I’m not a big fan of baseball, but in a fit of boredom and curiosity to see what my business partner keeps going on (and on) about, I finally relented and streamed Moneyball last week.
What surprised me is that I’ve seen the very same heated, emotional discussions about player performance and potential that took place in the Oakland A’s back office, mirrored in many a boardroom.
In case you missed it, the bestselling book by Michael Lewis and the hugely popular movie that followed, tell the story of the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt).
The 2001 season had closed and fear was in the air. Most of their key talent from the past season had already left, snapped up by wealthier teams, and they were worried about filling those slots. The A’s had never been a big market team and so money was very tight. They had to satisfy themselves with the talent they could afford.
Changing thinking by changing the conversation
The story begins with the coaches and scouts embroiled in baseball’s version of a succession planning exercise, arguing over which players to recruit with their meagre budget. The conversation takes a sharp turn when Billy Beane walks in and starts to challenge their thinking (Beane’s comments in italics):
“I like Geronimo. The guy’s an athlete. Big, fast, talented. Clean cut. Good face. Good jaw.”
“But can he hit?”
“He’s got a beautiful swing. The ball explodes off his bat. He throws the club head at the ball and when he connects he drives it.”
“If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?”
“He’s a minor leaguer. He’ll be ready.”
“So he’s gonna be a big hitter when we put him up against major league guys?”
“I like Perez. He’s got a classic swing. It’s a real clean stroke.”
“I don’t know… he can’t hit a curveball”.
“Well there’s some work to be done, I’ll admit that. And he’s got an ugly girlfriend.”
“What’s that mean?”
“An ugly girlfriend means no confidence, OK? I’m just saying, we are trying to replace Giambi and this guy’s girlfriend is a 6 at best.”
“La la la la.”
“Damn, Billy, was that a suggestion?”
“I suggest talking. Keep on talking just like you are. La la la la la, just like it’s business as usual.
Thus began the process of slowly changing his staff’s thinking about how to measure what matters. What’s the good of shelling out big dollars for one player who has a reasonable ability to deliver home runs, if the rest of the team simply can’t get on base? He gradually shifted their thinking away from the big home run hitters, to simply scoring base hits. It didn’t matter how they did it – it could be by getting hit by the ball if need be… if they could just keep getting players on base, they would score more points. Not pretty, maybe, but effective.
And so it goes, in business as well as in sports.
The GGF is well-entrenched but invisible
I’ve sat in on (and, earlier in my career, participated in) too many talent discussions where the facts about performance and potential were obscured by meaningless metrics and what we used to refer to at Pepsi as the GGF – the ‘good guy factor’ (as in, he’s a good guy or he’s a really hard worker or he’s Pepsi Pretty, or he bleeds blue and red). Any of these comments is about as meaningful as the attractiveness of a player’s girlfriend, but there it is, front and center in just about every conversation about talent, bench strength and succession planning.
Which is why that last comment by Billy Beane should ring in our ears. It’s not business as usual any longer, in baseball or in business. The economy is more challenging, and the labor market more fragmented than ever before. The tools, approaches and mindsets that got us here simply aren’t going to take us where we need to go. It’s time to take a lesson from the Oakland A’s and apply it to your own team: it’s time to start Measuring what Matters.
Of course, the whole story is about how the team learned to focus on the right numbers – those stats that actually work together to win ball games – and along the way, even very average players learned to lean into those very narrow (and sometimes obscure) talents they brought to the table.
The shift in philosophy allowed a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league ($40MM vs, the Yankees’ $120MM) and staffed with misfits to field a contender whose improbable season saw them finish first in the AL West with a record of 103-59, set an AL record of 20 consecutive wins, and advance to the playoffs. Against the odds – or was it?
Oh, and a great article in the Harvard Business Review caught my eye recently. Good lessons for all of us:
- Learning how to measure what matters takes time and experimentation. Odds are, you are already measuring lots of things, and they may not game-changers or predictors of success
- Change is uncomfortable, and new/different numbers imply different accountability which is even more uncomfortable. Give people time to absorb the new data and focus.
- At all times, keep Head and Heart in balance. You work with people. Let respectful relationships always win the day.
Turns out the Athletics didn’t make it into the second playoff round last season either, but they sure were an entertaining (and hugely profitable) team of average players who delivered above average results.
Can you say the same of your own organization? If not, we’d be happy to help.
Jan van der Hoop is President of Fit First Technologies. Jan can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]