Friday, October 27, 2006

Magical Thinking is Not a Strategy:
Rainouts, Cargo Cults & Beer League Softball  

When the umps pulled the plug on World Series' Game 4 after an extended rain delay, both teams' managers and coaching staffs needed to go back to the planning routine. Some things would be the same, but the environment, most especially around pitching, would change. Prospective starters would each get a day of rest, bullpen arms harvest an extra day of recovery for varying levels of benefit. Management reworked almost everything. It was still Game 4, still the same rosters, but the extra day affected a host of pre-game decisions, tactics, and even to some degree, in-game decision factor weightings.

Beyond baseball, say in business or government, how often do you see people plan for an event, like a product roll-out or a thorough inventory or a competitive analysis confab, and when the event gets delayed a little, and then everyone comes to the table with the same plan they were taking to the meeting on its original day? Just about always. And that's exactly how the Maginot Line and the 2006 Kansas City Royals were delivered.

The underlying environment against which you design a solution or make a decision changes every day. Sure, in some cases, those changes don't demand anything more than tiny fine-tuning thunks, but organizations that don't emulate baseball and take a close look try to stay the course and at least consider changes end up like the Soviets when they tried to fight their war in Afghanistan. Dead Meat. Carne Muerto. Roadtripkill.

That's a good MBB lesson. But there was a larger, Rich Garces-sized one that surfaced in an MLB.Com feature-fluff-filler story.

Magical Thinking, one deadly fuel for Management By Wishful Thinking (MBWT), which is a pandemic in American management beyond baseball. There is one small useful application for it, which I'll drop on you at the end, but fighting MBWT in your own organization is a necessary but unending task.

Here's the essence of that MLB story:

Tigers aim for new outlook after rainout

ST. LOUIS -- Now the Tigers may be ready to start roaring. The rains that fell Wednesday, forcing a postponement in Game 4 of the World Series, could have also dropped the green flag to get Detroit's crawling offense out of the blocks.

After all, the Tigers followed up their previous rainout this postseason with seven consecutive convincing wins over first the Yankees, then the Athletics.

Game 2 of the Division Series got washed out, after the Tigers' 8-4 loss to the Yankees in the series opener. They dried out and swept away New York and Oakland.

"I hope we'll see the same scenario and we'll be able to come back [Thursday] and even the series," said Detroit first baseman Sean Casey.

Anyone who bites at that brass ring will get her teeth chipped.

Baseball, like most endeavors, is filled with superstition and good luck charms. Larry Stone once issued a Top 10 list that included reliever Charlie Kerfeld's good luck Jetsons t-shirt, & the allegation of attracting bad luck of being looked at by a cross-eyed person. But managers almost never act on Magical Thinking as a substitute for management. Tiger manager Jim Leyland and his staff certainly didn't (though burning Joel Zumaya's glove in a ritual sacrifice to the Dieties of Sloppy Beer League Softball Defense & 59-Foot Breaking Pitches might have served up a soupçon of emotional benefit).

In case you don't know it, there was no magical causality between the previous rain-out and the team's 7-game streak off tough competition; the ALCS rain-out didn't cause the team's sweeps. Rainouts don't cause teams to play better or worse. The resulting day off may change a mood if management or a player makes a conscious point of trying to tune the attitude. It may provide the pitching an opportunity to set up better (but for both teams, one of which may end up benefiting more than the other because of specific personnel issues). It may provide injured players a slightly better interval for recovery (again, for both teams, though one may benefit more than the other). It may relieve mental fatigue managers and coaches may be suffering after 160+ games that count. But the rain-out is not The Prime Mover, merely a happenstance.

Of course, you already knew all that. But so do the managers beyond baseball who behave as though they didn't...as though they were Cargo Cultists..

Whenever measures of success are difficult to nail or an organization doesn't mess with all that numbers stuff & operates by the seat-of-the-pants, management tends to substitute MBWT for management practice. Marketing, having many components of "soft" disciplines when done properly, is sometimes high jacked by people doing an MBWT thang.

I had a food-processor as a client and they were struggling against fast-growing competitors who were capitalized enough to take years of losses to put others out of business. Their greatest apparent asset in this game had been an excellent sales woman who knew the products (her own and others') inside and out, was very striking looking. She could always get a meeting because of the latter I suppose, and she was excellent at closer because of the former. Whenever they got close to the edge, she would always pull off a coup and save their soy bacon.

The company saw her as their good luck charm, whereas she was really their star talent. She came to the job fully equipped to succeed. There were two other salesmen in the group who had been heavy-hitters in other companies in the same industry. The rest of the sales force was untrained, the sales manager didn't insist staff be steeped in product ("a good salesman can sell anything", a somewhat valid first stance to take), and they didn't generate the kinds of questions the star could so they didn't flank big competitors' loss-leader prices as a barrier. They whinged about their company's unwillingness to slash prices, and the sales manager agreed. To the sales manager, his star' success was magical, even after he had been on calls with her. He missed the buyers' decision factors being shaped, though in his defense, he realized her looks were a significant initial factor. But his thought was to hire good looking women, and they weren't in a position to do any hiring.

This one ended up not being one of my successes, btw. I did some work with the sales staff and got them to collect answers from their customers on a set of questions. One of  the clearest findings was the customers knew the competitors' low prices were unsustainable and that sooner or later, not only would the prices go way up on these lines but, with fewer surviving competitors, they'd go up enough to make up for previous losses. I was pretty confident that in that environment, a pricing strategy of long-term stability with a long-term contract would be a win-win that the customer might see as a win-win. My client didn't have the courage to try it even as an experiment. They counted on magic instead, which didn't work out at all for them.

I mentioned I'd offer the exception -- a circumstance where Magical Thinking actually can be a benefit.

When all is lost, when the data won't support any constructive approach and your conduct and execution can't affect the outcome significantly and the only chance for winning is a lot of luck, there can be a small morale advantage in the superstition-based go-get-'em. That's because the one thing you can do is proceed with a relentless energy and maybe luck into positive results, results you wouldn't get if you were passive or Droopy Dog about the moment.

The Tigers aren't in that zone yet. The odds of coming back from down 3 games to 1 are not very good, but it's only three games they need to win and good teams have crafted three game win streaks against other good teams all season long. Chilling out and not playing Beer League Softball defense would be a great start -- a much better start than wearing a Jetsons t-shirt, not changing their lucky socks or avoiding the stares of cross-eyed individuals.

Monday, October 23, 2006

LaRussa's Perceptive Pitcher Ploy -- Lauding Wainwright  

In yesterday's World Series game #2, the Detroit Tigers took down the rival St. Louis Cardinals, but the small management coup was notched by Cardinal skipper Tony LaRussa. It's something to pay attention to, something you can use in your own handling of staff.

For eight innings, the hometown Tigers were cruising behind a remarkable starting pitching performance by Kenny Rogers and took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth. The cardinals rolled out their fifth pitcher of the evening, Brad Thompson who, despite looking young enough to play Pony League, threw six strikes over the eight pitches he tossed to the first two batters and retired both.

At that point, an ordinary manager would have left him in to get the last out.

LaRussa pulled a nifty ploy: He brought in his closer in a non-save situation.

His closer for now is rookie Adam Wainwright, who inherited the job from the Cards' veteran closer Jason "The Brighton Babaloo" Isringhausen in September when the latter injured himself. Wainwright has been critical in the Cards' NL playoff success (6 games, 0 runs, 10 strikeouts, 1 base on balls) and for the Redbirds to take home the Series trophy, they need him to be very good.

LaRussa pulled off an analogue to the standard baseball practice of breaking in someone easy...though I've never seen it done in October. With two outs in the 9th inning, he brought in Wainwright to get his chance to pitch in the Series in a low-stress situation. But he was in the exact, last-reliever spot he is going to be pitching the rest of the Series in, which may add to his comfort.

Further, there were two subtle advantages for this pre-meditated move that weren't obvious when Wainwright stepped on the mound. The Tiger lead was only three runs...if the Cards were able to get back into the game by tying or taking a lead, they'd not only have a relatively fresh Wainwright already warmed up and already having gotten any butterflies released, but because the game was played in Detroit, ergo with designated hitter batting for the pitcher, LaRussa was taking zero chance his reliever would have to come up to bat or be pinch-hit for.

It took Tiger closer seven batters to get the side out and left the tying run on second base and the potential go-ahead Cardinal run on first base. It almost came to be that Wainwright would be pitching in extra innings, though the Tigers closed it down before that happened..

Very cool. As little downside as any managerial decision can ever have, and pre-meditated, designed and executed as carefully as you'll ever see an aggressive manager ever get.

Outside of baseball, it still surprises me how common it is for bonehead managers to throw inexperienced (or just staff with whom they personally have little experience) into high-leverage critical situations when there are less-critical situations one could throw them at..

If you have inexperienced talent on your staff, people who still need experience to be their most effective, or those you just don't know well enough to know how well they perform in general or under pressure, look for less-critical spots on which to try them out. It's safer for your organization, plus you get to learn how they work, plus it's less stress for the staffer.

And, this is big...think, in advance, about tasks you've never thrown each staffer at but ones you hope or need or just think they might be good at, and then when a less-critical moment comes up, try them out, give each the chance to be competent and confident and to make you more effective.

LaRussa gets it. ¿Do the managers in your organization get it?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Part III - Ichiro Suzuki: Another Lesson in Fluidity, Personnel, Getting the Most From Your Talent  

When organizations make a point of relentlessly observing and measuring the skills of staff, it opens up for them a Chile-sized latitude of options for rapid refinement of work structures. This makes them more adaptable, more likely to survive external changes. Of course, most North American sectors make the fatal mistake of conflating the job description with the person. But beyond baseball when you pay rigorous attention to all your staff you can very quickly tweak job descriptions and responsibilities to match skills and experiences and  aptitudes harvest the benefits of changing needs.

Baseball is incomparable in its ability to redeploy the talent from one job description to another; it's a given. A great case in point is the mid-season move of Seattle Mariners' outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from his five+ year stint as a right fielder to center field. As I explained in previous entries (here & here), this is a move that should/could have four benefits to his team, the third being it enables the team to be flexible in its approach to add a left-handed bat over the off-season (M's DHs were dead last in the AL in OPS and in RBI and in Runs scored).

In this entry, I'll elaborate this benefits and the lessons it offers beyond baseball.

In the spectrum of field positions a batter might take, the more rigorous the athletic requirement to play the position, the more slack a team will have to apply in seeking a player who can hit as well as defend adequately. 

STATS INC -- 2006 American League Profile (per average team)
               AVG   AB   R    H  2B 3B  HR RBI  SB  CS TBB   SO  OBP  SLG
As p          .105   19   1    2   0  0   0   1   0   0   0    9 .105 .105
As c          .270  597  73  161  32  1  17  80   3   2  48  104 .329 .412
As 1b         .279  609  85  170  35  1  25  96   2   2  64  119 .352 .463
As 2b         .279  630  83  176  32  3  10  71  11   4  46   88 .331 .387
As 3b         .268  612  91  164  33  2  22  89   9   3  60  110 .337 .436
As ss         .279  609  84  170  33  3  13  73  13   4  45   96 .330 .407
As lf         .280  626  94  175  35  5  20  85  13   5  61  111 .346 .447
As cf         .274  635  95  174  34  5  19  74  19   7  52  118 .332 .433
As rf         .286  622  92  178  36  3  23  93  11   3  56  115 .348 .465
BTW: In the National League, left fielders outhit right fielders.

So in general it's more likely a team will suffer through the limited offensive contributions of a light-hitting second-sacker or catcher. There are, of course, exceptions and the teams that acquire of of them has a competitive advantage in flexibility -- so if you have a 2006 Joe Mauer at catcher or a Chase Utley at second, you have two possibilities that teams carrying more normal starting 2bs or catchers don't have.

#1 -- You could do The More With The Same, that is, build a stronger offense just by having the normal contingent of heavy hitters in the somewhat-less-demanding positions (such as outfield corners--especially left field -- or first base). One extra serious bat can change the offensive consistency of a lineup more than you would estimate by making a strictly addition-based analysis.

#2 -- You could whip out the The Same For Less gambit, that is, find a player for one of those somewhat-less-demanding positions who was a particularly good defender but a lesser batter than most teams were looking for to fill that slot. Think someone like Bombo Mientkiewicz or Vic Power. Those players are generally easier to acquire and less expensive than their more standard-issue counterparts.

Suzuki's team, The Mariners, with a very-low productivity offense in general, and less offense from their D.H. slot specifically, and in the competitive zero-sum crucible that is Baseball, needing as many different methods to boost their output as possible, asked Ichiro to move from a more offensive-loaded position to a more demanding position to open up opportunities to recruit a heavy-hitting right-fielder (or, at least, a right fielder who could out-hit the kind of production the team was getting out of the center-field slot last year). If Ichiro could produce what he produced in 2006 and a new right-fielder could outproduce what 2006 CFs produced, the net offensive gain might win some extra games. And I already mentioned the side-benefit that Suzuki is more valuable defensively as a CF than he has been as an RF.

A win-win for the team's potential.

There are no shortage of opportunities for harnessing this redeployment approach in your own line of work...if you make a point of knowing as much about each individual contributor and what she can and can't do, what aptitudes he has that he's not currently getting to use, what knowledge she has that's not currently required. As I said earlier, in baseball, this is a given. Management that didn't do this relentlessly wouldn't last very long at all.

I have a client, a small manufacturer, that invests in cross-training staff. They do this to save money spent on laying off and recruiting people. Instead of laying off people who have specialties or expertise in areas the firm needs to get out of and then hiring talent that's expert in a new direction, they cross-train for possible future need, training being far less expensive than laying off (paying people not to work; legal overhead; morale-undermining emotions among survivors), and with the side-benefit, like Ichiro's better defense, of having staff with knowledge of other, sometimes seemingly-unrelated techniques, being able to cross-pollinate those new techniques to their current work.

A win-win for the team's potential.

Note, though, this is not trivial. The benefit/cost ratio in the general case is always there, a big one like a Magglio Ordoñez tater flying high over the bleachers. But staff enthusiasm is a prerequisite for high success; without it, you will probably net out positive results, but not great ones.

Ichiro didn't want t move for several years. There are rumors that he was asked and declined and that he only moved when it was obvious to him that the offense wasn't going to get him into another playoff game without more punch, and with the team having shot their bolt buying the services of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, the team didn't have a lot of options to upgrade at positions beyond his right-field slot. In a subsequent entry, I'll go back to the subject of Suzuki's apparent unwillingness to change when, during the past few years, it's been obvious the team would benefit if he did, and he, apparently, declined to do it.

But staff willingness is a big limiting factor in making a scheme like my client's work. You need flexible people, talented people, people who have a decent or better attitude and who are able to embrace working in a non-generic structure. Basically, you need to recruit for this ability, which means yielding a little on super-high aptitude at one single thing (like being a brick-footed slugger at first base) in exchange for personal flexibility and ability to learn/adapt. And that latter ability is not something most organizations recruit for or even have thought about how to recruit for.

In recruiting, do you balance personal flexibility & ability to learn against the weight of the knowledge currently-required in the job?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tigers to World Series: “It’s all about management.”  

A quick follow-up of the previous MBB post, "A Detroit Tiger Lesson in Competitive Aikido," that asserted that in competitive endeavors, the more clearly your outfit is viewed as following a certain tactical path, the more potential for discombobulatin' your competitors by taking an opposite approach.

The estimable Rob McMillin posted it over at Baseball Think Factory, which led to a discussion, much of which seemed to dispute baseball teams being able to perform a makeover of their tactics for a single game or series or if an observer could suppose intent from a few innings of data given the small sample size.

Well, that was the point of the brave critics who asserted actual points. One amusingly passive poster, reclining in his Jabba The Hutt autograph-model Barcalounger, merely raised his pinkie and pleaded for someone else to make an (undefined) oppositional point, he or she being way too patrician to actually engage in dialogue, but like a Roman plutocrat, looking for a chance to flip a thumbs down safely from the Coliseum's luxury boxes, far enough away to avoid the Passion of the Christ-level blood-spray she or he hoped would ensue. ¿Vomitorium, anyone?

The conversation stalled, but for those who who are interested in analysis that adds to the wonderful things we find out through math & social science statistics, there was a nifty section in Murray Chass' New York Times column today.

Tigers Threw Strikes Early

{SNIP}The Yankees lost to the Tigers [last week in the playoffs] not because [Yankee manager Joe] Torre suddenly forgot how to manage when the calendar turned to October, but because the Tigers used an excellent pitching strategy to thwart the league’s highest-scoring team.

Detroit pitchers attacked the Yankee hitters, an approach teams did not take during the season. The Yankees, who thrived on building up pitch counts, were used to seeing pitches off the plate because pitchers were afraid to attack them.

Instead of going 1-0 or 2-0, the Tigers threw their first pitches for strikes and got ahead in the count. That approach gave them the upper hand and enabled them to pitch more effectively against the Yankees’ good hitters.

According to Elias Sports Bureau statistics, Detroit pitchers threw first-pitch strikes to 95 of 145 Yankee batters, or 65.5 percent, above the 57.2 percent by Yankee opponents during the season and the Tigers’ 58.6 percent. The major league average was 58.7 percent. [emphasis mine]

The Tigers pitching staff led the American League in ERA, partially though a home park that disadvantages batters, but partially because they were darned good. Here, I'll argue (Jabba, get ready to call for help) that a staff that leads the league in ERA is likelier to be a good staff with a decent or better defense than a team that's average in ERA or near the bottom of the dregs. If you want smarter numbers, Hardball Times' fielding-independent pitching stat, FIP, indicates the Tigers had the league' 3rd best staff out of 14 team.

I'll also argue that a good staff is more likely to get the outcomes its trying to achieve than an average or bad staff is.

So here's the crux. from a competitive intelligence point of view, it's clear that while the Tigers staff were league average in their ability/choice/tendency to throw first pitch strikes during the regular season, and while Chass' assertion about the Elias stats says during the season the Yankees saw slightly fewer first pitch strikes than average because pitchers/teams were afraid of them, the Tigers shot their normal pattern and attacked Yankee hitters with 1st pitch strikes, 66% instead of 59%.

One of the critics, MGL, drew what seems to me a distinction between the will of individual players and teams-as-a-whole. I know we agree that individual players make adjustments every day for every environment and pitcher and plate appearance and count (hey -- wouldn't you love it if all your staffers -- as an implicit way-of-being -- adjusted to changing contexts every day? If you follow baseball principles at work, they can), but I believe he thinks that a coaching staff won't bring the team together to execute a group strategy -- or perhaps they might try, but the outcome wouldn't reflect the intent. I think that's where our views diverge.

So as a great piece from the New York Times' Jack Curry quoted a Tiger fan saying today. “It’s all about management”.

"All" is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but in competitive intelligence and analysis, it's absurd to overlook management intent, even though intent doesn't exactly line up with the outcome. When the Tiger batters made an exxxxxtreme & uniform (12 out of 12) change in their pattern by NOT swinging at first pitches, that indicates organized intent (management). And when the Tiger pitchers earlier threw more strikes to the Yankees on first pitches, a lot more than their season norm, that indicates a strong possibility of organized intent (management).

Any decent baseball advance scout would suggest management appears to be playing a role in it, and not that it's a random factor. That's what management does in baseball and beyond: design intent and then attempts to achieve outcomes and then goes back to the drawing board before competitors catch on.

For those who can't believe that a manager can tell staff to lay off first pitches or make an extra special effort to throw strikes on first pitches with the staff conforming and with outcomes, therefore, shifting, do me a favor and stay out of management. There are too many managers out there already, too many people with authority, who believe outcomes are random and who therefore give themselves and their organizations over to entropy.

Baseball doesn't do that. Baseball has serious management.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Detroit Tiger Lesson in Competitive Aikido  

"The more your predictable your behavior is, the higher the returns on significantly
changing your behavior" -- Angus' Fourth Law of Competition

The Detroit Tigers have the reputation of being a team that's "aggressive" in their hitting style. The textbook translation of that is they are more likely to swing a first pitches (which are generally fast balls, which are presumptively easier to hit solidly), and in hitters counts (2-0, 3-1, again generally attempts to throw a strike, and a higher proportion of fast balls, so generally easier to hit solidly). The Tiger norm, swinging at the first pitch got them to the playoffs. Statistically, there are good arguments for it in the general case. AL batters who put the ball into play on the first pitch hit for a .343 batting average and a .549 slugging percentage.

So in Game 1 of a American League Championship Series, the Tigers were facing the team most notorious for taking advantage of such behavior: The Oakland A's. It should have been a formula for Tiger Fricassee, but it was the A's that ended up in the loss column...because of Angus' Fourth Law of Competition. The Tigers, who had been so consistent all season in their free swinging ways, changed their approach and used the A's assumptions as a deadly weapon against them. It's a technique worth knowing and using beyond baseball if your organization is nimble enough to try it.

In Oakland, the A's ace starter Barry Zito worked the game plan formulated to turn the competitor's consistent style into an advantage for his team. He threw 0-0 pitches off the plate, and the Tiger batters didn't swing at them. 

When that happens, the advantage goes to the batter. In the American League this year, batters as a whole averaged  .275/.340/.435, meaning stepping to the plate at 0-0, that the average batter's potential for achievement. If the count goes to 1-0, that is, the batter correctly lays off a pitch that's not a strike, the average performance is .288/.395/.470, significantly better--especially in OBA --for the batter.  If the count goes to 0-1, that is, the batter swings at and misses the pitch or fouls it off or lets it go by for a strike, the average performance was .246/.287/.379, significantly better for the pitcher. 

Zito was starting with first pitches out of the strike zone, which is the klassic killer move you lay on batters you think are geared up to swing at a first pitch. Zito didn't have his best stuff; if he did, when Tiger hitters went against their Form and laid off pitches close but off the strike zone, he would have worked his way in, finding corners of the strike zone to nick -- making them either let them go for called strikes or swing at them and hope these marginals lured the Tigers into swinging at them. But he apparently didn't have enough control to do that, and when you're already down 1-0 and you throw another ball, you arrive at a classic hitters count, 2-0, where, because you don't have your best control, you are more likely to choose a fast ball (easier to control) and between throwing it off the plate or over the middle, you generally err on the side of throwing it for a fat strike rather than a ball. The batter, knowing this, will guess fast ball and swing accordingly...creating more potential damage.

Which is what the Tigers did. As written by the A.P. in the Sporting News:

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Watching video of previous games against Barry Zito and his performance in Game 1 of the opening round against Minnesota taught the Tigers a lesson.

Don't chase his high fastball.

The free-swinging Tigers followed that lesson perfectly.

The team that had the third fewest walks in the majors during the regular season, took a patient approach from the start against Zito. The first 12 batters took the first pitch from Zito, with nine getting ahead from the start.

Meanwhile, Detroit's lowly starter Nate "The Wichita Wakarusa" Robertson pitched a very decent game, got some fine defense behind him and crafted six shutout innings, If Detroit had been a more average team, the A's wouldn't have over-optimised their pitching approach so markedly. The perceived soft underbelly of the Bengals was flipped skewering the competitor with it's own assumption, so the very game tactic (marginal first pitches) applied to foil the Motor City roster became the mechanism by which the Tigers turned the table. By the time the A's could adjust, this single game was decided.

It's not likely Oakland's very professional management and coaching staff will hold on to that assumption for Game 2. It was a transitory advantage, a productive and laudable gimmick. But it had extra value for two reasons. First, it was in a game where Oakland's ace was going up against the least-respected of the Tiger starters, the game the Tigers would have been least-expected to win, ergo the team had the least to lose by trying a gimmick that might backfire if changing a season-long pattern disrupted the talent's concentration. Second, it happened in Oakland, losing the A's the home-team advantage, which has to be at least a little demoralizing.

Running counter to a consistent pattern can be an effective way to freeze your competition, temporarily if they're good at strategic response, more enduringly if they are not.

Of course, baseball is change incarnate, and the A's unrivalled at meeting it perhaps with only the Atlanta Braves as equals among sports teams. Beyond baseball, this counter play is more valuable. And harder, because whatever line of work you're in, it's nowhere near as masterful about change as even the most incompetent MLB franchise.

I consulted for a second-generation family business, a manufacturer that was known for being the quality provider of manufacturing equipment and tools. Their name to the ear of a potential customer (and competitor) clearly meant high-quality, high-price. Their products had a very low failure rate, attractive industrial design, longer warranty, better customer support (think Mercedes). They had a gaggle of low-cost low-quality competitors (think Radio Shack) who were nipping away at my client's market share, especially at the low-end where they caught competition from at least one Red Chinese prison factory that had gotten labor cost close to zero (think Sunbeam).

Personally, I thought they needed more and better marketing, because I happen to like margin. In strategy meetings they listened instead to a old V.P. who had once worked at one of the fastest-growing competitors. He knew competitors in general marketed against my client specifically, made their own rock-bottom price the single competitive trademark they used against my client. And he believed, as it turned out correctly, that they would not be able to respond readily if my client could come close to equaling their prices because they never imagined my client could compete on price. Their assumption was so set in concrete, it would be very hard for them to change (and besides, if you're competing on low price, you don't have many avenues to turn to as alternatives, anyway). 

My client, with years of careful margin-collection, had a bit of a cushion and lowered the price to fairly close to the lowballers' own for a fixed period (about seven months...long enough to adapt to most customers' buying planning cycles) they made publicly known. We developed some financing & rebate schemes that allowed the buyers to make it look like they were spending no more in the first year than they would have paid for the ticky-tack alternatives (making them look good to their own management -- they were buying Mercedes-es for close to Radio Shack prices).

It worked very well. They drove a couple of smaller competitors out of business and more out of my client's lines of strength. It extended their competitive ability about 2½ years.

I don't recommend this specific approach, and few organizations have deep pockets they can liquidate for the purpose. But it's a fine example of a successful application of the counter play of using one's own organizational patterns & the deeply-held assumptions of competitors to your own advantage.

How could you apply this Tiger turnabout & Angus' Fourth Law to give a competitive edge to your own organization?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Part II - Ichiro Suzuki: A Heretical Lesson in Personnel, Marketing & Getting the Most From Your Talent  

As I explained in my previous post, Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki agreed to move next year from right field to center field, a move that should/could have four benefits to his team:

  1. He's a very capable center fielder, a position that requires more skill than right field (and, in fact, he may be a better CF than RF; more on that later).
  2. It protects a secret "weakness" of his other teams are starting to discover and act upon and turns it into a strength.
  3. It enables the team to be flexible in its approach to add a left-handed bat over the off-season (M's DHs were dead last in the AL in OPS and in RBI and in Runs scored).
  4. It overcomes a rumored gnarly shard of office politics that has possibly created a bit of resentment on the roster.

In this entry, I'll elaborate on benefit #2 and the lessons it offers about the limits of marketing beyond baseball.

SUZUKI LESSON #2: MARKETING CAN TAKE YOU A LONG WAY, BUT NOT FOREVER As I mentioned in the previous section, Suzuki didn't have a ton of experience in right field in his years with Orix in Japan, so when he came to the U.S. and started, he made a big point of showing off his throwing arm. Read the following paragraph only if you don't know about the differing demands of the three outfield positions, otherwise, skip to the paragraph after.

The center fielder needs to cover the most ground of the outfielders. The left fielder, in general is the least-capable, and on many teams an excuse for offense...the left fielder is out there to get to the plate and make a difference with the bat, more often than not. In the NL this season, all non-pitchers hit .257 / .325 / .413, while left-fielders hit .276 / .357 / .470, out-hit only by those who play 1st base. So think Batting Monster and Cigar Store Indian Manny Ramirez who, through not being particularly fast in the first place, and by bringing an attitude towards playing defense that he's doing the team a big favor just by standing out there desultorily waving the dead-cow skin on his hand at an occasional passing shot, is about as useful as Nerf Body Armor in Iraq. This, of course, amplifies the center fielder's need to cover ground. In baseball since about 1965, most playing fields are roughly symmetrical, so the right fielder needs to be a little more skilled than the left, mostly because some throws are longer (to 3rd base, most frequently on a single when a runner is trying to get there from 1st base), and the throw home has to be a little more accurate because the catcher can't be watching an incoming runner and the incoming throw both at the same time. So a big attribute that differentiates right fielders is the quality of the throwing arm.

The Mariners organization from the staff to the marketing department made a big point of raving about Ichiro's throwing arm. One of the team's Communications honchos, Randy Adamack, is famous around baseball for having gotten Cleveland Indian second-sacker Duane Kuiper on the fielding highlights of the This Week in Baseball t.v. show more often than Meredith Vieira asks verifies answer finality, and that with skills generally regarded as C+/B- quality.

The team promoted Suzuki as the monster arm of the millennium. He ripped off a few great throws in his first spring training and got into the highlight reels in April games, and his reputation was established. The announcers trumpeted it constantly, the media picked it up and ran with it.

The ugly truth is, though, is he's got an adequate, not an outstanding, arm for a right fielder. He's at or near incomparable for outfielders playing center, but he is pretty close to average for a rightfielder. His strongest throws aren't that accurate, his most accurate throws aren't very strong. Many of his highlight throws were made specifically to catcher Dan Wilson, perhaps unsurpassed in his generation at taking marginal throws from right and turning them into outs or close plays at the plate through his ability too know where a runner out of a normal sight line was and quick footwork and a knack for knowing within an inch of where he was relative to the plate that enabled him to snare, protect the ball and turn quickly.

Suzuki is fine, not exceptionally good. Because in baseball, there are no rigid mandates (The Book is stochastic, not deterministic) opponents have been learning/confirming the reality of Ichiro's ability and how it diverges from the marketing slowly, but some have caught on and others are starting to. By moving Suzuki to center, there's a side-benefit that this knowledge slowly captured is less valuable to opponents -- that is, they can't take advantage of it, because he's not in right anymore, and because the quality of his arm is outstanding among his peers in CF.

But why broadcast it if it isn't true? Marketing. This happens for the same reason it happens beyond baseball.

BEYOND BASEBALL In baseball, if coaches and runners believe the right fielder has a monster arm, they will try incrementally fewer times to advance the extra base. In business and politics, an actual (or apparent) leader in a field will project itself as uncatchable to deter entrants or demoralize opponents. In politics, this is currently done with money -- an incumbent will raise tons of funds, a lot more than she really needs, to deter strong potential opponents from even entering the race. Since conventional wisdom as broadcast by high-paid political consultants repeats the self-serving message that money is the deciding factor in campaigns (self-serving because high-paid consultants can make more money from candidates that have a lot of it than they can from those who don't) just raising big money is a deterrent to entry for strong candidates who want to use brand-name consultants. The media re-broadcasts the consultants' messages, basing coverage of candidates largely in proportion with how much money they've raised.

Runners who might advance on Suzuki take fewer chances, choosing not to test his reputation. The stats show fewer runners advancing against him. Baseball management analysed the stats and saw fewer successful advances against Ichiro, discouraging some incremental attempts.

This all conforms to Angus' First Law of Organizational Dynamics: All human organizations tend to be self-amplifying. Time is close to a zero-sum pool. Candidates who spend less time developing understanding of policy or governance become scarcer in the ruling pool than those who shape their time to fund-raising.

Marketing, especially somewhat authentic marketing, can make a difference but it can only take you so far. If Suzuki had an overcooked linguini arm, the marketing image wouldn't have lasted a season. His arm was good enough that it persisted a long while, because anyone not named Reggie Smith or Roberto Clemente or Joe Kelley is going to be wild or not strong enough to nail a nail-able runner once in a while. Intentional tests continue in baseball, slowly peeling back that which clouds Truth; unintentioanl tests...when a runner goes against a signal or takes a chance that "shouldn't" have been taken...also deliver results that expose Truth. Slowly, opponents have come to realize Suzuki is "just" quite good, and not the embodiment of his reputation.

Non-baseball institutions are not as effective at testing assumptions as baseball is. It's going to take candidates and the press a lot longer than the five years it took for competitors to have Suzuki's actual ability overshadow the marketing image of it.

But baseball is a lot smarter than other lines of work.

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