Much to my own surprise, this week’s blog is about another book. But, unlike last week, it’s not about performance management per se but rather what we can learn about aligning an organization from the sport of baseball. Yup, baseball.
The book, Management by Baseball by Jeff Angus, purports to provide “The Official Rules For Winning Management In Any Field.” If that subtitle wasn’t intriguing enough, Steve Manes of Forbes Magazine provided the following endorsement:
“No other management book I’ve read delivers so much insight and fun in such a compact package. And no other baseball book, period, teaches you so much about management – and yourself. I nominate Jeff Angus for Manager of the Year.”
Wow. Now, I’m not that much of a baseball fan (March Madness, baby) but I was certainly intrigued.
Angus’ basic premise is that, not only can we extrapolate lessons learned from a sport to our own organizations, but also that baseball is uniquely qualified to provide us with insight into an aligned organization. His arguments boil down to two ideas:
- Baseball provides a real time experimental engine to test out theories and get virtually immediate feedback.
- Baseball provides unparalleled transparency into results of decisions with 100+ year history of certified metrics.
If you know a little about sports, you’re probably not surprised about the first idea. As a game progresses, managers adjust their decisions based on players’ performances. The results of one game might impact their strategy for the next. However, unless you’re a baseball aficionado, you may not realize that baseball keeps tracks of 100’s of seemingly arcane statistics, like on-base-percentage when batting against left handed pitchers in their own home ballpark. These precise and certified measures allow a more objective comparison between players.
In theory, this idea is really compelling. With so much data on so many players in so many situations, we ought to be able to learn how to make better decisions. During a keynote talk I heard, Jeff provided several colorful stories about how smart managers recognize how to use this data (think Moneyball) without forgetting that everything boils down to humans in the end.
In practice, I’m not so sure that it applies to the business world. For one, I’ve been a manager for more than 10 years now and I can’t remember ever being faced with the same situation more than once. And when I’ve talked to my peers, it always feels that their issues are slightly different than mine. It’s like there are more degrees of freedom to the problems in business than there are in baseball. So I’m not sure that having a raft of statistics about how different people performed and what the result was would actually help me be a better manager.
The one parallel that does seem to fit was his notion of a stochastic model. Every team starts with the same objective: to win the World Series. In order to accomplish that objective, they attempt to win every single game they play, knowing that there’s no way that will actually happen. At some point during the season, some teams adjust their overall objective to just winning as many games as they can or improving their performance over the previous season. The same dynamic happens with one game; you start assuming you win and may change that goal mid-way through depending on events.
Like baseball, business is dynamic. Setting a vision upfront (winning the series) is important but it’s even more important to break that vision down into smaller pieces (winning record in the first month, first place in the division at the All Star break, etc) and to make adjustments along the way.
Business can be like baseball. Some of us are managers and some are utility infielders. The outcome can be changed by one swing of the bat. And it’s never over until it’s actually over. It’s just not necessarily about the measures.