Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wait Till Next Year: Hiatus until January  

I planned to finish the La Russa Invention of Agile series before the year expired but family events got in the way. And while I could soldier on and deliver the product on time, it wouldn't meet quality standards so there's no virtue in that.

I'm being called to do many projects around not only my home, but my daughter's home as well, a veritable bushel of honeydews. Ergo, I won't even attempt to trickle out a few good entries for a few weeks. I will be thinking of you though when I treat myself to an hour at the batting cage to work on my swing.

Have a great season

Last Minute Xmas Gift for the Baseball- Conscious  

I'm interrupting the La Russa Invention of Agile series to share a quick and joyful book review just in time for last minute Kwanzaa and Samain shoppers to transcieve something cool. And it's an odd object for me to recommend.

It's the exact kind of "novelty" book that usually ends up being one of those phoned-in, phoney gimmick ideas some unimaginative publisher talked some mediocre house writer to pen. Last year's Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team is thoroughly-amusing, readable, perfect bathroom book, whether you love or hate the Yankees (or like I do, respect the long history of skillful management while rooting against them no matter who they're playing... except one team).

The work is a collection of original essays by a blend of Yankee-haters but also by Yankee lovers who share their observation of Yankee haters. The 24 authors were well-chosen, especially at the beginning of the book, because while a couple of authors were phoning it in, they are the kind of authors who can totally get away with it because of their effortless humor. I count the Roy Blount, Jr. and Pete Dexter essays squarely in that category. Blount's, a jumble sale of cute anecdotes about the team and the players and his experiences as a fan tossed in no particular order. In less skillful hands, this is a prescription for mediocrity, but if you're willing to slalom though his topic shifts, the work is a total delight.

Pete Dexter's essay is hyperfocused on a single Yankee and said Yankee's doppelgänger, Dexter's feckless dog. Laugh out loud material. Which isn't how I'd describe Sally Jenkins' essay, reminiscences of her street athlete childhood, how she got various scars she wears to this day, and how it relates to the Yanks' Early Steinbrenner Era. It's a joy, because while I've read Jenkins for years and appreciated her insight without loving her work, this is a revealing and engaging glimpse into the person behind the byline.

Damn Yankees is light. It has only the most slender connection to management topics (some of the sociological insights by and about Yankee haters do illustrate personality angles you should take into consideration when you manage people). It's a fine book that'll put several smiles on a baseball-engaged person's face.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #9 of 17: To be Agile, You Gotta be Relentless; To be Relentless, You Gotta Be Positive  

I frequently tell my clients the (oversimplified but) actionable truth, "There are two kinds of managers: the opportunity seekers and the mistake-avoiders". One of those settings will be the twitch setting for a manager having to make an instant decision. In the ideal world, each individual manager can channel both at will, and while each organization will have a predominance of one setting over the other, each organization will also have at least some managers with power in the minority zone.

To be good at Agile and Lean methods, you'd better have a bias towards opportunity and away from failure-avoidance, because agility rests on action in an environment of uncertainty. That's a bias, not an exclusive way of thinking. Safety- critical organizations that get too many opportunity-oriented power nexes end up losing their way, frequently at a cost of human life. When the Reagan Administration, run by opportunity-seekers, decided they needed to window-dress NASA's space program so they could privatize it so they could sell it to businesses that were political allies, the executive team overruled the failure-avoiders (engineers, classic exxxxtreme failure avoiders) who were concerned with safety. The resulting Challenger disaster did convince a small incremental number of people that government doesn't work, but it didn't parlay into the privatization plan, because more people came to mistrust the privatizers.

But, in general, Agile and Lean methods are entrepreneurial and where entrepreneurial management has value (for example, NOT in conducting space missions) the opportunity-seeking setting needs to trump failure- avoidance in twitch or very short-term decisions.

Baseball is a perfect test bed for testing management theory for competitive lines of work, because its zero-sum outcomes and almost perfect transparency make seeing and tracking cause-->effect, input-->outcome correlations easy. If it works in Baseball, it's very likely to work in your less-competitive, less precise management environment.

Where does Baseball set the Set Point for a competitive endeavor? Almost all the way to opportunity seeking. One natural master at the setting is former White Sox, Athletics and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. He documents it in an actionable way in his recent book, (pages 368-369). His explanation relates to his 2011 Cardinal team and their World Series efforts. Game Six; they are down three games to two, and one more loss will deliver the Series to their opponents. The bottom of the 6th inning has just ended, badly, for the Cards, and painfully, because tied at 4-4, they had the bases loaded with one out and not been able to take a lead. Worse, they had not only not succeeded with the clutch-hitting part of the game, but one of the most baseball-smart players on a team that valued baseball smarts had allowed himself to be picked off base for the second out. Emotionally, failure-prevention would be a hard setting to fight here.

Between innings, I did my analysis. I had two options. I could think of these two instances of the benefit of getting a run without a hit and not getting even more runs with a clutch hit, as a refecltion of our offense not really producing.

Or I could recognize the positive of having tied the score going into the last three innings of a home game. I took the latter view, telling those other thoughts to get the hell out of there before they'd even had a chance to settle in. I did the same when I briefly thought that if we were to lose, this would be the worst possible way, because we were not playing well to this point.

Those runs we'd gotten -- or maybe the Rangers had handed us -- were important. Just as the times we'd limted them to a single run were important. Don't do something to lose the ganme when on defense (failure-avoidance). Do something to win the game on offense opportunity-seeking). Do that nine times and you win. {snip}

I was unhappy about out not playing a clean game, but I kept the positive self- talk going. I learned a long time ago that if I gave the guys any suggestion that I was upset, that I was giving in to the negative or acting at all like this was not our night, they'd pick up on that and feed off my negative energy.

Agile and Lean management yield the security of heavy process and tried-and-true in exchange for opportunities to increase product innovation or safety and increase overall productivity. If your setting it too close to the failure-avoidance pole, you;'ll both make yourself crazy and make the work effort underperform.

I'm not suggesting positive thinking alone can deflect failures (see Challenger example, previously). Positive thinking is a millenial cult unless you attach it to balanced action.

What I know to be true, though, is that as a team coach or scrum master or leader, if you share the negative emotions with the team, only worse outcomes can happen. If you share the positive, it may or may not buffer the negative, but you're no worse off than if you chose to be passive and did nothing.

You don't have to be a "happy idiot" and blow up the Challenger so a few political cronies could make some incremental income. But to succeed in Agile or Lean management requires relentlessness, and part of that relentlessness, as La Russa documents it for us, is to channel positivity about the present and future, even when it's tough. That's just part of the manager's work.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

La Russa Agile (and Beyond) Innovation #8 of 17: When Blocked, Channel Your Mentors  

Too many experienced managers limit their ability to adapt to rapidly-changing or even slowly-evolving decisionmaking areas because they don't keep a broad portfolio of mentors' templates.

What I mean is a big part of management is decisions and how we go about choosing how we will execute those decisions is dependent on how big our toolbox is and how much of it we're adequate with or have mastered. The people who make good managers observed their own bosses when they were non-managers, and recorded their techniques and how these worked in varying contexts. Then, when they become managers themselves, they field and respond to the decisions they are confident they have nailed down but riffle through their mentors' techniques for the rest.

Mentors, in this use, don't have to be one's own supervisors, they can be peers, rivals or even people who report to you. In Baseball, it's s.o.p. to use everyone as a potential source for successful templates to emulate or for failures to avoid. Arrogance about status is almost non-existent as a barrier in identifying ways to improve.

In Baseball, furthermore, one channels these other experts all the time, even when not in the middle of a decision to be made.

There's a great example of how they do it in Baseball that Tony La Russa wrote about in his recent book, (pages 119-121). The situation is this: part way through the 2011 season, La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals were on the ropes, when they got an added challenge. La Russa's key field management partner and confidante, pitching coach & strategist extraordinaire Dave Duncan, took a leave from work to attend to his wife's critical health condition.

I was still going to be in touch with him because that's Dunc: even if he wasn't right next to me to bounce ideas off, he was still there in the dugout because of all the things he'd taught me over the years. I can't say for sure what effect Dunc's absence had on the pitching staff at first. Dunc being Dunc, he didn't want to make a big deal about his leaving, but the guys did know what he and Jeanine were going through. I wasn't about to use that as a tool to motivate them. Baseball is baseball and life is life, but if guys were going to take some inspiration, learn some lesson about how to deal with a difficult thing head-on, they could find no one better to emulate than Dave Duncan.

there's absolutely no reason to sluff this technique. If you're not yet a manager, or early in your management career yourself, start collecting "mentors" and their decision-making templates. And if you're senior, and you're not already doing this, it's not to late to up your game. When you keep the portfolio of mentors in your decision-making head, you have a more rounded team of experts and their expertise than you can bring to bear just resting on your own native tools.

It's standard operating procedure in Baseball, and Baseball management is a lot more capable and effective than leadership is in your own endeavor. There's no excuse in the practice of decision-making to not follow La Russa and his Baseball peers.

When you're in an Agile or Lean environment, the resistance factors to applying the Baseball approach are way lower. Agile and Lean both recognize the team is responsible for most of the tactical decision-making, and managers who follow the team are not ridiculed as they are in many corporate and almost all military and academic settings. But not all managers in these environment realize they should not just "let" the team make decisions, but that they should actively be mining those decisions as mentor templates.

If you're not doing this already, it's not too late to start.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

La Russa Agile (and Beyond) Innovation #7 of 17: When You're Going To Get Hammered Anyway, Just Do the Right Thing  

People managing Agile/Lean initiatives are too often reporting to the functionally naive executives who believe, or claim to believe, one can do "More With Less", a dying but still too-common cult-like belief. And those cultists will use any excuse to thrash or torment the operational manager whenever something doesn't work out. Hard to believe, but in some significant ways, that buys the manager some efficiency in decisionmaking...because if you're doomed to aggressive criticism not matter what you do, you are free to do the right thing, not the politick thing

This freedom extends beyond Agile projects. This liberating cognate would have been a perfect salve for the beleagered management of the team that rolled out the not-agile Healthcare.Gov project. More than a month before the delivery deadline for the web-based exchange registration system, an executive announced the team would need to stop working on the site's construction and delivery because funds were running low (¬Ņremember the sequester?). He needed time to try to gather funds from related agencies to pay for the last lap.

That meant for at least days and maybe more time than that, work on the project was stalled while the deadline was not, a universal, almost-guaranteed formula for quality shortfalls. Since the site appeared on time in the state it was at that moment, it seems highly probable that either the team cut testing corners, or tried to do "more with less", kless time that is, again an almost guaranteed formula for either quality shortfalls, budget overruns, or both.

I was not a fly on the wall, but I'm lived through enough of this type of donnybrook before to share an educated guess you probably already know. Someone(s) up the chain of command had politick reasons (not utilitarian ones) to deliver on the deadline promise. Maybe that someone(s) also had pledged the budget ceiling would not be broken. So the team leader/scrum master/ stigmata-collector had to suck it up, knowing full well SOMEthing would break: either the budget, the testing protocol, or the deliverable or some squalid puu-puu platter of those.

But that human pin-cushion of a team leader was going to be frelled no matter which of those almost-guaranteed failures happened. Because the combination of (the total visibility that any human services government project has) .and. (the politickal opposition's determination to flay the team even if nothing had gone wrong) guaranteed not only a poor functional outcome, but a career- limiting outcome for the team and its leader.

In that case, the team leaders were liberated. They were going to be "moving on to pursue other interests" NO MATTER WHAT. So instead of trying to please their many critics or non-operational management, they could have done the functionally right things.

The way this works is best explained by Tony La Russa, one of the inventors of Agile management techniques and the now-retired manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.

He describes a decision that is guaranteed to cascade throughout the game he's managing. This is not just any game, but a very critical game, the 3rd game of a best-o'-seven World Series. ( Baseball managers make more decisions for each game than the average C-level exec makes in a month). His starting pitcher is Kyle Lohse, a team member who has had a high-quality comeback season, but is, as the season is wearing on, starting to struggle earlier and earlier in games. And it's a given in Baseball that a team wants the starting pitcher go finish 6+ innings because that protects the team from having the weaker members of the bullpen appear more.

It's early in the World Series (not so early either team can finesse a loss, but early enough that any decision to use or not use team members has sharp consequences for the rest of the short, zero-sum tussles). As La Russa writes in his book, (pages 348-350):

The first time through the order, Kyle Lohse has his usual arm action that produced good velocity and movement as well as deception on his off-speed stuff, but in the span of six pitches in the bottom of the fourth he gave up three runs. We could see he wasn't the same pitcher we'd seen those first three innings, and when he gave up another hit, it was time for (key, usually reserved for late innings, not a weaker relief pitcher, Fernando) Salas.

This was an unorthodox way to try to get a win but this was the World Series and our evaluation was based on who had the most quality pitches to give. I didn't worry about what would be said about it, or (what would have been said) if I hadn't made the move. That's the immunity I talked about -- just do what you think is best -- if it doesn't work out you're going to get hammered either way.

There are, sadly, no shortage of these situations. Corporate life, fortunately for people who work in that realm, has less visibility as Baseball or government, but we've all faced key initiatives with strong advocates and "opponents" (rival executives) who would love to capitalize on glitches or failures for their own personal aggrandizement, regardless of what the cost would be to the organization.

It's costly in time, careers and stress. Think how much stress you could avoid or deflect if you could channel La Russa and Baseball's way of doing it: When a hammering is inevitable either way, do the right thing.

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