Monday, January 09, 2012

Art Imitates Life, but The NFL
Imitates Baseball  

Back in late 2009, I wrote about (then new) Detroit Lions Head coach Jim Schwartz & his Tampa Bay Devil Rays'-style project to remake the sad sack of the NFL, a team which had gone 0-16 before his tenure. This last weekend, that team not only made its way into the NFL playoffs (somewhat of an accomplishment) but acquitted itself most-genuinely in the game against a superior opponent, losing only in the last quarter. The Management by Baseball description of how Schwartz proposed to turn the team around is worth attending to, especially for managers trying to turn around failed companies or departments.

While pro football has some interesting life lessons, there tend to be few management insights you can apply generally to non-sport management. I don't write about football here, but there's a great reason to introduce my first entry in over five years that will have the NFL as a centrepiece, although as a beneficiary of baseball wisdom, not an originator thereof-like. Specifically, it's about managing Change, the ultimate destination, home plate, in the Management by Baseball model.

Last Sunday, the New York Times sports section had a Judy Battista feature on Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz' culture change project with the perennially struggling Detroit Lions whose long parade to the graveyard (seven consecutive losing seasons culminating in last season's 0-16 no-mulligan mulligan) he inherited. Schwartz, faced with reviewing the efforts and failures of so many predecessors, lifted a page out of recent Baseball management achievement and closely recreated (with a few environmentally-appropriate tweaks...back to that later) the ever-struggling Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays' last-to-first-to-Championship experiment that succeeded so well last year.

The Devil Rays got new ownership and they were committed to changing not just the game on the field, but the entire organization, not by the contemporary More-With-Less Cult's nostrum of laying off people, having a loud, showy re-org, spraying around a few motivational posters and declaring the war won, only to collapse under the imbecility of their Hank Paulson-y all-posture-no-redesign sham.

As I wrote a few years ago here, Instead of cloning the failed American business model, the Devil Rays owners set out to methodically ask the staff who had been implementing the old management's failures what those staffers had suggested that'd been ignored and what ideas they had been swallowing rather than promoting. Combined with the solid business methods they'd brought in from other fields, they synthesized a "culture" that started winning on every off-the-field level. Then they hired the most fearlessly innovative pedal-to-the-metal field manager candidate anywhere, Joe Maddon, and let him loose to do the same things in the clubhouse and on the field.

Baseball is change incarnate -- and no other line of work on our continent combines such relentless accountability and "transparency" -- but this Rays effort was simply the most magnificent publicly visible and closely measurable change management success of the 21st century. It's no surprise a long-struggling organization (though with smart, committed ownership) in another endeavor would choose to learn from it.

As Battista wrote (abridged here):

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — When Jim Schwartz, the new coach of the Detroit Lions, quoted Shakespeare on the day he made the rookie Matthew Stafford his starting quarterback, his choice of source material was painfully appropriate.

“Hamlet.” A tragedy. {SNIP}

Schwartz swears that nobody in his vast network of football friends told him he was crazy to take the Lions job; they said it was a great opportunity. Now that he is here, he feels a responsibility to field a team in which the economy-battered city can take pride. During minicamp, he even took top rookies to sign autographs at a truck assembly plant in Dearborn.

But Schwartz also knows there is nothing he can say, no billboard slogan persuasive enough, to change minds like edited-out fan} Mizgalski’s until the Lions win. Instead, Schwartz has changed just about everything else he could.

A new coaching staff was hired. Uniforms were redesigned. Weight machines were replaced by free weights. The locker room seating chart was rearranged. Parking spaces were assigned. The practice schedule was upended.

Schwartz is a student of the disciplined, methodical approach to coaching and personnel management. The objective is not to turn the Lions around, he said, but to improve every day, to lay the foundation for the long-term success he knew with Belichick and Fisher. The difference, Schwartz said, is like losing 10 pounds in two weeks with body wraps and Master Cleanse or by changing eating habits and running on the treadmill. {SNIP}

“From the time they walked in, they could never say this: ‘Same old stuff around here,’ ” Schwartz said after a recent practice. {SNIP}

The Lions have many qualities of successful franchises: a state-of-the-art practice facility and stadium; generous, hands-off ownership; passionate fans. But Millen’s misguided drafts left the team without the traditional building blocks of offensive and defensive linemen.

“Isn’t there a show on Food Network where they give you six ingredients and say, ‘Make something out of this?’ ” Schwartz said. “That is a little of what this is. In Tennessee, our system changed a little bit each year. But it was incremental. One or two new players would come in, and we’d say, ‘This fits us better this year.’ This is a huge melting pot here. That’s probably the most difficult thing — nobody was familiar with the terminology or the system because the system was developed here.”

NOTE: Schwartz didn't quite have the management luxury the buyers of the wretched Devil Rays did in that ownership wasn't turned over from disastrous failures who were so obvious, getting buy-in for change is made a little easier. But the Lions' 0-16 record last campaign was a statement no baseball team could even come close to, even the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

A lot of suggestions between the Devil Rays' and the Lions' change initiatives. But what Schwartz got from Maddon and his Tampa co-implementors, was, if you have the opportunity, CHANGE AT LEAST EVERYTHING THAT IS VISIBLE & NOT UNSURPASSABLE. Make a clear splash that all the unquestioned behaviors of the past are now going to get questioned...maybe kept, but at least examined. Have no fear about trying something risky that might not work because you can't drop below where you started if you started in last place.

As I was writing this, the Lions, who had been 0-2 for the 2009 season, won their first game in 19 tries.

As I like to say about change management efforts committed to and that yield some results, There is Maddon to Their Methods.

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