Thursday, October 09, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #16 of 17: Nepotism, Nasty Talent and Nitrates  

On any small-team project, Agile or otherwise, a critical success factor (maybe outside of keeping senior management from constant meddling, it is THE critical success factor), is the careful blending of skills and personalities within the team to be able to achieve and maintain high performance. Rejecting nepotism or Nepotism Lite (hiring friends because you like them and/or they are easy to work with) as a norm, while concurrently allowing for some exceptions is a challenging but key skill for the manager. Baseball has great lessons for the Beyond Baseball manager, and one fine documented case is Tony La Russa's succesful hiring of the ostracized Mark McGwire, a former player of his and friend, as the Cardinal batting coach. He explained the hire in his most recent book, One Last Strike (p. 300-6)

Mark had to retire prematurely in 2002 because of his (injured -- probably as a result of muscular overdevelopment, the result of working out too much, probably the result of outlawed supplements that enable hard working athletes to extend their workouts) back. Since then, his integrity over the issue of performance-enhancing drugs (PED) had been widely discussed {SNIP}

After he left the game, I kept inviting him to Spring Training. He turned me down a few times, but I found out from his wife that about four o'clock every afternoon, once he'd picked up the boys at school, he watched games on TV. He'd watch a doubleheader every night, and he was really into analyzing the hitters. I'd talk to him once in a while, and he'd always tell me what he thought hitters, including our guys, were doing right and wrong, pointing out details like how well Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodrigues and Albert Pujols were getting on top of the ball and getting through it, getting that great backspin that made the ball carry.{SNIP}

The more I heard him speak, the more I felt everything about his approach would make him an outstanding candidate for our staff. In November of 2009, I decided to make an offer to him for the hitting coach job (for 2010). (La Russa and Cardinal front office management, though, made it a prerequisite that he make a public statement addressing his alleged PED use, to which he had declined to comment for years). We didn't know what he was going to say, just that he had to say something

I knew he would tell the truth, but I didn't know specifically what he was going to say. Mark admitted to using steroids and on the morning the announcement was made he called to tell me what was about to be all over the news.

McGwire and La Russa had stirred up a hornet's nest. The way the PEDs played out in the U.S., it was an emotional issue; most casual fans (though few serious fans) wanted every home run hitter of the 1990s & 2000s burned at the stake, as a start. Very Stalinist Show Trial environment, as I've written about before. By McGwire's silence, he angered the steroid-obsessed by giving them less excuse to rag on him for not confessing, but by either denying or admitting use, he was going to inflame them further.

It took great courage for La Russa to hire an ostracized friend and re-open an emotional knicker-twister of a topic in a profession that demands relentless hyper-focus by everyone on the team. Few managers Beyond Baseball would balance the potential gains of a 97th percentile performer who had massive credibility with players coaching those with whom he had credibility against the controversy.

Had La Russa hired a dud just to get him a job (what I call Nepotism Lite), without regard for his performance potential, I would be terminally critical. Every team of ~50 people can afford one or two middling talents who are vital to the team's morale, and every team of ~50 people can afford one or two very difficult people if they are 90+ %ile talents who get the job done. If you're hiring a difficult human who's ultra-talented, you are taking on more work (office politics, managing outside criticism, managing people's fears) to make more work happen.

After Mark was hired and made his statement, the media focused on my motives for hiring him. Some commentators may have wanted to compliment me, and others to criticize me for presumably hiring a friend out of loyalty and helping him to rehabilitate his career. Regardless of intent, I was insulted by those assumptions. I take my responsibility to my employers, fans, teammates, and the game itself to ever engage in that kind of nepotistic behavior. Mark was hired based on his merits.


La Russa then goes on to describe the incredible level of and number of skills (Beyond Baseball,anyway) required for being a successful coach/mentor to skill- based professionals.

He wasn't overwhelmed by the workload -- he was fired up by it. It was an attitude that we needed all our coaches to have.

This is the crux of why this Nepotism Lite is okay in this exceptional case. Nepotism and Nepotism Lite both GENERALLY suck oxygen out of your environment, like nitrates out of a river. La Russa hired McGwire because he had both high cred as a past performer, ergo, as a leader, and also the hire was determined to succeed.

On any small team, Agile or not, you will more often benefit more than not if you are willing to hire a high-performer even if that is a difficult individual or a person who requires you additional management burden. That's a contrarian point of view, of course, which means "Money Ball", that is, a relatively untapped high-performance talent pool you can acquire more easily.

You can be lazy and leave talent on the table, or you can be Baseball and channel La Russa to Agile success. You choose.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #15 of 17: When Being "No Fun"
Makes For More Fun  

In Agile projects, as in Baseball, your Fun Quotient doesn't have to be "at eleven" as a norm, but to get the best sustainable production, you certainly want to err on the side of building an environment that stimulates (not just allows) fun. In Agile, as in Baseball, that will mean, more often than not, you as the leader won't be showing off as much fun as the team, and that is, in most environments, a necessity.

Tony La Russa embodied this stance as brilliantly as any successful Agile leader has, and his transparency is useful to any Agile practitioner or aspiring leader. As he explained in his most recent book, One Last Strike (p. 103-105), it's critical both to actively promote the fun aspects of the project while also being the eye of the hurricane, the calm, unflappable go-to, solid, reliable, relentless make-it-happen center, even if that means you're not looking like you're having much fun.

La Russa wasmore than a master of hiding how much fun he was having (and he was having fun), he looked and acted when at work as impassive, unemotional, neutral as he could. If you ever saw him on televeision during a game, you saw that steely resolve. And having spoken to him a few times in his office when he managed the White Sox, I can testify he was like that off the field, too.

The book makes it clear that was purposeful...part of his natural character, but deliberate, too. He talks about his determination at the beginning of the season that he will retire at the end of it, regardless of the outcome. He, personally, wasn't thrilled with the evolution of the work, which was trending towards more corporate-like interactions, less personal, less Agile.

Put simply, it wasn't as much fun as it had been. That mioght sound strange coming from a person with my reputation for intensity and from someone who was often noted for not smiling.I took seriously the responsibility I had but I loved the competition, the winning and the losing, and the relationships we built

It's true I didn't smile a whiole lot during games. I wanted to maintain the same exterior whether things were going well or going badly. One reason for that is I wanted to set an example for our players and also to be a constant they could rely on.

This is a vital crux of Agile. The Coach or Scrum Master or whatever the team calls the project-organizing, customer-facing human should be the eye of the hurricane, she should be the "constant they could rely on".

Yes, there were lighthearted moments in the dugout, on the field, in the clubhouse {snip} but in the middle of the competition, I wanted to be that concentrated center in the middle of the storm.

I had to work at that because on the inside I was a festival of nervous energy, anticipation, excitement, anger, frustration, elation and about just every other emotion you can name. {snip} I will say this about my intense level of concentration: I have zero regrets about how I went about my business, day in and day out. I might have made plenty of mistakes, but none of them came from lack of interest or from lack of attention.

The effective Coach has to be a La Russa-ian manager...relentlessly paying attention to the big and little factors, personalities, issues, risks, and freeing up the rest of the team to do their work. And that means even at the cost of the opportunity to lean back and ease off for some of the fun things the team should/must do.

Ultimately, none of this was ever about me; it was always about the players and about winning. Call it "old school" or whatever you like, but the level of seriousness I brought to my job was purposeful and long-standing. {snip} I couldn't alter who I was as a person to conserve my energy or to take shortcuts. I couldn't slow down.It was either do it or don't do it.

And that's the essence of Coach or Scrum Master, too. If you're going to do the role, do it like the project's success depends on your relentless, serious attention. In Agile, as in Baseball, that may mean you don't always get to publically show the high and lows the rest of the team does.

But the Coach's relentless commitment to holding things together does mean the team can have more fun. And more fun delivers generally better quality and quantity, more sustainably, in Agile as much as in Baseball.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

La Russa Agile Insight #14 of 17: "Aliasing" Decisions in Zero-Sum Projects  

Good managers, in and Beyond Baseball, have to (what I call) "Alias" decisions and choose the right spots to autonomically pick the easy call while reserving their contemplative energy for the tough or crucial decisions. People managing Lean or Agile endeavors have to do this more deftly than more traditional ones, not less deftly as many believe. Baseball has great lessons for when to Alias and when not to

Aliasing is when you don't grind through a decision, meticulously measuring probabilities and possibilities. Instead, you count on the weight of history to automatically pick your option. Example: It's Chicago, it's August. You get up in the morning and get dressed for the day. Odds are it's going to be hot. Yes, you could check a weather report, or even three of them, but this is wasted ergs. You need to account for the very high probability of blistering heat in your choice of attire. On this day you have a key client coming into the office to meet with. You remember she always wears something green. That you should think about, perhaps make a choice to wear something green or think through why she might do that. Every millisecond you invest in processing weather prediction is a millisecond you're not investing in customizing the situation to better communicate with your client.

Organizations standardize commodity decisions (that is, alias) in non-zero sum choices (paper clip or staple? E-mail or Twitter broadcast? Discount or advertising?) and that makes sense. But insensibly, they tend to alias decisions in competitive or even zero-sum situations, where documented "standards" make it easy for competitors to predict their choices in advance, neutralizing and then creating a competitive deficit for the Aliaser.

In major league Baseball, the manager daily makes ~300 decisions in the ~5 hours of game preparation and the game itself. Given that volume over that amount of time, it's not only easy to alias decisions, it's a complete necessity. ¿What mollycoddled Fortune 500 CEO could make that many decisions in a week, not even trying to calculate their decision-load for a single work day -- and close to zero Fortune 500 organizations even have five days a year with the split-second, zero-sum decision environment a Baseball manager does?

Aliasing in and beyond Baseball is a necessity if you're going to be successful. But so is periodic contrarian self-examination, especially in an Agile environment or Baseball, where adapting to the exact situation on the ground is an unavoidable pre- req for success.

And that was a principle embraced by Hall of Fame-enshrined manager Tony La Russa, as documented in his most recent book, One Last Strike (p. 306-7). His narrative covers Game 5 of the 2011 National League championship series against the very tough Milwaukee Brewers.

Our bats continued to produce in Game 5, and as we'd done throughout most of the playoffs, we gave our starter an early cushion, with three runs ion the second inning. (Jaime) Garcia took that lead and ran with it pitching two more scoreless innings, and in the bottom of the fourth, when we were ahead 3-0, we got the first two men on base with no outs.

If you are knowledgeable about National League bottom-of-the-lineup tactics, skip to the next paragraph. If you're not, it will help to read this one. The Cards are at the bottom of their lineup, the weakest part in the general case, with the #8 batter being the player in the field that day with the weakest bat being followed by the pitcher at #9. And the autonomic decisions for the bottom of the line-up (both for the team at bat and the one in the field) propel certain patterns. At the early stage of a game, if there are no runners on base, there's going to be a low-probability of batting success at bat. With runners on base, the pitcher is going to (probably) bunt. This is close to automatic, which undermines its success probability because the team in the field adjusts (prevolves) to meet that challenge. And it also means the #8 batter, already likely to be the team's weakest not-pitcher batter, is going to degrade further because the pitcher and catcher, knowing #8 will strive to do something productive knowing the "useless" #9 is coming up next, will conspire to throw #8 borderline junk that is hard for any batter to succeed with. So, in the immortal words of the savage Old Testament diety and Glenn Frey, it's a losing proposition but one you can't refuse. But that's the standard operating procedure.

With the #8 batter and then the pitcher coming up next, the standard operating procedure -- #8 batter tries to make something happen, most likely without success and then have pitcher either try to bunt with one out or just try to make something happen, produces negligible returns. The aliased decision here is almost certain to underperform, but so is everything else. So most managers, in and Beyond Baseball, would just do the s.o.p. Not, in this game, La Russa.

Using some unusual strategy, I had position player Nick Punto (#8) try to move the runners over with a bunt, with (pitcher batting #9) Garcia on deck. Normally you wouldn't do that with the pitcher coming up next since most pitchers can't handle the bat as well as a position player. But I knew that Nick was an excellent bunter and that Jaime had a really good idea of what he's doing at the plate. In a way, I flip-flopped the usual roles of the eigth and ninth hitters. Punto got the bunt down and moved the runners to second and third base.

The thought behind this was that we needed to score in that inning, even if it was only one run. With just one run, we'd add to our lead and gain momentum. I thought Garcia could get the bat on the ball. I put the contact play on with Freese at third base. That meant when the hitter made contact with the pitch, Freese would head for home, forcing the drawn in infielders [note: they are drawn in because they are presuming the s.o.p. pitcher bunt] to make a play. Even if he was out, we would still have runner in scoring position (and the leadioff hitter, a most effective one coming up to bat).

La Russa's approach violated both standard operating procedure AND the blind faith of many math-centric sabermetricians that loves to point out the frailty of the s.o.p. The pure math neo-sabermetricians will point out that the probability of Punto succeeding lowers the Cards' probability of ultimately winning the game by about 2%, from 91% to about 89%, and if he fails in the sacrifice, the best the Cards can hope for is worse. The composite numbers argue against sacrifice bunts. But the event is not the composite average of all such events. There's a specific context. The move may work or fail, the additional run La Russa is aiming for will score or not in this case. But this even doesn't exist in a vacuum. The next time the Cards play the Brewers (or any team that has a scout at this game), the opposition will know that the #8 might bunt, and that will mean the opposition will need to invest energy in adapting tactics to meet the full toolbox of La Russa's approaches, diluting their ability to deal effectively with any one of them. La Russa may lose or win this one, but it incrementally increases his chances in subsequent ones, regardless.

This is more important in zero-sum situations, where one team's success requires another team's failure, and more and more in the arenas where Lean and Agile management approaches play a big role, zero-sum is the reality.

With Garcia hitting left-handed, the third baseman, although he was playing in for the possible squeeze bunt, was over towards the shortstop [note: another contextual advantage for the Cards] hole.Depending on how far the thrid baseman is away from the bag, the runner can get two to five extra steps closer to the plate. That's a really critical edge, especially with the contact play on, an edge you wouldn't have with a right-handed hitter. Garcia hit a ground ball to the shrtstopand Freese,with a good break, scored the all-important add-on run.

The Cards increased their chance for scoring one run and greatly diminished their probabilities of getting more than one run. Normally, net-negative, but in this context, a win. And further, in forcing zero-sum-competitors to increase their decision overhead many times in the future, a win earning continuing small yields.

Where to apply the La Russa non-Alias? Beyond baseball, I use my autonomic impulse to alias a decision to make a note to myself to examine it. I try to remember if the aliased decision has ever been something we could have achieved better results with if we'd done something different.

You can do this. If you use any kind of Kanban tool or even just index cards in your top right drawer (presuming you are a righty), document your aliased decisions. [Note: I usually use yellow -- for 'caution' -- cards for these aliased moves] You can invite your team to do the same thing. Reexamination is emotionally low-risk in the big picture sense, because team members rarely have personal investment in the standard procedures even if they are comfortable with them.

Baseball makes clear not only the value of Agile and Lean techniques, but it full of solid implementation ideas you can experiment with. You'll almost certainly never need the level of Agile skill even the below-average major league manager has, but if it works in that zero-sum crucible, it should almost certainly work in your own less competitive workplace.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #13 of 17:
Channeling Pressure to Ease Pressure  

Most "managers" facilitating Agile projects have a classic Baseball problem: Resolving the intrinsic pressure by either deflecting too little of it or too much of it. That's a classic Binary Thinking Trap, one of the most common weaknesses of American managers. Again, Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa has already developed a theory of Agile action you can tap into. It requires understanding and lots of practice, but I think it works better for finding the guts one needs to be successful at Agile than any other I've been exposed to. And the craziest thing about this technioque applied to Agile is that it seems contradictory.

Contradictory, because most think of Agile, properly, as being all about stripping out process to focus on results/outcome, and this Agile technique is one La Russa calls "Win through process".

We spend a lot of ergs as Agile team Coaches or Scrum Masters creating "just enough" of any attribute, investing energy to find the ideal balance between imposing and passivity on myriad dimensions. But it's been my observation that one of the hardest "just enoughs" is just enough PRESSURE.

In my experience helping PMs and coaches, it's been more common for me to find otherwise-talented managers of time and action to fail to sufficiently absorb the pressure from above and instead just push it on down the org chart. That almost never helps the team members OR the project OR the from aboves who want the pressure they expend to deliver benefits.

But the other end of the continuum, applying close to zero pressure, is equally underachieving as a setting. I know...when I started, I just presumed everyone worked as hard as she was able with the project's end goals and objectives at the forefront. That was, more frequently than I would have guessed, not true for the teams I worked with. Further, even when the team was successful at self-managing and self-pacing, most projects, even the best ones, have pressure moments where one or more of the team members have to find a way to break a creative or efficiency ceiling that retards the overall project.

To optimize the team, you have to help them by pressuring them, but not for the hell of it or because management wants you to, but because only when pressure feels normal and manageable can team members harness it to achieve and not suffer from it.

Baseball in general, but Tony La Russa specifically, has been a crucible for finding that Agile balance, and there is no shortage of useful practical lessons to document from La Russa's Hall of Fame winning career.

How does he right-size the pressure pile?

By chronically exposing his team to it so when the most vital moments come at them, they know how to use the external pressure as a force they can use. He describes this process in his recent book, One Last Strike (p. 140-143). He's describing a September game against the Atlanta Braves; Tony's Cardinals are 7-1/2 games behind the Braves for a playoff spot with only 19 games to play (a very very long shot to catch them). The game they're in is a must-win, as is every game at this point. They are going into the bottom of the 9th inning, training 3 - 1.

Rookies can be a blessing or a curse, and for the Braves {snip} their rookie closer Craig Kimbrel had been the former. He'd converted 25 straight save chances, and he took the mound against us looking for number 26. Sometimes rookies are good because they are, in a sense, clueless. Too young and inexperienced to feel the pressure.

This very point is true in many cases for programmers inexperienced with Agile ("Rookies"). If they've come from a rigidly-structured waterfall environment, they frequently expect things to work in a way that keeps the pressure off them until the end (and, of course, they equally expect all the flying monkeys wilding anyway, though with pressure more on management than on them).

In this 9th inning, there's a lead-off single, a fielder's choice and a strikeout, with the result that there's a runner on first and two outs.

...we were down to one final chance, down to our last out. Then the curse of being a rookie kicked in. That's too harsh actually -- the unexpected happens to veterans, to. Needing just one more out to close the deal and put a serious dent in our hopes, Kimbrel walked (Rafael) Furcal on four straight pitches.

Interesting. Tying runs now on base. {snip}

That feeling, that sense that something was about to break our way, sat in the pit of my stomach like a bubble inflating. It's more fun to believe than to doubt.

No kidding, and here's one of the main cognitive continental divides between non-Agile and Agile coaches/PMs. Because the non-Agile PMs are trained to believe that doubt or fear is the default stance, the one to live in. If you're open to printing an epigramme as a sign and displaying it facing people beyond the team, you can't do much better than this one.

So runners on 1st and 2nd bases. Kimbrel walks the next batter on five pitches...bases loaded, two outs, perhaps the most inflective inflection point in any sport. And now we'll get to the poster child for channeling pressure to ease pressure...

Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, two outs -- suddenly, who do we have coming up to bat but Albert Pujols, a .377 bases-loaded hitter with twelve grand slams.

Albert had always been a clutch player for us, but high-pressure situations aren't something that you just wake up born to deal with.

For years, part of our coaching had been that we taught players to to embrace pressure and make it their friend. And they way they'd do that was to confront it. They couldn't hide from it and say Hey, whatever happens, happens so just go out there. No, they had to step up and make something happen when they were expected to make something happen. They had to feel the anxiety, but we had taught them how to handle that anxiety, to use it to become a "go-to" competitor.

How did we teach that? Our first lesson would be never to let them run away. We'd tell each player to feel it -- the more often, the better. Over time they'd just get used to it. Just like if you live near a train and have to listen to locomotive sounds all night long you eventually stop hearing them. It becomes part of your normal state of affairs.

La Russa goes on to say most start out becoming either too hyper or too tentative, but that experience with pressure gives each player the chance to self-examine and make adjustments, emotionally, mentally, physically.

You can't play for months with the attitude of whatever happens, happens, then suddenly in (the pinch) say, Okay, now I'm going to go out there and make a play or get a hit.

{snip} Feeling it is the first part of learning to deal with pressure. The second part is preparation. If you've done everything you can in advance to put yourself in the position to succeed, you'll be more relaxed and better able to deal with the pressure that comes with having to perform. {snip}

The third part is the golden rule when it comes to high-stress moments {snip}: When you're in a position to perform, getting distracted by the possible result creates more pressure than anything else. If you're focused on the result, you feel the anxiety. Instead, concentrate on the process not the result. Win through process.

And since a primary role as Coach or Scrum Master is to steward the process, it is your work to make this pressure internalization bearable and effective.

How does all this translate when Albert's got the bases loaded with two outs in the bottom of the the 9th against the Braves? For one thing, he doesn't think What happens if I fail or success? His total focus is on the process that defines his best at-bat for the situation.

Pujols goes on to deliver a two-RBI single, tying the game, sending into extra innings, where the Cards win it and inning later.

This channeling pressure to ease it is important for the team, but as the coach/scrum master, it can be even more important to you. You need to do all the preparation for success the way La Russa's players have to do for themselves. You will have to suck it up when a team is struggling and not let the outcome affect your courage, even if you choose to tweak some process.

PRESSURE IS. You need to aikido it into team momentum. Just like La Russa.

Monday, February 03, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #12 of 17:
You've Gotta Be Pulling My Legacy  

Some of La Russa's techniques are as valid beyond Agile/Lean environments as they are within strictly advanced environments. For the first time in this series, I'll cover a technique cluster that is as effective for managers who work outside Agile or Lean shops as it is within it. That cluster is around transparent decision-making that has the by-product of effort-free mentoring.

I learn something useful from every manager I worked for or with. But the Gold Standard for managers I've worked for is Rachel K.E. Black, a Boeing honcha. I got a lot of lessons from her, but the one that has earned the most for my clients over the years is the following.

There are not very many good managers, and every large organization will be populated mostly by suboptimal managers, many of whom are that way because no one has trained them properly. Therefore, the most important thing a good manager can do for their organization, more important than manage well, is to teach lesser managers and non-managers who might become managers how to manage better.

She called this process "replicating your DNA". She did not learn it from Tony La Russa, but it's identical to a cluster that's broadly applied in Baseball.

The challenge is, of course, you need to manage well at the same time. Ergo, that training would turn out to be a lot of effort you probably couldn't easily afford. So the Black technique to make this efficient was to be very transparent about decisions, invite push-back. And then use the engagement with the push-back as an excuse to explain one's decision factors and the logic tree.

This process produces many, non-ivory-tower, case studies, roughly in real time. That makes context clear, too. It takes very little courage for a good manager to do it, and the swell thing about the Black technique is that it takes more courage than bad-managers-who-know- they-are-just-pretending-to-know-what-they-are-doing generally have. (Yes, it's true the cruddy managers who don't know they are cruddy sometimes don't hesitate to share their crud-encrusted thinking, but more often than not, those cruddy ones don't believe in transparency, so they are generally out of the meme pool as trainers).

A good question I know you're asking is, "How exactly do I execute this?". Let's go to his recent book, One Last Strike (p. 233-234) for a clear, textbook example.

The thing about baseball is that it's the most open and obvious of professional sports, which means virtually everybody who's watching, whether they have a little or a lot of Baseball know-how, is going to have an opinion on what the strategy should be. It doesn't work to the same degree in basketball, football and hockey because many of the things that happen in the game aren't quite as obvious to the casual fan. With all that scrutiny, if you don't make the "right" decision (JA NOTE: that is, one that has a good outcome for the team), you get nailed. And if you do, you get hailed. There is a lot of pressure to put the blame for a loss on somebody or some bodies.

Some managers get very defensive when they're asked about their strategy. Right away, they assume they're being criticized and they take it personally. The better attitude to take is that people are paying attention and you should be ready to explain the thinking behind your choices. As a decision-maker, I always viewed the questioning as an opportunity to explain what my process was. Then, if those asking the questions were being fair-minded, they could at least say, "Yeah, I can see where he was coming from," even if they didn't agree.

Note here that the "fans" or "press" types La Russa refers to here are, in your own case, the team members you're managing and fellow managers. You may have to get them slowly into the habit of asking. The incurious won't necessarily ask questions, but they may pick up some decisions of yours they can later apply without asking (you're revealing the solution formulæ). And the incurious are also telling you they are not ready to be tracked as management material themselves. The questioners, OTOH, are definitely showing one mandatory attribute of management potential -- process curiosity. A little more from the book:

I picked this up when I was a young manager in Chicago and our general manager Roland Hemond told me that if the questioning came from someone in the media, take it as an opportunity to explain what you were thinking and not as a challenge. Your response might or might not impress the questioner , but if you didn't know the answer, or if you acted like the questions bothered you, or if you gave an answer that was pure B.S., then you didn't belong on the bench managing the team. The only times I balked at this have been when I thought somebody had an agenda, wasn't intending to be fair, or was trying to create controversy.

The juicy part of applying the Black/La Russa technique is you really are replicating your decision-making DNA. Some recipients will take it as "correct", some will take it and tweak it, some will reject it and come up with alternatives. But by making yourself clear and transparent, you are saving yourself time in the long run while boosting the team's potential for effectiveness and nurturing the talent of potential managers.

And that final element...building up many managers for the future, is a much more significant legacy for your own management career than any set of decisions you're making.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #11 of 17:
Using Unintentional Intention in Your Own World  

In the previous entry, I used the example of a La Russa tactic description to describe a managerial orientation. In this one, I'll show you how you can use this very tactic, The Unintentional Intentional Walk, in your own shop IF you face rival managers or even executives up the chain from you who care more about getting their own way or advancing their own career than the health/survival of the organization.

That is, a statistically normal organization if you work in the corporate, elected officeholder or academic worlds.

In Baseball, many managers, especially in the National League, will defend by using the intentional walk in a situation where there are one or more runners in scoring position (that is, in a situation where they are threatened with a significant outcome change). La Russa, like all managers, uses that some. But he prefers something called the Unintentional Intentional Walk because that uses an opponent's aggression against her or him.

Again, here's his book on the replacement technique:

One of the strategies we employed a lot was the "unintentional" intentional walk, and it was particularly effective in the National League, where the pitcher hits. Often the eighth-place hitter comes up with two outs, a runner in scoring position and the pitcher on deck. If you walk the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher makes an out, then the leadoff man comes up to start the next inning (NOTE: and this is an incremental advantage to La Russa's opposition). We'd rather try to use an eighth-hitter's aggressiveness against him, hoping he'll swing at a borderlibne pitch and get himself out.

We had a sign for it. {SNIP} You're telling the pitcher he's going to pitch at the edge of the strike zone or off the edge. (NOTE: which are harder to hit well){SNIP} What you have going for you is that the hitter, since there's an RBI situation, wants to get that bat going. And he may be more apt to chase a pitch out of the strike zone. And sometimes you might get a call from the umpire on one of those "edge" pitches, which changes the count (NOTE: to a count more favorable to La Russa's team).

The italicized text in the extract is the key: Using the antagonist's aggression, a key way-of-being that leads to his understanding of his success, against him.

¿How do YOU use the Unintentional Intentional walk? I counsel managers I'm coaching to go to it only under duress (just as La Russa uses it in Baseball). Specifically, you apply the tactic in an organization that is facing the predictable advance of individuals with power who degrade accountability to feather their own career.

I've written lots before over the last ten years about the need to enforce accountability at every single juncture because of Angus' First Law of Organizations:

All human institutions tend to be self-amplifying.

Corporations where accountability-sluffers get into positions to affect hiring choices tend to not mind accountability-sluffers and, probabalistically, are scared by accountability-embracers. Over time, they will hire more -sluffers. Accountability-embracers are more likely to feel uncomfortable and leave, or be held accountable to sluffers' sluffing and be forced out. External job candidates who are sluffers will be incrementally more attracted and -embracers incrementally less likely to be. Over time an organization will shift, and as it shifts, -sluffers will be competing with other sluffers, meaning the tricks and tactics that worked on -embracers are decreasingly valid, the population of ambitious-without-loyalty increasingly competing with each other for a fixed number of power slots.

If you work inside one of the plurality of publically-traded corporations that behave that way, you already know the First Law. If you don't, a more transparent example of this effect is documented for the chronically-underperforming Pentagon, since the end of World War II, a classic Less With More management culture.

With the necessity of us, as managers, to defend accountability, even when it costs us, "politically", is a challenging situation. When people with the same level or more power start trying to grab authority while sluffing responsibility, we have three alternatives. We can take them head on, which is healthy but costly. We can issue the intentional walk, that is decline to engage them and let them get their way. Or, we can issue the Unintentional Intentional walk -- without taking them head on, aiming to use their aggression against them.

Here's one example:
A manager I was coaching works in a transportation company. Outside of SF Muni & the commercial airline sector, transportation organizations tend to be accountable because the outcomes they deliver are pretty obvious -- the shipments get there or not, on time or not. So accountability-sluffers tend to be rare and are always pretty noticeable.

He's one of those quietly-competent guys who is programmed to let his accomplishments mostly speak for themselves, but he and his family also play tennis with influential executives and their families and this has given him extra coverage. But the company had recently hired an aggressive young MBA who'd formerly worked for and been recommended by a big name outside consulting firm that was working on our company's high-level strategy. The new guy liked to mouth off about strategy, an area he was familiar with and understood well.

But New Guy's allies in the consulting firm were getting him invited to meetings that were covering operational details as an observer (not a bad idea) and New Guy was using these meetings as a platform to assert ideas he didn't have the authority to push, but tried anyway. He'd already succeeded in two other departments in getting them to take on all the work of his thought-initiative without having to take on any work beyond being an advisor. If either succeeded, he'd take the credit, but in case of failure, his hands appeared clean, a classic consultant approach. That's what he'd done in the consulting company to advance, according to a couple of my acquaintances who worked there.

My guy just "knew" this was going to happen to his department sooner or later. I coached my guy on the Unintentional Intentional Walk. In this case, instead of resisting, we actually pushed New Guy's idea (a decent one...that helped us choose this tactic) in the meeting, but insisted only the New Guy was "qualified" to lead the development team and didn't back off. My guy had enough leverage with his execs to both good-mouth New Guy while putting him in the crosshairs. New Guy would either succeed (good for the company) or fail (bad for New Guy and sluffers everywhere) but he was going to be measured by his own skills and not take selective credit for others'.

Better yet, my guy maximized the effort by making sure his acquaintances across the company worked the tactic, too. New Guy tried it again about a month later in a different group. Even though he hadn't done a shred of apparent work on the initiative he was leading, when the other team insisted he was the man for the job, he said he was overbooked. They set it up so when New Guy finished my guy's group's effort, he would start theirs, and now he was booked well into the future. A week later a third group did the same. New Guy was booked for almost a year of project leadership he didn't want and maybe didn't know how to execute on.

New Guy became Ex-Guy about ten months later, leaving on his own two feet by returning to the consulting company he'd come from and to an apparent promotion, but without delivering any of his initiatives. The company lost the opportunity to see what at least one good-looking idea might have delivered. In exchange though, they resisted advancing an accountability-sluffer into a nexus where he could have amplified his style to the detriment of the host company.

Further, they learned the Unintentional Intentional Walk, one of Baseball's cleverest ways of finessing a stressful decision environment.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

La Russa Agile Innovation #10 of 17: Once You've Found an Optimal Tactic,
 Treat it as Sub-Optimal  

Adhering to a process you've proven works effectively and efficiently in the context of a team is optimal. But you need to vary the use of Optimal methods gently and continually over time.

No line of work is more effective and illustrative Agile and Lean norm than Baseball. One great practitioner of the mix of art and science of knowing when to simply apply the Optimal move and when to riff off it is now Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who desribed it in his recent. He documents it in a way any manager can "get" it in his recent book, One Last Strike (p. 231-233).

In the book, he discusses "intentional walk", a managerial technique he uses far less than the norm. Statistically, the walking a batter to get to the next batter gives the other team in the composite average an advantage. That is, that if you roll up all the cases in which a manager chooses to apply it, the choice nets out as negative over all cases. Baseball Prospectus last year published this info for the 2012 season rolling up every event for the 2012 major league season. It reports what difference on average events correlated to runs the batting team scored in the inning. For example, "HR", a home run, was worth, in the overall mean average case, +1.4 runs for the batting team in that inning.





















As you can see, the IBB, the intentional walk, nets out negative for the team of the pitcher that issued it, on average about .17, or about one-sixth, of a run per instance. In general, any sensible manager would lean against this net-negative tactic. La Russa is a metrics-informed manager, and also leans against it.

But here's the Truth -- he doesn't automatically NOT use this sub-optimal choice. In the beginning and middle of his career, he was usually at or near the bottom of use in the IBB. In his final year of managing, 2011, he still used it 44 times, third lowest for the league.

NOTE: If you haven't thought through the consequences of the differences between the National and the American leagues, managers in the National use the intentional walk far more often than their American peers. This is because the pitcher is part of the batting line-up in the National but has a designated hitter in the American. Pitchers, as whole, bat worse than players not named Robert Andino who play any other position, so the intentional walk of the batter hitting in front of the pitcher to make the pitcher either bat or be dislodged with a pinch-hitter, is the most frequent application of the tactic.

And while La Russa's frequency of intentionl walks is very low for the National League, American League use is so much lower, his ranking would be more moderate.

There's the Lean/Agile exemplar: that almost any practical technique/tactic/process could be "Optimal" in any given context...of time plus team plus cost plus organization plus decision environment plus team-members-on-the-given-day. Optimal is not static and because it isn't static, push-button management using the discovered optimum, even though it fails less often that other choices will in composite, may underperform many other possibilities in the specific context.

La Russa's is a classic innovator. His ability to reject the intentional walk, while still being able to use in in contexts he finds beneficial for it is an elegant example of Agile/Lean management practice.

La Russa is an advocate for a variant of the IBB that he can use in lieu of it -- in certain contexts: The Unintentional Intentional Walk.

Here's his book on the replacement technique:

One of the strategies we employed a lot was the "unintentional" intentional walk, and it was particularly effective in the National League, where the pitcher hits. Often the eighth-place hitter comes up with two outs, a runner in scoring position and the pitcher on deck. If you walk the eighth-place hitter and the pitcher makes an out, then the leadoff man comes up to start the next inning (NOTE: and this is an incremental advantage to La Russa's opposition). We'd rather try to use an eighth-hitter's aggressiveness against him, hoping he'll swing at a borderlibne pitch and get himself out.

We had a sign for it. {SNIP} You're telling the pitcher he's going to pitch at the edge of the strike zone or off the edge. (NOTE: which are harder to hit well){SNIP} What you have going for you is that the hitter, since there's an RBI situation, wants to get that bat going. And he may be more apt to chase a pitch out of the strike zone. And sometimes you might get a call from the umprire on one of those "edge" pitches, which changes the count (NOTE: to a count more favorable to La Russa's team).

It's a classic innovation a la H.G. Barnett. Take a standard procedure and see what you can take into account from the context to see if there's a change that gives you a small edge either in the general case or for the specific context you're about to face.

There are side benefits, even when it doesn't work. The team gets used to applying it so when it comes up again, they will have more experience with the tactic. The opposition number-eight batter also knows you may use this subtle technique, and may use brain cycles thinking about it even when you're not. That divides her attention, and that's a benefit to you, too.

It's not without risk of failure (and to be realistic, almost nothing is, unless you're Goldman Sachs and you carry in your pocket or perhaps on your payroll both main political parties' choices for Treasury department- and S.E.C. leadership). The difference between being a good manager and a great one is picking your spots for innovation/riffing off of the Optimal choice.

The majority of managers gravitate towards what I call Binary Thinking (simple dualities such as "good v. bad"). Binary Thinking makes it hard to apply things the way one must to be truly good as a manager of the First Base skill set, that is, stochastically. The optimal model is stochastic, neither random (investing an equal amount in any eventuality no matter how likely or unlikely) or deterministic (invest in the likeliest n options only until there is no more to invest), because evolution is stochastic (not exactly hitting the bull's eye of potentiality every time but scattering arrows clustered variably around the bull's eye, getting sparser with distance from the bull's eye).

For you to have any chance being successful in a system that at least pays lip-service to Lean or Agile, one needs to be willing to riff off all but the most static systems' Optimal choices. Follow La Russa here. Never stop experimenting with stochastically distributed variants off the Optimal.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wait Till Next Year: Hiatus until January  

I planned to finish the La Russa Invention of Agile series before the year expired but family events got in the way. And while I could soldier on and deliver the product on time, it wouldn't meet quality standards so there's no virtue in that.

I'm being called to do many projects around not only my home, but my daughter's home as well, a veritable bushel of honeydews. Ergo, I won't even attempt to trickle out a few good entries for a few weeks. I will be thinking of you though when I treat myself to an hour at the batting cage to work on my swing.

Have a great season

Last Minute Xmas Gift for the Baseball- Conscious  

I'm interrupting the La Russa Invention of Agile series to share a quick and joyful book review just in time for last minute Kwanzaa and Samain shoppers to transcieve something cool. And it's an odd object for me to recommend.

It's the exact kind of "novelty" book that usually ends up being one of those phoned-in, phoney gimmick ideas some unimaginative publisher talked some mediocre house writer to pen. Last year's Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team is thoroughly-amusing, readable, perfect bathroom book, whether you love or hate the Yankees (or like I do, respect the long history of skillful management while rooting against them no matter who they're playing... except one team).

The work is a collection of original essays by a blend of Yankee-haters but also by Yankee lovers who share their observation of Yankee haters. The 24 authors were well-chosen, especially at the beginning of the book, because while a couple of authors were phoning it in, they are the kind of authors who can totally get away with it because of their effortless humor. I count the Roy Blount, Jr. and Pete Dexter essays squarely in that category. Blount's, a jumble sale of cute anecdotes about the team and the players and his experiences as a fan tossed in no particular order. In less skillful hands, this is a prescription for mediocrity, but if you're willing to slalom though his topic shifts, the work is a total delight.

Pete Dexter's essay is hyperfocused on a single Yankee and said Yankee's doppelgänger, Dexter's feckless dog. Laugh out loud material. Which isn't how I'd describe Sally Jenkins' essay, reminiscences of her street athlete childhood, how she got various scars she wears to this day, and how it relates to the Yanks' Early Steinbrenner Era. It's a joy, because while I've read Jenkins for years and appreciated her insight without loving her work, this is a revealing and engaging glimpse into the person behind the byline.

Damn Yankees is light. It has only the most slender connection to management topics (some of the sociological insights by and about Yankee haters do illustrate personality angles you should take into consideration when you manage people). It's a fine book that'll put several smiles on a baseball-engaged person's face.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #9 of 17: To be Agile, You Gotta be Relentless; To be Relentless, You Gotta Be Positive  

I frequently tell my clients the (oversimplified but) actionable truth, "There are two kinds of managers: the opportunity seekers and the mistake-avoiders". One of those settings will be the twitch setting for a manager having to make an instant decision. In the ideal world, each individual manager can channel both at will, and while each organization will have a predominance of one setting over the other, each organization will also have at least some managers with power in the minority zone.

To be good at Agile and Lean methods, you'd better have a bias towards opportunity and away from failure-avoidance, because agility rests on action in an environment of uncertainty. That's a bias, not an exclusive way of thinking. Safety- critical organizations that get too many opportunity-oriented power nexes end up losing their way, frequently at a cost of human life. When the Reagan Administration, run by opportunity-seekers, decided they needed to window-dress NASA's space program so they could privatize it so they could sell it to businesses that were political allies, the executive team overruled the failure-avoiders (engineers, classic exxxxtreme failure avoiders) who were concerned with safety. The resulting Challenger disaster did convince a small incremental number of people that government doesn't work, but it didn't parlay into the privatization plan, because more people came to mistrust the privatizers.

But, in general, Agile and Lean methods are entrepreneurial and where entrepreneurial management has value (for example, NOT in conducting space missions) the opportunity-seeking setting needs to trump failure- avoidance in twitch or very short-term decisions.

Baseball is a perfect test bed for testing management theory for competitive lines of work, because its zero-sum outcomes and almost perfect transparency make seeing and tracking cause-->effect, input-->outcome correlations easy. If it works in Baseball, it's very likely to work in your less-competitive, less precise management environment.

Where does Baseball set the Set Point for a competitive endeavor? Almost all the way to opportunity seeking. One natural master at the setting is former White Sox, Athletics and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. He documents it in an actionable way in his recent book, (pages 368-369). His explanation relates to his 2011 Cardinal team and their World Series efforts. Game Six; they are down three games to two, and one more loss will deliver the Series to their opponents. The bottom of the 6th inning has just ended, badly, for the Cards, and painfully, because tied at 4-4, they had the bases loaded with one out and not been able to take a lead. Worse, they had not only not succeeded with the clutch-hitting part of the game, but one of the most baseball-smart players on a team that valued baseball smarts had allowed himself to be picked off base for the second out. Emotionally, failure-prevention would be a hard setting to fight here.

Between innings, I did my analysis. I had two options. I could think of these two instances of the benefit of getting a run without a hit and not getting even more runs with a clutch hit, as a refecltion of our offense not really producing.

Or I could recognize the positive of having tied the score going into the last three innings of a home game. I took the latter view, telling those other thoughts to get the hell out of there before they'd even had a chance to settle in. I did the same when I briefly thought that if we were to lose, this would be the worst possible way, because we were not playing well to this point.

Those runs we'd gotten -- or maybe the Rangers had handed us -- were important. Just as the times we'd limted them to a single run were important. Don't do something to lose the ganme when on defense (failure-avoidance). Do something to win the game on offense opportunity-seeking). Do that nine times and you win. {snip}

I was unhappy about out not playing a clean game, but I kept the positive self- talk going. I learned a long time ago that if I gave the guys any suggestion that I was upset, that I was giving in to the negative or acting at all like this was not our night, they'd pick up on that and feed off my negative energy.

Agile and Lean management yield the security of heavy process and tried-and-true in exchange for opportunities to increase product innovation or safety and increase overall productivity. If your setting it too close to the failure-avoidance pole, you;'ll both make yourself crazy and make the work effort underperform.

I'm not suggesting positive thinking alone can deflect failures (see Challenger example, previously). Positive thinking is a millenial cult unless you attach it to balanced action.

What I know to be true, though, is that as a team coach or scrum master or leader, if you share the negative emotions with the team, only worse outcomes can happen. If you share the positive, it may or may not buffer the negative, but you're no worse off than if you chose to be passive and did nothing.

You don't have to be a "happy idiot" and blow up the Challenger so a few political cronies could make some incremental income. But to succeed in Agile or Lean management requires relentlessness, and part of that relentlessness, as La Russa documents it for us, is to channel positivity about the present and future, even when it's tough. That's just part of the manager's work.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

La Russa Agile (and Beyond) Innovation #8 of 17: When Blocked, Channel Your Mentors  

Too many experienced managers limit their ability to adapt to rapidly-changing or even slowly-evolving decisionmaking areas because they don't keep a broad portfolio of mentors' templates.

What I mean is a big part of management is decisions and how we go about choosing how we will execute those decisions is dependent on how big our toolbox is and how much of it we're adequate with or have mastered. The people who make good managers observed their own bosses when they were non-managers, and recorded their techniques and how these worked in varying contexts. Then, when they become managers themselves, they field and respond to the decisions they are confident they have nailed down but riffle through their mentors' techniques for the rest.

Mentors, in this use, don't have to be one's own supervisors, they can be peers, rivals or even people who report to you. In Baseball, it's s.o.p. to use everyone as a potential source for successful templates to emulate or for failures to avoid. Arrogance about status is almost non-existent as a barrier in identifying ways to improve.

In Baseball, furthermore, one channels these other experts all the time, even when not in the middle of a decision to be made.

There's a great example of how they do it in Baseball that Tony La Russa wrote about in his recent book, (pages 119-121). The situation is this: part way through the 2011 season, La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals were on the ropes, when they got an added challenge. La Russa's key field management partner and confidante, pitching coach & strategist extraordinaire Dave Duncan, took a leave from work to attend to his wife's critical health condition.

I was still going to be in touch with him because that's Dunc: even if he wasn't right next to me to bounce ideas off, he was still there in the dugout because of all the things he'd taught me over the years. I can't say for sure what effect Dunc's absence had on the pitching staff at first. Dunc being Dunc, he didn't want to make a big deal about his leaving, but the guys did know what he and Jeanine were going through. I wasn't about to use that as a tool to motivate them. Baseball is baseball and life is life, but if guys were going to take some inspiration, learn some lesson about how to deal with a difficult thing head-on, they could find no one better to emulate than Dave Duncan.

there's absolutely no reason to sluff this technique. If you're not yet a manager, or early in your management career yourself, start collecting "mentors" and their decision-making templates. And if you're senior, and you're not already doing this, it's not to late to up your game. When you keep the portfolio of mentors in your decision-making head, you have a more rounded team of experts and their expertise than you can bring to bear just resting on your own native tools.

It's standard operating procedure in Baseball, and Baseball management is a lot more capable and effective than leadership is in your own endeavor. There's no excuse in the practice of decision-making to not follow La Russa and his Baseball peers.

When you're in an Agile or Lean environment, the resistance factors to applying the Baseball approach are way lower. Agile and Lean both recognize the team is responsible for most of the tactical decision-making, and managers who follow the team are not ridiculed as they are in many corporate and almost all military and academic settings. But not all managers in these environment realize they should not just "let" the team make decisions, but that they should actively be mining those decisions as mentor templates.

If you're not doing this already, it's not too late to start.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

La Russa Agile (and Beyond) Innovation #7 of 17: When You're Going To Get Hammered Anyway, Just Do the Right Thing  

People managing Agile/Lean initiatives are too often reporting to the functionally naive executives who believe, or claim to believe, one can do "More With Less", a dying but still too-common cult-like belief. And those cultists will use any excuse to thrash or torment the operational manager whenever something doesn't work out. Hard to believe, but in some significant ways, that buys the manager some efficiency in decisionmaking...because if you're doomed to aggressive criticism not matter what you do, you are free to do the right thing, not the politick thing

This freedom extends beyond Agile projects. This liberating cognate would have been a perfect salve for the beleagered management of the team that rolled out the not-agile Healthcare.Gov project. More than a month before the delivery deadline for the web-based exchange registration system, an executive announced the team would need to stop working on the site's construction and delivery because funds were running low (¿remember the sequester?). He needed time to try to gather funds from related agencies to pay for the last lap.

That meant for at least days and maybe more time than that, work on the project was stalled while the deadline was not, a universal, almost-guaranteed formula for quality shortfalls. Since the site appeared on time in the state it was at that moment, it seems highly probable that either the team cut testing corners, or tried to do "more with less", kless time that is, again an almost guaranteed formula for either quality shortfalls, budget overruns, or both.

I was not a fly on the wall, but I'm lived through enough of this type of donnybrook before to share an educated guess you probably already know. Someone(s) up the chain of command had politick reasons (not utilitarian ones) to deliver on the deadline promise. Maybe that someone(s) also had pledged the budget ceiling would not be broken. So the team leader/scrum master/ stigmata-collector had to suck it up, knowing full well SOMEthing would break: either the budget, the testing protocol, or the deliverable or some squalid puu-puu platter of those.

But that human pin-cushion of a team leader was going to be frelled no matter which of those almost-guaranteed failures happened. Because the combination of (the total visibility that any human services government project has) .and. (the politickal opposition's determination to flay the team even if nothing had gone wrong) guaranteed not only a poor functional outcome, but a career- limiting outcome for the team and its leader.

In that case, the team leaders were liberated. They were going to be "moving on to pursue other interests" NO MATTER WHAT. So instead of trying to please their many critics or non-operational management, they could have done the functionally right things.

The way this works is best explained by Tony La Russa, one of the inventors of Agile management techniques and the now-retired manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.

He describes a decision that is guaranteed to cascade throughout the game he's managing. This is not just any game, but a very critical game, the 3rd game of a best-o'-seven World Series. ( Baseball managers make more decisions for each game than the average C-level exec makes in a month). His starting pitcher is Kyle Lohse, a team member who has had a high-quality comeback season, but is, as the season is wearing on, starting to struggle earlier and earlier in games. And it's a given in Baseball that a team wants the starting pitcher go finish 6+ innings because that protects the team from having the weaker members of the bullpen appear more.

It's early in the World Series (not so early either team can finesse a loss, but early enough that any decision to use or not use team members has sharp consequences for the rest of the short, zero-sum tussles). As La Russa writes in his book, (pages 348-350):

The first time through the order, Kyle Lohse has his usual arm action that produced good velocity and movement as well as deception on his off-speed stuff, but in the span of six pitches in the bottom of the fourth he gave up three runs. We could see he wasn't the same pitcher we'd seen those first three innings, and when he gave up another hit, it was time for (key, usually reserved for late innings, not a weaker relief pitcher, Fernando) Salas.

This was an unorthodox way to try to get a win but this was the World Series and our evaluation was based on who had the most quality pitches to give. I didn't worry about what would be said about it, or (what would have been said) if I hadn't made the move. That's the immunity I talked about -- just do what you think is best -- if it doesn't work out you're going to get hammered either way.

There are, sadly, no shortage of these situations. Corporate life, fortunately for people who work in that realm, has less visibility as Baseball or government, but we've all faced key initiatives with strong advocates and "opponents" (rival executives) who would love to capitalize on glitches or failures for their own personal aggrandizement, regardless of what the cost would be to the organization.

It's costly in time, careers and stress. Think how much stress you could avoid or deflect if you could channel La Russa and Baseball's way of doing it: When a hammering is inevitable either way, do the right thing.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #6 of 17: Speak in Each Team Member's Language  

Agile and Lean management requires the manager to be flexible in adapting methods, systems and techniques not only for "local" conditions (meaning the specifics of your own shop and the specifics of the project) but also for evolution in those conditions. But as I explained in an earlier entry in this series, to be effective, you have to individualize management tactics for each individual talent in your team.

Former baseball manager Tony La Russa gave extra thought when he was inventing Agile management to specific tactics that were powerful, that cost a little effort and delivered high return on that effort. I call that tactic, "Speaking in the Talent's Language"

That language, at its simplest means using each person's slang or closely-held words. We all to this to some degree; when you work in a shop where people commonly use creepy connectors such as "from the get-go" or "at the end of the day" or by starting sentences with "So," it becomes very difficult for normally socialised people to avoid using that language. But, in general, most people on the team will understand you if you use this local vocabulary. And then individuals each have their own, specific words that at work are local to them. And if you can incorporate that vocabulary into your personl communications with team members, you'll tend to get better return on communication effort.

As the North America becomes more multi-lingual, speaking in the talent's language sometimes requires communicating, literally, in a "foreign" language. And if that what it takes to optimize the talent's potential, then to master the Agile management panoply, you better go that way. Here's a concrete example from La Russa himself, from his book, One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season (pages 335 - 337). That last season La Russa managed the St. Louis Cardinals, and won the World Series, they early on rode the success of a very young pitcher, Jaime Garcia, who had carried them in the beginning of the season, but as he racked up innings and his young arm healed more slowly, and as the opposition learned to identify his skills and patterns better had had lesser and less-consistent results in the second half.

Garcia is a bilingual man who grew up in the U.S. but for whom Spanish was his first language. La Russa is going to him in a post-season game, but has been protecting him with lower and more specific appearances of late. If La Russa uses traditional, no-Agile techniques, he'll just manage to optimize the team but not "waste" ergs checking in with the team member.

In the lead-up to the game, I'd sought him out a couple of times, just to check in with him to see how he was doing. Jaime's from Reynoso, Mexico, but grew up in Texas. As we talked, we slipped into and out of Spanish and English. I'm not completely calculating when I do this, it just comes naturally to someone who's bilingual. Having these shared languages helps with personalizing -- it establishes another point of commonality with some of the players, just as anyone would look for in getting to know another person

Using, or learning, a foreign language is a maxxxximum connection-builder. If you can do this to advance your abilities in your own management environment, that's a better investment than yet another analytical model or financial system. But you don't have to go that far to succeed with speaking in the talent's language.

Just be attentive to each team member's forms and styles of communication and the vocabulary they use and mis-use and customize your communications to deliver better outomes.

No one expects you to be as good as La Russa, but he and his mentors invented Agile; you just have to strive relentlessly to be that good.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #5 of 17: Incorporating the Past While Staying Focused on the Now  

Agile management requires paying attention to what you know and acting on that knowledge. Agile management requires relentless innovation to adapt to evolving circumstances by fixing it even if it's not broken. Both at the same time.

That requires, among other things, a great deal of courage, which is what it takes to respect opposites and, as I mentioned in the last entry, have the courage to give both poles consideration.

Baseball has mastered this synthesis of opposites for about a century. Good managers in all fields keep themselves from melting down from decision compelxity by what I call "aliasing". That's autonomically recognizing patterns you can face repeatedly the same way instead of ignoring historical we-did-this-and-that-happened track record. When managers do that energy conservation move it saves ergs for facing the less-known or less-predictable.

At the same time, if you're too attached to MBE, while you are investing decision time in ever-fewer conundra (which is comfortable), you need to break your comfort to make sure context hasn't changed or that you're not ignoring a second-order improvement you could experiment with and install. Agile has a useful bias against re-inventing what already works, but that's a leaning and not a binary absolute. In the end, you have to escape past flops to concentrate on what's in front of you. In the end, you have to be accustomed to innovating so you don't end up digging ruts that are hard to get out of when the situation has evolved enough that changing your tactics is required.

In Baseball, they call this "Don't Look Back" or "Short Memory". To succeed in a zero-sum, hyper-competitive venture, you have to have short memory to keep your cerebrum in the moment.

As Tony La Russa mentioned on the very first page of his book, One Last Strike, writing about the final game of the season, the one that would determine whether his team would make the playoffs as a wild card or not:

Normally, I don't look back. I keep my focus on the game ahead. Yet on this morning, as I prepared to head over to the stadium, the emotional surge of this was all too much, and I broke one of my golden rules

You take that pause to think back or look too far forward and suddenly you've lost focus. Save that for after the game, and look back to learn from your past wins and losses.

That goes not only for the manager herself, but for the team one leads to keep them focused on the next sprint and nailing it.

I'd always stress this with our players, telling them that the second they started being content with what they've done, they weren't focusing on what they were going to do. You can't (afford to) trulysavor what you're doing while you're doing it. {snip} The real fame and fortune would be by-products of winning. The real fun was how we competed.

Agile has adsorbed this technique from Baseball. Celebration of success and tweaking what went wrong are important, but the actual work of the next sprint is much more important. Yes, it's hard to find that balance between the necessary efficiency of "aliasing" decisions by cloning past successes and the equally-necessary relentless drive to innovate even what apparently works.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

La Russa Agile Innovation #4 of 17: Going Deep,
or Breaking Your Plan To Improve It  

The only dangerous thing about Agile Project management is that most people who try it don't understand it well enough to avoid failure. The Agile MANifesto has a pillar that is the most misunderstood:

Responding to change over following a plan

¿How misunderstood? Well, most misinterpreters think this either means "don't bother to plan at all" or "respond to change in the moment without pre-meditiation". The latter stance fits many young managers who cut their teeth on the kinds of video games labeled "first person shooters" where the path to victory is making instant twitch decisions in response to stimuli and having quick reaction time. Some Agile managers execute this way, and while the results are not always tragic (because in Agile, just-so-so-but-quick is most often a virtue), an investment in planning that the manager knows intimately but holds loosely usually pays off much better in quality without hindering time-to-decision.

In the last entry I explained a little about the necessity in a competitive environment of adapting to rapidly-evolving conditions and Agile project management, a constellation of methods that originated in Baseball and of which Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was a master practitioner.

Mastery comes from the combination of three things: rigorous pre-examination and creation of what I'll call assemblies (sets of decisions that go together well) to simplify decisions one needs to make quickly and the willingness to deploy occasional seemingly-radical experiments in real time, even during a vital project.

I'll use an example from La Russa's recent book, One Last Strike (p. 132-133).

Here's the situation. 2011 season, at the end of August (5/6ths of the season now gone) his Cardinals are 8-1/2 games out of first place, behind the Milwaukee Brewers. They are facing the Brewers in a series at home, and they've take two of three games already and there's one game left in the 3-game series. If they can sweep the series, it will be a powerful competitive statement, but if they lose the last game, it will mean that with 25 games to go, they "lost" two games in a turnaround.

Every single game is massive now, and this is one of the small handful left with the very team they need to close on.

Most planners would take the surest right-now advantage, playing as though this 136th game was the last game ever to be played, discounting the future entirely. Not La Russa; he's willing to try an innovation right here, right now. Bold and cold.

Then came a game I consider to be tied for first for the scariest I've ever managed

I made the decision to hold off on starting Carp (by far his best pitcher, and who was fully rested) in the final game of the series, even though it was his turn. His last outing had been a struggle, and after his five months of pitching, it make sense to tak advantage advantage fo the off day; also, he was usually oustanding against the Reds, who we were playing next.

In place of Carp, I sent out rookie Brandon Dickson (who, if you haven't heard of him, don't worry because no one else has either) This was one of the decisions that Jim Leyland and I call "Going Deep". Over a season, there are decisions that require serious deliberations on seveal levels. This one could have ben the mold. Why Disckson and not (Jaime) Garcia or Carp? Garcia would have had seven days' rest which was good, but then he would have missed the Reds and the Braves (two tough teams La Russa needed to beat, missed because by using him in this game, it would delay his day to be ready subsequently, which, when used, would delay the next start after, too). Dickson features a good hard sinker with a developing curve and a change-up. I was hoping unfamiliarity would get him through the Brewers' very good lineup a few times

In the end, I figured the last Brewers game was important, but not as important as setting up Carp for the rest of the schedule. I knew it was serving up a juicy topic for anyone interested. I only concerned myself with one group's opinion: our players. {snip} If we had lost the first two (games) then I might have gone with Carp because we would have been facing elimination with another loss. I'd agonized and agonized over that rotation, and pulling the trigger on this decision was so hard -- but flying in the face of conventional wisdom I strapped on the worry beads and and we all went at it.

The key points here are (1) he attempted a contrarian innovation even at a crucial juncture with the season on the line and (2) even though he had thought through the planning for his rotation for the entire season and all the contingencies, he was willing to adapt to the situation in front of him by breaking the protocol and take a chance on getting even better outcomes. And (3) he agonized over the decision. Agile doesn't mean low-stress; in many ways, it's higher stress, because your walking the hire wire without a net below (the every detail nailed down plan).

NOTE: In that final game of the series against the Brewers, Dickson wasn't very good but not awful, and the Cardinal offense outscored the opponent for a victory and a vindication of La Russa's decision. And, of course, the Cards went on to get into the playoffs and win the World Series. Agony paid off.

The final point about making any really hairy decisions: agony is what it feels like, unless you don't care. If you are aware of the possible consequences, then it's agony. If it works, then it's a good decision. If it fails, then it's a bad decision. You survive by working the process as best you can, which includes remembering that they pay you for using your best judgment, so use it.

To have mastery of Agile or Lean processes, you have to hold fear at arm's length, be bold, be willing to plan rigorously AND to innovate off the plan on the fly.

In Baseball they do it all the time. Can you?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Invention of Agile Project Management:
La Russa Agile Innovation #3 of 17  

The Intro to this series of posts exposes the generally-unknown fact that Major League manager One of the challenges of Agile product design & development is project management. The foundation of Agile is the drive to diminish overhead, and planning IS overhead. As I pointed out in the Introductory post to this series, the Agile MANifesto says

Responding to change over following a plan

But Agile and Lean mean moving quickly. And moving quickly without management is instrinsically risky...unless you do it it as they do in Baseball.

Tony La Russa and his mentors invented a form of project management that Agile Development has cloned almost exactly for its own purposes. As La Russa describes in his recent book, One Last Strike, the way to project manage in an Agile way is far more intensive and demanding and requires more skill than traditional plan-every-detail project management does.

Instead of front-loading all the individual details, the La Russa methods involve front-loading basic rules of action and working out every contingency and its tendencies in advance. That way, when you are in the moment of decision-making, you don't have to think through possibilities from scratch. It's very much like modular architecture (think Alexander's A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction) or modular software development. Each game (project) has patterns you know in advance, probabilities that evolve rapidly during the execution. Each pattern consists of coherent clusters of interrelated pieces, like a set of 16 Lego blocks you would use to make a doorway-and-arch or a building corner. Each decision you make will be based not on perfection but on optimal utility in that moment, and that might involve riffing off one of the components that make up that pattern, to increase its "performance" probability in the specific instance of its application.

Figuring out which components, what might need to vary for contexts, and contingencies is a lot of hard work, fun for some of us, but challenging nevertheless. You are simplifying the work (by using patterns/clusters) in order to save energy to invest in the contingency efforts.

La Russa describes (page 206-7) a classic example of a super-critical project management planning/contingency-design cycle he went through in 2011, his St. Louis Cardinals' last World Series championship year. and his last season. The set-up is this: The Cards had to win the last game of the season to earn a spot in the playoffs. Weeks in advance of that game #162, he had arranged his pitching staff so that if that was a win-or-go-home moment, which it turned out to be, the team would have Chris Carpenter, easily the teams best pitcher, starting that game. That way, if the game was irrelevant to the playoffs, he would rest "Carp" & use him in the playoff opener; if the Cards were out of contention, he could start Carp or not.

He used Carpenter in the last game and that closed a few (Carp could not start the first playoff game as they would have had him do, ideally) and simultaneously opened a ton of possibilities/patterns he could use. They won their game, but two other games going on after theirs could affect the outcome by changing the standings. Look at his relentless (Agile) project management thinking.

My thinking about the rotation for the Phillies series began in the 45 minutes following our victory over Houston in game 162. While the guys were agonizing over those final innings bteween Atlanta and Philly, I was in the officegoing over stats and messing around with some ideas about how to get the most Carp for our buck. I knew one thing without a doubt: we had to have Carp pitch in two of those five games. Had to.

I came to that conclusion immediately, even when I was still in Houston before the champagne was uncorked. While we hadn't fully committed to having him start on three days' rest (note: less rest than normal, undermining of peak performance) I know that I first considered it back then. After we were sure we were in and headed back home on the plane, I looked at the rotation again. What we had found over the years about the best-of-five Division Series was that pitching your two best pitchers twice gives you the edge. Ideally, you'd like your number one go in games 1 and 4 and your number two in games 2 and 5. (note: ideal because then the number one gets an extra day of rest between series if you win, so can start earlier against the next opponent). We couldn't do that. Carp obviously wouldn't start the first game on Saturday because he had just pitched on Wednesday. That meant the soonest he could go was the second game on Sunday {snip} the fifth and deciding game. (note: not ideal, but a good fallback to have your best pitcher in a deciding game).

La Russa accepts this as his base decision. But he's not done. As with all Agile projects, there are people involved, and team members need both to buy in and deliver.

...we were on our way back to St. Louis. I was still sitting there with a pad and pencil taking notes about the possible rotation for the upcoming series. I got up and walked back to where Carp was. I held out the paper and tapped the space on the page where I'd penciled in his name.

Carp smiled and nodded. "I'm good to go."

"Not yet. We'll wait and see how you feel Friday (note: the second day after a start and the day of testing soreness/recovery)"

I walked back to my seat. Of course he'd want the ball. I already knew that. I just wanted to let him know that we were going to wait to see how he felt before fully committing.

That was a base plan for games 2 and 5, but what about the rest? It's somewhat simpler because La Russa is now building around a draft decision-made that makes for some givens.

His decision algebra is detailed in the book, but again, he's starting with known clusters, delivering small certainties, and then building draft plans for each decision.

Each of the decisions for this high-impact, multi-million dollar Agile project is something he crafts carefull but holds loosely. On game day while filling out the lineup card, he's not going to be krazy-glued to his initial draft; if he needs to riff to match evolving contexts, he will, using other patterns or, in La Russa's or other top-notch managers' cases, inventing soemthing on the fly.

La Russa is a pretty extraordinary practitioner of Agile project management, evevn for someone from Baseball. But as I've said before, the 25th-percentile Baseball manager can manage and lead rings around 85% of billion-dollar company CEOs.

It's no surprise the Agile MANifesto is cloned from Baseball.

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