Management by Baseball

Management By Baseball 2.1Much 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:

  1. Baseball provides a real time experimental engine to test out theories and get virtually immediate feedback.
  2. 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.

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7 Responses to Management by Baseball

  1. Robert E November 16, 2006 at 11:40 pm #

    I am not a big sports fan, so it’s always hard for me to warm up to sports analogies. Maybe because sports is a very controlled environment used to talk about the very uncontrolled environment of business. All sports clubs only play one opponent at a time for a limited, set period and only against other teams from well defined lists. Major leagues don’t play farm clubs, college teams, or against any and all comers. Nor does an American team play teams from other countries in anything other than exhibition matches. They call it the World Series in baseball but don’t invite nor compete with teams from Japan or Central America. Most business executives would love it if their world was that uncomplicated, and many strive to make it so.
    And by focusing just what’s happening on the field, you don’t some of the rest of the business of sports- like the deals with stadiums and tax-breaks, certainly some ROI for the communities, but how much real return for the outlay from the communities? A 1998 study from the University of California at Berkeley suggested that the health of the local economy impacts attendance, not the other way around. And while the presence of a team can attract a corporate interest locating in a city or holding a convention there, strong social services, good schools, and low crime are more likely to be higher on the list that influence any decision.
    But sports has a celebrity status, and an apparent lingua franca which makes it an easy to draw examples, even if business doesn’t get the winter off, on-site umpires determining fair play, and cheerleaders.

  2. Ed B November 18, 2006 at 1:13 am #

    With homage to the previous comment, what businesses can learn from perhaps the all too common sports analogy is a culture of review. Business like baseball and sports in general can in fact be dissected into individual transactions (discrete units of activity): the sale of a single product, the swing of a bat. Where sports has a lesson for business is in the acculturated review process associated with every discrete unit of activity. Every game is reviewed action by action for the purpose of learning (1) why a particular result developed from a particular action, and (2) what steps are necessary to improve performance for the next action; product sale, swing of the bat.

    Unfortunately, businesses do not usually have the luxury of time to sift through each and every transaction, but statistics used to model tightly-correlated actions can provide insight into corrective steps targeted to increase future performance. Hence the development of the reporting dashboard. Wading through the thousands of data points is not possible in modern business. Dashboards combined with what-if scenarios can help the manager influence his or her organization from a more rigorously defined quantitative basis. The challenge is to not get too enamored with data and loose sight of the overall goal of successful management; we all remember the inventory challenges of Cisco Systems moments after the tech industry went supernova.

    All this says nothing of course about the ability of a manager to manage. Managers must be aware of data and the pitfalls of data. Managers must also be cognizant of their employees’ perspectives on data and perhaps their limitations on data analysis. All data should be translated into concrete, prioritized steps designed to improve future performance even when a step may have nothing to do with data. In a 360 world, data translations can come from all sides including tests against the data from “gut” feelings. Because people do think and learn and generally strive for excellence, combining concise and timely data reporting with process (step) reviews and the manager-as-mentor, a world series victory is surely possible.

  3. Jonathan November 18, 2006 at 5:15 am #

    Ed, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog. I agree that that sports as a analogy for business is hackneyed. The only analogy that might be more overused than sports is war.

    While I agree with your thoughts in principle, I think the concept of team is often overlooked. Almost every year, the Yankees have the highest payroll is baseball and arguably the best individual talent. Now, I’m no Steinbrenner but the Yankees seem to consistently lack team chemistry. I always get the sense that the players are more interested in personal recognition than overall team success. In the language of performance management, they aren’t aligned.

  4. erikmazzone December 1, 2006 at 3:34 pm #

    Jonathan, the Yankees provide an interestng wrinkle in the concept of alignment. (Warning, I’m a Yankees fan.) I would guess that the team is aligned each year in the pursuit of the World Series championship each year, and would further conjecture that each player seeks to perform at his highest possible level. It would seem a reasonable belief that if each player plays his best game, that is in the best interest of the team goal (winning the World Series).

    However, it is inescapable (for beleaguered Yankees fans, anyway), that the Yankees have failed in their team goal for the past six years. In that time, their staffing strategy has been to purchase the biggest free agent stars available. So, they have (presumably) alignment around a central goal, the most talented roster in the game, a fantastic manager, and an owner willing to make almost any investment needed to win. Yet they continue to lose.

    I think you hit the nail on the head in your above comment: they lack team chemistry. Perhaps they lack alignment of a different sort…

  5. Malcolm Ryder December 2, 2006 at 5:02 pm #

    I love sports examples, exactly because the “game” is a laboratory for studying decisions and events. That’s *not* the same as studying cause and effect, a point that I think many managers miss.

    Certainly metrics may easily propagate a mythology of causality, but they still provide a frankly great description of “correspondence”. The problem is this: to make metrics useful, one has to figure out beforehand what kinds of correspondence are meaningful, and invest in those. Then the metrics can tell you something worth noting.

    Along those lines, great managers I think are essentially good masters of probability rather than masters of mechanics. They work on events: anticipating them, generating them and navigating them. Any good coach can tell us that “how to win” means how to manage events to success.

    Meanwhile, the variability, understanding and prioritization of events is the reason why every game is different from every other, and how every manager’s experiences become different from every other’s.

  6. Sports Fanatic December 19, 2006 at 3:12 pm #

    I love sports so much I blog all day about it. My wife is ready to divorce me cause I just cant get past my sunday ticket. Hahahaha

    Anyway, I love reading about this!

  7. Nick from South Africa December 28, 2006 at 10:48 am #

    I work for a Health Care provider that is based in South Africa that services Illinois, Mid-Atlantic (Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland), Wisconsin and Texas.

    I am running a campaign accross the business to improve the quality output, and coincidentally the theme for this campaign is baseball. It is called the World Series, and this is to tie the US to South Africa through a theme that everyone will understand.

    On that note, I send out a weekly e-mail to the company that has a Service Message to it, tied to baseball. This came up in my search for analogies and I now have a much better grasp on the game. Even though most of the South African staff do not understand the game, they are now getting quite used to the terms.

    I think it is a great sport to tie into business as it relates on so many levels.

    Thanks for helping me out even if you didnt know you were 😉

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