5 lessons for IT leaders from baseball execs
Your business is changing in dramatic ways. Innovation is required, or else your competitors will win. However, the workers with bright ideas are cynically convinced that if they come to you with a suggestion, you'll only say no. Besides, they're intimidated by the freakishly weird language you speak.
That scenario is true not only for IT managers who work with non-technology stakeholders. Such difficulties are also an ongoing challenge for lawyers who are shepherding baseball through a major era of transition.
As it turns out, IT leaders can get advice from lawyers who have Major League Baseball management experience. Just ask Roy Eisenhardt, former president of the Oakland Athletics and lecturer at Berkeley Law; Sandy Alderson, Oakland A's senior adviser for baseball operations and former MLB executive vice president, San Diego Padres CEO, and Mets general manager; and Caleb Jay, Arizona Diamondbacks general counsel and faculty associate at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. They spoke recently at an ASU Law School continuing education presentation offered in conjunction with the Sports Lawyer Association, moderated by Stephen Ross, a law professor and director of the Penn State Institute for Sports Law, Policy, and Research.
The skills relationship shouldn't surprise you. Both lawyers and IT leaders—whether CXOs or team leads on their way up—have important roles in high-profile business decisions. To counsel corporate executives wisely, they need specialized knowledge as well as an understanding of business, economics, and analytics.
You may not be called upon to explain the infield fly rule in the course of your workday, but these baseball executives have several useful takeaways for anyone in IT.
1. Help the staff know you're on their side
In some organizations, IT is perceived as "the people who tell us no." When the business sees IT as a barrier, they climb around it. Other departments make independent decisions, such as buying software without corporate review of security standards or compliance. That puts IT in the "bad guy" position—and nobody wins.
Lawyers have the same problem. "We don't want the legal department to be where dreams come to die," said Arizona Diamondbacks' Jay. If the staff sees legal as an adversary, "they won't come to us, and they'll ask for forgiveness later," he adds.
The answer? Be accessible. Educate the staff that "we're looking out for your interests in the long term as well as the organization," Jay explained.
There's enough competition in the marketplace and within your own industry. Why make it worse?
For instance, shortly after Eisenhardt joined the Oakland A's, he attended an MLB meeting in which he took a seat in a conference room and was told by one of the team owners to move: "'You're sitting on the NL [National League] side," he recounted the owner saying. '"You have to move to the AL [American League] side.'"
2. Avoid surprises
Most IT professionals know the advantages of getting involved in projects early on. The lawyers stressed the importance of hearing ideas early, noting if they know about a suggested change soon enough, they can present a successful solution or at least ask the right questions. That's a lot better than someone on staff presenting an idea so late that it can't succeed.
One benefit of knowing what's happening early is that it permits you to suggest a better plan. Eisenhardt cited an example from an important moment in baseball history, involving the change in the reserve clause. With the new deal in place, suddenly 600 players would become free agents in the next year or two, creating what Eisenhardt described as "eBay for baseball players." Charlie Finley, the Oakland A's owner, wanted to cut his losses.
Just before baseball's trading deadline of June 15, 1976, Finley and the A's sold the contract rights of Vida Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million; Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers were sent to the Boston Red Sox for $2 million. To make a long story short (which Eisenhardt did not, but as a baseball fan, I'm not complaining), the commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn, vetoed the deal. (For details in legalese, see "Finley v. Kuhn.")
The real issue, explained Eisenhardt, was that Kuhn didn't know the deal was coming. Kuhn said no and then dug in his heels.
The entire situation could have been avoided by good communication. Instead of blindsiding the commissioner, Eisenhardt suggested, he would have called to explain, "I have three guys who are worth a lot of money at the end of the year. We should enable teams to capture some asset value."
It would have been more successful to start with, "Let's work together to structure a solution," Eisenhardt said. "This would have been a broader plan for all the clubs for a cash transaction, which eventually is what happened."
3. Hire and train for what's important
Every baseball team wants to find the so-called 5-tool players. Those superstars can make a huge difference. But very few players meet those criteria—only a handful at any given time, Alderson pointed out.
Instead, he said, "GMs have to look at the concept of the 5 tools and decide which ones are most important. Most players represent one, two, three—not all five."
That is, identify the skills your team needs to reach its goals in the short and long term. Don't look for rock stars, particularly if you can't afford to hire them.
Realistically, said Alderson, when you sign a player, you are looking at a pedestrian player who has the two or three tools you are looking for. "The real key is not finding the superstars but putting them together to create the aggregate of the team," he said.
"The players with long careers are those who learn to adapt," said Eisenhardt. Even when a new baseball player is great, eventually a pitcher will learn his weaknesses. "If you can't hit the ball inside, you have to adapt or you are in the minor leagues," he added. The solid successful players, who play for many years, learn to adapt several times.
One way to apply that viewpoint is to bring in relatively inexperienced people with potential and then invest in them with coaching and training. In baseball, the minor league system and the scouting system is what feeds it. In corporate IT, such a function is provided by internships, sponsoring hackathons, and paid training for staff.
Besides, technology skills go stale. One way or another, you need to build an IT department that makes it easy for staff to grow.
4. Your goal is to accelerate the process, not delay it
"Law students want to cover any possible risk," said Alderson. Certainly, they are taught to think about everything that can go wrong.
But the legal process, like your IT project process, is there to serve the needs of the organization. Protect the organization, but don't get in the way.
"You can consciously accept a legal risk in order to get a deal done," Alderson said, in regard to the guarantees in a baseball contract. "The exceptions can be so remote in likelihood that you spend a lot of time worrying if [a baseball player] will skydive in competition and break a leg." The end result may be that "you alienate the other side or lose the deal as a result."
Major league baseball is first and foremost entertainment, and that shared vision must inform business decisions. So many choices are made based on assumptions about what attracts fans to the ballpark. Among them is a proposal from Alderson, who is chair of the MLB rules committee, that managers be allowed to argue balls and strikes with umpires. Because so many other questionable plays are resolved with instant replay, he said, "there's nothing to argue about anymore!"
5. Learn from the data and execute on what you learn
Baseball has always been a data- and statistics-driven sport, but as most fans know, in-depth attention to analytics, as described in "Moneyball," has had a huge effect on the way the game is played. (I once attended a talk given by A's exec Billy Beane, who was asked for his career advice: "If you ever have a chance to have Brad Pitt play your part in a movie," he responded, "take it.")
Automation changed the manufacturing assembly line, and machine learning is poised to replace other jobs. Will analytics do away with scouting? Umpires? The pace of play? And what does that suggest about IT careers?
To a large degree, the data collected by MLB is public, or it's generated at the league level and distributed among the clubs. "It's too expensive to do it otherwise. Big data is a product of big investment," Alderson explained.
"All the big data today is available to everybody in the game," he said. "The only thing [that sets you apart] is executing on it."
If everyone has access to roughly the same data, the question becomes, "What can you do with it?" Each baseball team interprets the data in its own way. The lesson for IT professionals is to try to think about how the data changes things and decide what to measure and what's important.
Without question, big data in baseball analytics is changing the way the business works. As one example, scouting is evolving to the point where advance scouts are obsolete. "If you were going to New York in a week, you'd have someone go there to watch their games for three or four days," explained Eisenhardt. "Now, it's all done by video, electronically, digitally. Besides, three days in Yankee Stadium is too small a sample."
The scout's role is evolving, just as other professions are affected by AI and machine learning. Subjective scouting takes analytics into account and leaves it to the humans to look at more emotional, less quantitative issues, Eisenhardt said. Also, the data collection isn't common in colleges and high school yet, so scouts are still important there.
Less obviously, analytics is changing the market for older free agents. There's enough data to map out their career trajectory, which means the players may not get contracts as big as they expected. "The aging curve tells you they aren't worth what they once were because they aren't the players they once were," said Alderson. Few GMs are willing to say, "The hell with the data—I'll do it anyway."
But, again, the point isn't data collection for its own sake. It is to serve the business, which is to provide entertainment. So, even when analytics makes the game more efficient, the question remains, "Does it make the game better?"
This is why Alderson thinks the infield shift should be eliminated. "It's symptomatic of greater efficiency, using big data," he said. "We are gradually squeezing out athleticism." The data suggests that by putting a player in the right spot, the team can make up for his inefficiencies. "Over time, the competitive advantage has gone," he concluded.
Improving processes for greater efficiency makes sense in the context of streamlining a manufacturing plant to produce more widgets. But baseball's goal is to encourage people to watch the players, and data-driven efficiency is hardly the point. As Alderson said, the major decisions have to be driven by the answers to the questions, "Is this innovation in the best interest of my team? Of baseball?"
Note: If you're interested in this subject, I recommend "Management by Baseball" by Jeff Angus.
Ultimately, baseball is doing its best to cope with change. And so must we all.
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