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Archive for March, 2012

Spring Training: Three Lessons on Change from Billy Beane and “Moneyball”

“It’s unbelievable how much you don’t know
about the game you’ve been playing all your life.”
— Mickey Mantle

With the first week of April comes a treasured ritual for many: Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. And in fact, ten years ago this spring, a man named Billy Beane changed baseball forever.

Billy Beane

The Real Billy Beane

Do you know Billy Beane? If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing that there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated movie, Moneyball, and maybe you’ve even read the book. I saw the film recently, and it offers a stimulating look at the revolutionary change that Billy Beane brought to the Oakland A’s a decade ago. But more importantly, Moneyball is a compelling metaphor for the change that’s happening all around us and is affecting our lives and our careers in ways large and small.

The nutshell version of Moneyball is this: In 2002, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, substituted the statistical theory of the eccentric Bill James for conventional wisdom and the intuition of the team’s baseball scouts. Amid much gnashing of teeth, this new system helped the team find and sign overlooked players who could be had for bargain-basement prices. This in turn allowed the A’s, which had one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, to compete with the very best teams in baseball and break an all-time American League record with 20 consecutive wins during the season.

While they did not become World Series champions, the A’s did make the playoffs, which in itself was an astounding achievement from where they were earlier in the season after losing three of their top players. And more significantly, Beane’s statistical strategy was immediately adapted by the Boston Red Sox, which two years later used it to win their first World Series since 1918. The Red Sox followed this up in 2007 by winning their second World Series in four years, and by that time the entire baseball world had been won over by statisticians from the Ivy League.

Writers such as Jason Fell have already done a good job of describing the lessons that Moneyball holds for business people in any industry. He finds the following three lessons: 1) Make change when it’s needed, 2) Stand by your decisions, and 3) Set realistic goals. Fell’s first lesson strikes me as the most important one to come out of Moneyball, and it’s worth a closer look.

“Make change when it’s needed” sounds straightforward and easy, doesn’t it? Yet, this may be the most difficult lesson to enact in real life. How can any of us say for certain when change is needed? Reasonable people disagree all the time about this, whether it’s in the baseball clubhouse or the executive lunchroom. In fact, change is guaranteed to be the one constant in our lives and careers. All of us are surrounded by so much change on an ongoing basis, how are we to make sense of it all?  A popular axiom would have us “embrace change,” but if we were to do so indiscriminately, we would have no time for anything else. Luckily for us, Moneyball offers a way to work through these questions.