“..the first guy through the wall…it always gets bloody, always.” (John Henry to Billy Beane)
- How things change
- Getting people on board
- Defining performance and changing expectations
This Michael Lewis story lays out what was the beginning of the rise of Sabermetrics: a new way of thinking about baseball. Previously, baseball nerd Bill James had a small cult-like following of people who always knew that mainstream baseball thinking and strategy were flawed. This group was enlightened but their wisdom was contained to the group of believers. The baseball establishment was simply not interested. In the early days of the new millennium, along comes Billy Beaned at GM of the Oakland A’s, whose particular problem makes it impossible to “play the game” as it is dictated.
“The problem we are trying to solve is that there are rich teams and poor teams, then there is 50 feet of crap, and then there’s us.” (Billy Beane to his Team Scouts)
The story plays out as Beane and his trusty sidekick Pete try to implement their strategy in collaboration with ownership, team scouts, team management and players. This challenge to an existing status quo and persistence in implementation are both fascinating and insightful, bringing real-world lessons to managers and leaders. Here is how the Money Ball story maps to the “collaboration game” framework.
There is a great scene in the movie (quoted above), where Billy Beane lays out the problem for his team of scouts. The expression of this is only partial in this scene where he alludes to the fact that they have to run a shoe-string budget. Earlier in the movie he is very clear to state that rather than just “be competitive” or “not embarrassing” the objective is to win the World Series. Although “winning the World Series” is a point in time accomplishment, the general direction of “be the best” is important here and distinctly different from “be one of the best” or “not be the worst.”
Set-up – Rules and Constraints:
The link between the “be the best” direction and the specific Oakland A’s challenge stems from the small budget. The opportunity here is to create an understanding that “this is a challenge” rather than “this is impossible, why even try?” The former takes on the narrative of the wily underdog taking on the deep-pocketed establishment. Rather than moaning about not having enough money, the group has something to prove to the rest of the baseball world (think KC Royals of 2015).
Set-up – Measures and Metrics:
One measure for a professional sports team is summed up in the movie by the Billy Beane line “[Once you make the playoffs] If you don’t win the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit.” Close doesn’t count for those who want to “be the best.”
Spending within budget could be a constraint attached to a measure. There is at least one negotiation with ownership to release some extra money, so that constraint is apparently a little fluid. Conceivably as long as you can make the case for the necessity of this extra money in pursuit of the “be the best” agenda.
The tangible metric that is most revealing of the new logic is in how to evaluate potential. Enter the on-base-percentage (replacing the “batting average), which accounts for any skill in getting a base-on-balls, in addition to that of getting an actual “hit.” The logic flows as follows: You win games by scoring runs, to score you have to get players on base, so we want players who can get on base. (Sabermetrics had since evolved, and will continue to.)
To me the greatest relevance to the workplace is in the area of change overhauls that come down from the top. The CEO gets and idea in his/her head and tries to role it out through the organization. There are instances to “sell and tell” and there are some constituencies that refuse to buy-in to the new logic… and like any logical construct, the new way of thinking always has its flaws.