Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Management by Baseball: A Book Review

Despite the title of my blog, I don’t really confess much. This will be an exception.

A few years ago, when I first became vaguely aware of the blogosphere, I checked out a few of the then-popular blogs, saw little but links to instantly-obsolete news stories, and wrote it off.

That changed when I saw a story in Slate about baseball bloggers. One of the bloggers mentioned there, Jeff Angus, did a blog in which he used baseball to illustrate his theories of management. I checked it out, and immediately became a fan. Unlike most of the blogs I had seen up to that point, most of the entries were mini-essays, rather than single-paragraph link farms. It read like a really good newspaper column that just happened to be online. That, a good writing style, and a fusion of two topics I find endlessly fascinating, and I was hooked.

When I started my own blog, I adopted the same color template as MBB, as a sort of homage.

Following the obvious trajectory, the blog has led to a book: Management by Baseball (Collins, 2006). (Maybe there’s a lesson there…hmm…)

Like most good nonfiction, Angus’ book is based on one great idea. In this case, it’s that the measurability of success in baseball (wins and losses, most notably) makes it an incredibly good test lab for management theories. Baseball fans’ famous fetish for statistics provides ample feedback for various management strategies, and the high financial stakes for most teams provide powerful incentives to succeed. In baseball, more than in most industries, it’s hard to succeed entirely through office politics; either you win games or you don’t, and the results are quick, public, and (somewhat) clear.

Although Angus careens confidently from era to era and team to team, a theme quickly emerges: managers who pay attention to feedback about both their environments and themselves are most capable of managing change. Angus’ straw men, who are entirely too recognizable in real life, are “Bitgods,” for Back In The Good Old Days. Bitgods typically achieved success in a particular environment based on behaviors that made sense there and then; when the environment changed, the Bitgods didn’t, but instead became dogmatic, bitter, and cranky. Decline ensued. When the times changed, Bitgods blamed the times.

Baseball has its share of Bitgods, to be sure. Anybody who follows the game can rattle off the elements of the familiar jeremiads: pitchers don’t pitch complete games anymore, free agency destroyed fan loyalty, the designated hitter rule bastardized strategy, expansion ruined everything, etc. In tenured academia, Bitgods rule the roost, almost by definition. Kids today…

The chronic problem for Bitgods, of course, is that everything changes. (Angus is terrific on this, tracing changes from ballpark to ballpark, era to era, and manager to manager with aplomb.) What Angus terms the Law of Problem Evolution (p. 77) pretty much guarantees that “success is the enemy of adaptability” (p. 206). In a passage referring to the 2004 Houston Astros that could just as well apply to just about any organization, he notes that

Any manager with a shred of ability will solve some kinds of problems, and no matter how good, will leave some problems unsolved. The manager, as a human being, has strengths and weaknesses, high aptitudes and black holes of incapability from which no wisdom escapes. Over time, the problems within an organization that a manager can solve get solved, and the ones he’s not good at solving fester and become an ever-greater proportion of the remaining problems. For most managers, this plaque of unsolved problems will usually destroy their effectiveness. And for the manager who follows, there’s a much better chance that the residue of unsolved problems will consist of ones that the newbie can solve. (p. 80)

Hence, Angus advises new managers to make a big splash in their first three weeks on the job, preferably by listening to line staff and picking some low-hanging fruit that doesn’t happen to be in your particular blind spot. The credibility gain from the early, easy successes will come in handy as you head into murkier territory.

(In my case, the easy, low-hanging fruit was speedy writeups for class observations. For reasons I can’t fathom, my predecessor used to let several months elapse between observing a class and reporting on the observation. I shortened the turnaround to 24 hours. The faculty response was immediate and positive.)

Where Angus gets most interesting is in his data-driven rejection of much conventional wisdom. The one that jumped off the page for me was his cavalier dismissal of leadership as an analytic category. (“Leadership is rarely worth spending time on…and it’s generally ephemeral” pp 172-3). When “the talent is the product,” as in baseball, academia, and most cutting-edge service professions, the issue is much less about ‘leadership’ in the traditional sense than about sussing out, evaluating, and managing change. Like Jim Collins in Good to Great, Angus notes correctly that the field-general style (his preferred term is ‘martinet’) is only one of many, and usually not the most effective. Self-styled ‘leaders’ are often too full of themselves to take sufficient notice of changes in their surroundings. By the time they notice, it’s too late.

He’s also particularly good on “the diseconomies of scale” (p. 62), a component of the sclerosis of success. As organizations grow, the layers within them multiply, adding to the communication overhead. Over time, efforts to rein in the chaos (procedures manuals, flurries of memos) act as drags on productivity, until a smaller, nimbler competitor with lower communication overhead comes along and eats the bigger company’s lunch.

Anybody who has tried to manage academic departments will nod in rueful recognition at this one. Much of what we call ‘administration’ is really an attempt to fight organizational entropy, and the fight gets harder as the organization gets larger. When the people in the organization are senior, immovable, and card-carrying Bitgods, the task is that much harder.

I enjoy Angus’ work, and the book is a treat. It doesn’t get caught up in CEO-worship, like so much business lit, and it has a refreshingly irreverent sense of humor that never becomes sophomoric or cheesy. I would have preferred to have Angus’ Laws actually compiled in a single list at some point, and I think he’s far too generous to George Steinbrenner, but those are quibbles.

The more basic issue I have with it, though, is external. When Angus refers to a manager, he’s using the term in the specific baseball sense of a chief operating officer, a top dog in the field operation. But most ‘managers’ in businesses or colleges are ‘middle managers,’ responsible for mediating between directives from above and realities on the ground. In baseball terms, we’re ‘coaches’ (as in third-base coach, bench coach, etc.), rather than managers. The job description for a third-base coach is very different from that of a manager, just as the job of a dean is very different from that of a chief academic officer. We don’t often have the option of making the big splash, and we face the tricky issue of maintaining credibility with the talent (players, faculty) without actually being the people to make the key decisions (managers, vice presidents/provosts). With a few exceptions (Angus rightly notes the Mets’ pitching coach, Rick Peterson), it’s hard to measure success for a coach. Office politics probably loom larger, simply by default.

Still, it’s unfair to review a book not written. I’d like to see Angus take on, say, what makes a good first-base coach, how we know, and what it could mean to middle managers everywhere. Maybe that’s the next book. Until then, devour Management by Baseball for what it is: a well-written, data-grounded, intelligent demystification of management, with baseball as a prime example. It’s a great idea done well.

(I promise no more baseball postings for a while.)