of the box less. Pitchers needed to work faster. And there would be no help from the individual clubs on this issue: they didn’t want to enforce against their own players. So Alderson applied another indispensable behavioral change technique: he started the initiative with those not-yet enculturated to the standard behavior.

He started in the minor leagues, getting up-and-coming minor league players and managers used to the idea of tighter games.

“Back when he played, Mike Hargrove was known as ‘the human rain delay’, but he took very little time compared to today’s batters,” Alderson observed.

For the significantly higher number of crisper better-paced ball games we get to see, we owe a debt of gratitude to Sandy Alderson’s unsurpassed skill set and relentless drive.

It’s over a 31 million hours a year for MLB game attendees. That’s even more time than it takes José Vidro to go from 1st to home on a double. 

This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the May 2007 issue of Grand Salami, the leading fan magazine for the Seattle Mariners.

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