"Excellent firms of tomorrow will cherish impermanence-and thrive on chaos." Tom Peters
Jeff Angus is an award-winning manager and active management consultant, a professional baseball writer, and a member of the Society For American Baseball Research. His management background includes start-ups, entrepreneurial and big corporations, large and small agencies, and nonprofits.
His consulting focuses in three areas: coaching failing managers and departments, knowledge management, and change management. While his work is concentrated in the entrepreneurial sector, he occasionally does "Red Adair" jobs for larger organizations that have failed complete or incomplete projects that were done by large global consulting companies.
We're talking to him about the May 2006 release Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning Management in Any Field. He's currently doing corporate presentations and speaking events on the MBB theme.
tompeters.com asks ...
Your new book, Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning Management in Any Field, is about to hit the bookstore shelves. How did you begin correlating baseball and management?
JA: About 20 years ago, I was working as a management consultant by day and a baseball stringer by night. I had a very frustrating consulting client. He was quite capable and had a very successful history. He'd been brought into an underachieving work group and he had crashed and burned it. After we spoke some, I realized that he had brought a template for success from his previous management position, managing the same kind of group in a different company. He parsed out work in a way that was completely dysfunctional for the talent he had in his new work group and he was inflexible about it.
One of the things that I'm best at is being able to hear what people say, and use their own language to clarify my point to them. With this guy, I just struck out time after time when I tried to explain the problem. We were both very frustrated. He wanted to succeed, I wanted him to succeed, and we weren't getting anywhere.
That night, I went to a game at the Kingdome, the old Seattle Mariner stadium. A little bit into the game, perhaps the worst Major League manager in 20th century baseball history, Maury Wills, sent his clean-up hitter, a massive, overly muscled hunk of mesomorph to try to steal second base. The guy got gunned out by a mile, and went into such a sloppy and ignorant slide that he destroyed himself. He imploded like an ill-fortuned car in a destruction derby. He was out for most of a season, and it destroyed what little hopes the Mariners had.
My epiphany was this: Wills had done exactly the same thing the manager I'd been working with had done. Wills, who was an accomplished base stealer, believed that he could have everybody on his team steal and that was the way to win ballgames. He viewed the world through his own strengths. It didn't work for the batter who was perfectly good at some things, but not good at the things Wills wanted him to be good at.
I asked the manager if he had seen the game ... he had and I told him, "You're doing the same thing Wills was doing. That's why it's not working. You can't have sluggers stealing, or little fast guys trying to hit home runs. Your job descriptions are designed on your pre-conceived notions, and not based on the talent you have on your roster."
I started making more baseball analogies, because he was hearing it, and it was working for him. I realized that baseball is a wonderful way to communicate management lessons with people.
Why is it that baseball is valid in this sort of comparison with business?
JA: It's not just valid, it's incomparable. Baseball is the most open and transparent industry we have in North America. All the events are recorded and you can create metrics for almost anything of significance in baseball. Baseball is also completely transparent in those metrics. It may be once a century you see the books restated on a game that was played. Unlike corporate boards of directors at quarterly announcements, who can announce success when the organization is tanking, managers don't have post-game interviews after they've just lost a game 11-1, saying, "We won that game tonight." It just doesn't happen in baseball. Behavior is highly measurable, and it makes it the perfect test lab to view strategies, processes, human management, self management, and most importantly, change management. Baseball is purely competitive as a zero sum game, like so many of our industries are, such as retail.
On the other hand, baseball is a game. Equating baseball players with somebody working in the bowels of some huge company seems a stretch.
JA: It's not a stretch for any competitive organization. Baseball is purely competitive. It's a terrifyingly accountable endeavor with wins and losses, strikeouts and homers. The practice of baseball is built on two ideas that people in professional practice use. One is Tom Peters' great idea that the talent is the product. In baseball that's purely true; it's not true in some commodity endeavors. The other thing it's built on is the totally competitive environment. Some people think there's no parity in baseball. In reality, there's more parity in baseball than there are in most businesses. Let me elaborate very briefly.
There are 30 Major League franchises. The most lucratively funded Major League franchise in 2005 deployed investments only about 7 times the size of the smallest. Name an industry where the 30th greatest competitor is as large as 1/7 of the first? It just doesn't happen. Baseball is incredibly competitive. And like the non-baseball organizations battling to make good in our current environment, teams need to be competitive now, while at the same time building for the future. That's why it's a perfect petri dish in which to observe strategies and evolutionary adaptation.
What about people who aren't fans of baseball, or aren't fans of sports, are they going to be able to read this book and gain from it?
JA: I hope so. What did you think when you were reading it? I know you're not a rabid baseball fan.
I'm at best a fair-weather fan. I want to ask you a question later about the Boston Red Sox. What I like about this book is your description of the game historically, the weird characters, and the analysis of the managers and their decisions. I do think that anyone could get something out of reading this book.
I mentioned to a female colleague that I was going to be talking to you today about your book. It's not that she's a woman, but she's not a baseball fan, and she was less than enthusiastic about it. I didn't have the time to try to convince her otherwise. I'll be curious to see the sort of reactions this book gets once it comes out.
JA: I will be, too. Many of my clients are women. Fewer women are baseball fans than men but it should be noted that baseball is the professional sport with the highest ratio of women to men fans.
That doesn't surprise me, thinking about hockey and football. [Laughter] But all your examples are, by necessity, men. You're talking about men managing other men. We're in a time where people are questioning why there aren't more women leading organizations. So I would think that there would be a problem with a perspective that doesn't include the female point of view as far as managing is concerned.
JA: I can only say I'm a guy, and I can't claim to be anything but. In 1947, baseball crossed the racial Jim Crow line. They haven't yet crossed the gender Jim Crow line. I'm sad about that. Because baseball is such an open system, it lends itself to work situations that are not gender specific. A significant percentage of examples in the book's non-baseball business case studies are from women managers.
The additional skills that women managers have in managing organizations and processes and people, they're involved in the book. But I don't want to try to pretend there are a lot of stories in there about women who are players, because there are none.
There was one story about Jackie Mitchell, who struck out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth back to back in an exhibition game, that was pulled because the business story that was associated with it fit less snugly into the book than the rest.
That's too bad. I love all the baseball stories. Have you thought about writing a baseball book without the business management side to it?
JA: I have. While working as a baseball reporter for years I interviewed several hundred players and managers. In general, the takeaways were not all that interesting. When I started introducing management into the conversation, I started getting better material from people. It was a unique hook, as I wasn't just a reporter looking for the obvious clichés. I had some fascinating conversations. If I had just asked for funny baseball stories, I wouldn't have heard the insightful ones. In general, baseball people aren't too verbally adept. If they are, they try to hide it.
That reminds me of your Glanville story. It had a good point about talent.
JA: Yes. Most HR departments don't understand that good hiring requires blending, just as it does in baseball. In baseball, if you have the best player at each position, you might get your rear end kicked by a team that has a better team ethic. The 2005 World Series champions, the Chicago White Sox, are a good example of this. At the beginning of the season, their roster didn't appear to be a very good team. But they burned through their league and the playoffs like a chainsaw through butter. It was because they had a great deal of social cohesion.
When most people staff, they don't think about blending. Baseball teams have to do that. They cannot be mono-culturally anything: white, Caribbean, fast, sluggers. You can't do that. In competitive organizations, you can't do that either.
To get back to Doug Glanville, he is an example of a guy with a lukewarm career. But he's an absolutely necessary ingredient. Why? He's socially outgoing. He's well educated and craves knowledge. He combined that with his athletic skills to build himself a ten year career. Every team he played for he helped beyond what the statistics show, because he connected people, kept them loose, laughing, and informed. We talk about managing by walking around, but there are employees who do this, too. Sometimes they actually take a hit for it from management, who would be more comfortable if they were sitting at their desk, head down, adding rows of numbers. In reality, what they do adds immense value and they usually don't demand money for it. They do it because of their natural quest for interaction, knowledge management, learning, and teaching.
I spoke to Jeffrey Pfeffer last week who coauthored Hard Facts, Dangerous Half Truths and Total Nonsense with Robert Sutton. They discuss at length running experiments constantly within an organization. You touch on this as well. How can a manger run experiments to find who's better at what, or what system or process works better, in the face of constant deadlines? You seem to say that people have to figure out how to experiment while juggling their other priorities.
JA: Yeah. The best teams in the world, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 1998 New York Yankees, the 1906 Chicago Cubs, never win all the games in a season. Winning is about persistently doing well, and winning a lot more than you lose.
A lot of non-baseball managers foolishly believe that you have to do everything to win every game you play. But you can't ignore the long-term effects of having to compete in the future. You can burn out your staff, your resources, your ability to exercise good judgment. And another fallacy is the belief that what has worked in the past is what's going to work now. It ignores the future.
From about 1900 to 1918, the owners of the Major League franchises took all the juice out of the ball, and the game was a consistently low-scoring endeavor with a lot of pitchers' duels. From 1918 to 1920, Ed Barrow, the man who invented Babe Ruth, revolutionized the game. He experimented with trying to convert Babe Ruth, one of the leading pitchers of his era, into an outfielder so Barrow could get the Babe's bat in the lineup more often. When Ruth had one season where he hit more home runs than anybody had hit in about 30 years, people started coming to the ballpark. The owners juiced the baseball, made it more elastic so it would travel farther, and eventually all the teams were starting to be able to pound home runs.
Some managers who had become very successful in the preceding 20 years kept using the same tactics. You don't win a slug fest the way you win a pitchers' duel. You have to know how to do both. Unless you experiment, not jettisoning instantly everything you do, but pilot testing and incrementally introducing new processes and concepts, you don't know what's going to succeed. You cannot pay a consultant to tell you what the proper process is going to be in a year or two.
If you're not constantly changing and open to change, you'll always be behind, chasing other people who are. If you're already in the habit of testing and experimenting, then as you are changing things, you're immediately getting feedback on external changes, whether you know it or not.
How do you do it? You have to have slack in your schedule all the time. Every C- or better project manager knows that you have to have slack in projects. You can't have a lot of slack in all projects, but you have to have a bunch of slack in most projects. No organization that acts as if the success of every task dictates the future viability of Western Civilization is a sustainable organization that has any chance of maintaining itself for very long.
Take the extreme-urgency case of the people who put out the oil well fires that the other very professional oil well fire handling companies cannot handle. I promise you that no matter how urgent their work is, they reserve time for experimentation.
There are guidelines. Guideline number one: Maintain some slack in a project. Guideline number two: Make sure that when you're way ahead with a project, or way behind, set aside more time to run experiments. Try new people at old things; try old people at new things. Try different processes. Experiment with things that are less mission-critical.
Behave like John McGraw. He was one of the great baseball managers of the early 20th century. He wasn't one of those managers who hung out in the dugout chilling while the players were out on the field practicing. He was doing the drills. He would move players around, ask his second base player to move to third so that he could test the guy's arm.
There's an immense amount of untapped slack between projects in most organizations. They don't apply the time to advancing the organization's capabilities ... the binary choices most managers make are to hammer home the project as fast as possible or promote the idea that people should take a respite. Managers throw away their opportunities either way.
Instead of telling someone to take a break, they should be experimenting?
JA: Exactly. I'm not opposed to taking breaks. But if an employee says, "I don't want to practice something I don't already know how to do. I'd rather go hang out in the lunchroom," it's like a turkey thermometer that goes bawang! It's a good indicator that that person is cooked, or is not going to be very tasty when heated.
Who's your favorite Major League manager of the moment?
JA: For raw entertainment—he's not somebody to emulate, because to carry off what he does, you have to be winning and people cut you very little slack when you're not—I really like Ozzie Guillen, the manager of the White Sox who won the World Series last year. I like him because he's a master of misdirection, what I call "verbal Aikido."
JA: Aikido is a martial art where you don't try to stop what somebody's doing; you amplify it, and he goes flying past you. So if the press comes to him, trying to get some tabloid-style story, he makes up weird stuff and sends them on wild goose chases. Guillen is a cognitive terrorist. He particularly likes to get under the skin of a rival manager, and it's a technique I've taught a few of my clients. Buck Showalter, the manager of the Texas Rangers and former Yankees manager, is a classic martinet. He acts like a military officer in a non-military environment. He's rigid and has no sense of humor at work. Guillen knows this about him, and ridicules him publicly. I call it "Venezuelan acupuncture." It gets Showalter off his game because he's furious about not being taken seriously, which is clearly the thing he cares about most in life.
Guillen is also fearless. That's another thing that all baseball managers have that all non-baseball managers need. Managers beyond baseball need to be fearless most of the time. They need the capability to make important decisions with fearlessness as a foundation.
Guillen tries wacky, unpredictable tactics that are not in the procedures manuals. Take for example the World Series last year. Roger Clemens was pitching for the Houston Astros. He's one of the greatest contemporary pitchers, but he's not particularly good at holding on-base runners. So Guillen made a press announcement, "We're going to be stealing a lot off Clemens." Well, they didn't actually try that much. But Clemens's game was one half of one percent reduced, at least.
Because now he's thinking that they're going to be stealing, so he's taking his energy from his pitching and devoting a little extra to keeping an eye on first base.
JA: Yes, a wonderful technique in and out of baseball. Once it's become obvious to your competitors you might do what they'd categorize as "anything," any announcement you make or leak—they have to run through their potential responses, and that takes a lot more resources than floating a rumor. Of course, you have to deliver just enough non-conformist initiatives to maintain their concern.
What's another lesson like that that managers ought to have in their tool kit?
JA: There is a necessary balance between measurement and people management. Too few managers are acceptable at either, and very, very few are acceptable at both simultaneously. In baseball, you can't succeed unless you do both really well. In order to succeed, you have to get the most out of your talent. Everybody is different. You need to keep all of them motivated and focused and you have to motivate each team member differently.
That's the emotional intelligence rubric. Do you think that the baseball managers who are very good at this have it innately, or is it something that can be learned?
JA: Emotional intelligence can be learned only rarely. It usually takes something catastrophic to teach that to somebody. In my experience you can get a little bit better. One of my favorite managers in this country is Kay Kendall. She's a short-term training honcha for Metro (Portland), a total genius. She used to work at the Oregon Health & Science University. She would describe teaching people who had it within them, but had never experienced it before, and teaching people who didn't have it within them. She would say, "You can never make them tall, but you can give them a ladder."
We can build ladders for this. We can teach people how to behave. But it's really, really hard; more so for men than women. It's not that all women come equipped with this and men do not. It's that more women than men have it.
Dick Williams is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest managers of the second half of the 20th century. Earl Weaver and Dick Williams were incomparable. Dick Williams grew up in an abusive family. Many managers bring what they call, "family of origin," their personalities, and their family lives to management. Women do this too, usually in a different way. It's almost always a mistake, unless you can step back from who you are, your own instant, visceral responses to stresses. In Dick Williams' case, the abuse that he had suffered was so extreme that when he started feeling like acting out the way his father had acted out, he taught himself to catch himself from repeating it.
JA: Subtlety is harder to overcome than blatant wrongness. It's easier to come into a work group where nothing works and make a success of it, than to find and fix a subtly bad thing.
Now, the Boston Red Sox. I want to hear your question.
JA: The metrics said pull Pedro; the politics said leave Pedro in. The metrics say that Pedro Martinez is the greatest pitcher in baseball for the first 100 pitches of a game. After 100 pitches, on the average, he has a giant shear-off. There are physical reasons for this. The small muscles in the shoulder and arm that helped create his extremely fine control become fatigued at a different rate than others, meaning he loses part of his pinpoint ability. Secondly, the batters have seen him more. The third reason is the intensity. Every single pitch is a project of its own, a critical task. There's a certain amount of mental fatigue.
Combine all this, and different pitchers degrade at different rates. But it's clear from the numbers that after 100 pitches, Pedro Martinez is not the greatest pitcher in baseball anymore. There's somebody in the bullpen who is not as good a pitcher as Pedro overall, but whose best effort at that moment is at least as good as Pedro's fatigued effort. This is a lesson people should learn in other organizations. People tend to ride their stars to death and not give their journeyfolk or lesser talents the chance to do the most critical things. It's always a mistake. In baseball you win by being able to apply everything on your roster you can render valuable.
But why did Little, in the end, leave Pedro out there? Pattern recognition. Earlier that season, in the same inning at about the same number of pitches, Pedro was in the same fix against the then Anaheim Angels, now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Grady Little watched Pedro work his way out of that situation. There's a lesson here: achievement and metrics. What is past is prologue. It would be suicide to ignore history while making your decision. At the same time you cannot be too wedded to the past as the lens through which you view the present and future. You have to admit that the situation changes.
There were many reasons why the two games were so different. The Angels, as their manager admitted, are not a great hitting team, whereas the Yankees are a dominant offensive machine. The Angels game had been earlier in the season. Pedro had probably a thousand fewer pitches on his arm at the time. Many managers in all fields too easily embrace precedent as the indicator of the thing to do. None of us are immune to this, but we have to be conscious of it. We use our pattern recognition skills to pick something out of the past to advise us as to what to do in the present situation.
That reminds me of a talk at the SXSW Conference about how our brain works. Our brain is very limited because it's always looking for patterns. I think it was Kathy Sierra who said that the pupils in our eyes are constantly moving. We wouldn't see anything otherwise, because there wouldn't be this constant change of the point of view. They've done experiments where an image is projected onto the back of the eye. They remove the variable of the movement of the eyeball itself. The image can be seen for a little while, and then it disappears.
JA: That's really interesting. Have you ever read Gregory Bateson, Mr. Margaret Mead?
JA: Bateson was one of the original philosophers in Cybernetics and computing science. He was an anthropologist by training, but he was a philosopher by pursuit. He argued, without this knowledge that you've just provided me, that as humans we perceive things by how they change, and not by how they are. We see things as they change state because change draws attention.
Bateson's Mind and Nature, by the way, is a wonderful book to read. It's turgid, not written in a very readable way, but the brain candy in there is magnificent.
Fascinating. That helps us understand why we're so taken with the new. Kathy Sierra spoke about creating passionate users; if you want to create something that people are wild about, it really has to stand out. It has to be unlike anything else that has come before. Too many products are like previous products, so our brain doesn't notice them because they're part of the regular pattern. A brain only gets excited when something is off-pattern.
JA: That's very interesting. Let me say two things in conclusion. To go back to one of your very first questions, why does baseball apply to management when it's just a game? If people only get two takeaways for reasons to pay attention to baseball as a management template for their endeavors outside baseball, they are the following:
Number one, you can never not make a decision. That is, managers who allow things to happen by deciding not to make a decision or stalling until it's too late. They end up with whatever happened as a result. No baseball manager could ever get to game two with that tactic. It's one of the most frustrating, shoddy, incompetent practices of American management. It's Russian roulette with six bullets. Not making a decision is a decision in itself. It's a random decision.
It has no conviction, there's no fearlessness in it.
JA: It would be like wearing a t-shirt that says, "Yes, fear." There are too many people who are like that. What I've noticed only with American managers anyway—because I have clients from all over the world—is that people who are control freaks and demand the authority to make decisions won't make a decision. It's like a binary nerve gas; neither alone is fatal (control freaks who make decisions, or people who are afraid to commit, but are willing to delegate), but put them together and it's a recipe for accidental ritual suicide.
You cannot do that in baseball. Baseball is producing constant examples of decisions that are made with incomplete data or lots of patterns in the past, or no patterns in the past. But whatever the situation, you have to go forward and make decisions. Then you have results and more data.
The second takeaway is that you have to try to win today and tomorrow. In baseball, you have to try to win today, this season, while at the same time building for the future, and building the chance for future success. That could mean the buildup of resources, whether it's human capital, internal knowledge, fresh blood, or strategic planning.
It used to be just business was kind of shoddy about this, but government has become that way too over the last, I'd say, 15 years. We don't invest in trying to figure out where we're going or what we would do if we got there. The one part of the government that seems to do this is the military. But, I think they've over-funded it. There's no sense of anxiety about making it work. If you over-fund things, you can actually do less with more if you're not careful.
Baseball understands this. The baseball models for winning in the present, while building for the future, are rigorous, tested, and constantly being re-tested and played with. Michael Lewis's book, Moneyball, is a wonderful lesson for people about trying to win now, trying to win in the future, and not mortgaging the future for the present, or the present for the future.
Excellent. Where can we keep up with your insights?
Thanks so much, Jeff, for your time.
Email: jeff.angus (at) - comcast.net