Saturday, October 04, 2014

Ned, The Royals, and Organizational Alignment

Much to the annoyance of overworked, underpaid hirelings worldwide, Jim Collins popularized the concept of organizational alignment in the books Built to Last and Good to Great, among others. These books annoyed the working stiffs because of their outsized popularity among inhabitants of the C-suite, leading them to exhort people in the ranks to pursue BHAGs (big, hairy, audacious goals) and affirm the core values that the management team came up with at an offsite somewhere in the forest (in most cases, platitudes such as excellence, quality, service and the like) with unbridled enthusiasm throughout the work day.

The idea was based on research indicating that the most successful companies were those that aligned around a belief in some principle larger and weightier than just making money or being successful. So, for example, Johnson & Johnson outperformed other similar companies because of its credo of putting the needs and well-being of the customers it serves first. So went the theory, anyhow.

One of the few things I recall clearly from the time when I was made to read these books is the insight that it didn't much matter what value the outperforming companies aligned around, as long as it was something. The most striking example I recall was Philip Morris. Unlike other competing tobacco companies during the time that government regulators were escalating their sanctions against cigarette smoking, Philip Morris framed this struggle as a freedom-of-expression issue. The consequence of aligning its employees around such ethical gymnastics was that Philip Morris outperformed its competitors. It was able to get its people to believe that they weren't just selling cigarettes; no, they were participating in a quest to defend freedom against government intervention and encroachment.

Which brings us to Ned Yost and the Royals. As we watch this strange baseball team win games in the playoffs, let's be clear about one thing before we get too carried away: as an in-game tactician, making the small decisions that must be made in a baseball game from day to day, Ned Yost is a disaster. Clint Hurdle isn't so great either, but man, this guy: lineup construction that defies everything we know about optimizing offensive efficiency; rigid, algorithmic bullpen management; giving away outs like Halloween candy. He drives analytically minded baseball fans insane, and he has richly earned their derision.

But it's also impossible to deny that something is working here. I don't want to make too much of it. Grant Brisbee is right when he says that "the postseason is nothing more than an isolated sample of games to which we pay too much attention." It's entirely possible that the Angels will wake up tomorrow like a sleepy cat that has been playing with a half-dead mouse all night, finish the job, and move on to the food bowl in the kitchen. But in the context of the Royals' peculiar alignment around pitching, stellar outfield defense, speed, well-executed bunting, and a shutdown bullpen, Ned Yost's tactics kind of work, don't they? As someone said in Twitter during one of the games this week, Ned doesn't care what we think.

What we may be seeing here is the baseball equivalent of alignment around a set of clearly defined core values. Alignment around something, whatever that something is, is always better than no alignment at all. There may be greater aesthetic appeal to alignment around the Earl Weaver values of walks, great pitching, and three-run homers, but on the other hand, those plays in the outfield and stolen bases by Dyson and Gore sure have been nifty, haven't they?

Go Royals.


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