Sports as a metaphor for business fits well for me, so imagine my delight at Chris MacDonald using the Odor/Bautista brouhaha as a starting point for a discussion on unwritten rules. He was equating the competitiveness of sport with competitiveness in the market economy. The parallels are endearing, and he also presents the necessity for self-regulation (according to “the code”), as well as some imposed regulation (from the umpiring squad or regulator). This balance often gets lost in the sports-meets-business mash-up and we are left feeling that some external force (e.g. referees or “the Government”) is supposed to curtail undesirable actions or that “the market” will keep us in check.
In baseball, there is a complex series of “you do this; we do this.” Predictably, people’s interpretation of the Odor/Bautista event is heavily coloured by allegiances: whether you love/hate the Jays, love/hate Texas, love/hate “old school baseball,” etc. Beyond the superficial barbs, what appears to be noteworthy is the first punch by Odor. In baseball’s full unwritten ledger of “this warrants that,” there is no “this” for which the “that” is “”punch opposing player in the face.” When it comes to the retaliatory punch, we are into another rule book where, presumably, equal retaliation is deemed acceptable. (But he punched me first!)
Call it a “code” or “unwritten rules” or “norms” or whatever, in sport and business there is a rich interplay between the enforced formal rules and the understood informal rules. In both cases, the very worst kind of rule making is in reaction to a specific incident. Sports tends to enshrine the original offender in the rule: the Utley rule in baseball, the Avery rule in hockey. Hopefully we don’t see an Odor rule emerge from this because reactive rule alters the essence of a game played between competitors who abide by a similar set of beliefs. Do we want to shift from the shared understanding that “we don’t fight in baseball” to crafting a rule that delineates a “scrap” or a “tussle” from a “fight” in order to assign the correct fair punishment to each (e.g. if the hand stays unclenched, it is at most a tussle)?
When he took over as global CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman countered a conventional unwritten rule by refusing to report quarterly to the analysts who so craved the latest information. Unilever’s stock price hit a low in March 2009 with the first missed quarterly report. Was this a metaphoric “punch” to the information hungry analysts and the short-term profit seekers they serve? Seven years out, Polman is still CEO and the stock sits at almost 3x what it was at the end of Q1 2009. This metaphoric punch has been described a courageous, which could not be more different than the words by some to describe Odor real-live punch.
For baseball, one big question is whether Odor has tapped into something that changes the fabric of the game. In the ebb and flow of sport, we now have professional golfers sporting beards and “joggers,” both of which can be hailed a step into the 21st century for a game weighed down by elitist traditions. Is baseball due for a similar shift?
Whether from the sport or business perspective,, the question of “what kind of game do we want?” can help shape if and how we challenge the status quo. An Odor/Polman punch can be the catalyst to shake things up, or be the action that begs our response. The change to the written rule can be swift, but changes to the code can be a slower burn. Both can have lingering effects on “the game we get,” which may not be the one we want.