Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Virtual Baseball, Great Organization

The one thing that I love about baseball video games is that it takes the spectator "behind the curtain" of what it takes to put a team on the field, Granted, it's in a virtual environment, but the games are so detailed, and the Artifical Intelligence so advanced, that the lines between reality and virtual reality are becoming blurred.

In the Franchise mode of most baseball games, you are responsible for everything from hiring coaches, to drafting players, to, ultimately, playing the game on the field. When you suck, you have no one else to blame but yourself. You bought the groceries. You cooked the food.

The parallels between being a baseball executive (real or vitual) and being the leader of any organization are not surprising. In both instances, you are establishing a foundation, and building upon that with talent. However, it's not about the quantity of talent you have, it's about the quality. In order to build a great baseball team (real or virtual) or a great organization, you need these building blocks.

Mission and Vision

Why does your team or business exist? What do you stand for? Stand against? What drives your passion for the work that you? The Mission and Vision of an organization is the foundation upon which the super structure will eventually be erected. The key to a good Mission and Vision is not the words on your website or signs in a locker room, but the ways that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, live, breathe, and display the Mission and Vision everyday.

For example, when I think of Notre Dame, I don't think of a private, Catholic school known for its high academic standards, I think of:


The Mission and Vision can't mean one thing to executive management, and another to the janitor. It can't mean oe thing to the General Manager, and another to the lefty reliver out of the bullpen. All parties have to be on the same page, or you might as well not have a Mission and Vision at all. This is where Culture comes into play. Culture is how you LIVE the Mission and Vision of your organization. If a random person, who never heard of your company, walked into the front door, your Culture would tell you everything that you need to know about that company.

Colleagues have informal conversations by the water cooler, waiting by the clock to punch out, throwing impromptu dance parties, spreading negative gossip, and awarding extra days off for hard work are all signals of a organization's culture. How an organization lives and breathes its Mission and Vision in the form of Culture has a tremendous influence on whether people want to continue to work for you, come to work for you, or recomend you to someone.

If you have never heard of the Oakland Raiders, or even watched American football, the passion that the fans exude for their team resonates with you. The Oakland Raiders have established an organizational culture that transcends the doors of their facility.

Talent Selection

I've seen a lot of organizations (both in sports and in corporate America) try to attract talent before they knew what they stood for. That's like picking baby names before you've lost your virginity. If your organization has a Mission and Vision, and everyone has bought into it (Culture), then you're off to a good start. The next part of the equation is recruiting talent based on these principles.

If you're an organization that values quirkiness in your talent, then hiring a stuffy grouch is counterintuitive and antithetical to your values. In much the same way that a misplaced puzzle piece destroys the entire puzzle, having talent in your organization that doesn't fit the Culture can bring down the entire structure. Yeah, I know, it's not likely that one or two misplaced people will bring an entire organization to ruin.

Tell that to the 2012 Boston Red Sox...


...and the 2013 Boston Red Sox

Consistently compromising your values, as a person or as an organization, will bring ruin by a thousand cuts.

Training and Development

So, you've got your Mission and Vision. Everyone in the organization is on the same page, and actually live the values of the company (Culture). Your company is so awesome, that other people want to come and work for it. You're so committed to upholding the culture of the organization, that you won't just hire anyone. What now?

From an internal stability standpoint, employees want to get better. Some will take their personal and professional growth into their own hands, but most will need to have their hands help. It is imperative that organizations provide the resources that their employees need to get better at their jobs. On a baseball team, this might mean building a state of the art practice facility. For a corporation, this could take the shape of a Leadership Development program. Aside from compensation and management, the opportunity for growth is a key component of engagement and satisfaction.

From a market standpoint, your competitors aren't resting on their laurels. They're training and developing the hell out of their talent, positioning themselves to take advantage of opportunities in the market. A car is only as good as the engine, and the engine of most organizations are their people.

Some examples of this principle in operation in baseball would be the success of the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and (eventually) Pittsburgh Pirates minor league systems. They turned negatives (consecutive losing seasons, high draft picks, low fan support), and turned them into positives (Multiple World Series titles for the Cardinals and Red Sox; first playoff appearance in 20 seasons for the Pirates). Examples in corporate America would be Apple, Amazon, and Grub Hub (to name but a few)

Begin With the End in Mind

I heard this phrase at a seminar on Employee Immersion (New Employee Orientation is lame now). The speaker said that, in order to create an Employee Immersion process that is sustainable, you have to decide what type of employee you want the orientee to be at the end, when they are out on the floor without supervision, and work backwards.

This is not just an organizational principle, it is a life principle. You should determine what you want to make of your life, and then work backwards, laying the ground work to eventually attain your goals.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Importance of Observation

I play a lot of video games.

All of the experts say that the best way to deal with the stress of work is to do something that you love. I love video games. Specifically, sports video games.

In video games, you're God. In sports video games, you're the modern incarnation of God, the General Manager! You control the players on your team, their attributes and, since they're not real people, you can trade them indiscriminately without considering how the move will affect their school-aged children, spouse, or tax liability. Fictitious characters governed by artificial intelligence don't have tax liabilities.

I play a lot of Major League Baseball 2K14. I love the game of baseball more than sex and running, and I love sex and running. Any chance I get to watch or play baseball is like a combo spa day/psychotherapy session.

Like anything in life that's good, once you have a little bit of it, you want a little more. Positive reinforcement is amazing like that. Whilst playing 2K14 for several hours, putting up exceptional video game stats as usual, I began to think of ways that I could maximize my output as a batter (although my power stats are sick, I'd like to bring down the number of strikeouts).

Thinking back on my days as a real life baseball player, coupled with all of the coaching/analysis/opinions I've received or heard concerning this subject, I thought that the most effective way to increase my offensive output would be to see more pitches. What a novel thought.

As simple of a concept as this seems, when you're hitting the pixels off of the digital ball, your premises begin to change. You get caught in the proverbial "swing hard in case you hit it" mentality. Taking more pitches, even when you're going good, serves many useful purposes:
  1. If you're unfamiliar with the pitcher's repertoire, taking more pitches allows you to see what's in his arsenal.
  2. If you know what pitches he throws, you can gauge the velocity (speed + direction) with which he throws those pitches on that given day.
  3. With advanced metrics, pitchers can easily recognize and exploit the weaknesses of the batter. Inversely, watching how a pitcher works you yields insights into what the other team(s) perceive your weaknesses and strengths to be.
  4. Within the life cycle of an at-bat, especially in video games, the pattern of pitches, if plotted out like a dot graph, usually form a linear equation. If you're really, really smart, you can calculate the equation in your head to predict the location of the next pitch. If you're just normal, like me, you can take an educated guess on the location of the next pitch just based on the pattern laid out by the previous pitches.
  5. Over an extended period of time, usually 2-3 at-bats, a discernible pattern emerges. For example, if the pitcher started your initial at-bat with a cut fastball on the outside corner, chances are the pitcher will start subsequent at-bats with a cut fastball on the outside corner, until either you adjust or the game conditions dictate a change in strategy.
These observations are useful, in and of themselves, for the avid player of MLB 2K14. However, the Organizational Psychologist in me has this primal urge to draw comparisons between these insights and how they can be used to impact your career.

Taking Pitches

Taking pitches in baseball is analogous to "feeling out a situation" in the workforce. If you are new to a company or career, it is wise to sit back and observe your environment. Who's in charge (by job title)? Who's in charge (by personality)? How do your co-workers interact with each other? Are people waiting by the door at 5pm? Once you have as good of an idea as any human being can have regarding the behavior of other humans, then you can interject yourself into the fabric and culture of the company in a more strategic fashion. If you jump in full frontal, then you're no better than the hitter that swings hard in cases he hits something.


This is key when you're familiar with some of your colleagues on a personal (or informal) level, but aren't quite sure what type of work animal they are. A person can be joking and jovial in a non-professional setting, and a raging maniac at work. It's important to observe these variations in behavior, so that you're prepared to make adjustments as needed.


In much the same way that how a pitcher pitches you speaks volumes about how they perceive your strengths and weaknesses, how people treat you speaks volumes about how you are perceived. One issue that constantly comes up in my performance reviews is that I can be unapproachable. I perceive this me just being serious and stoic like I've been since childhood, but to people who haven't known me since childhood, I'm just an asshole. I've actively began to manage my body language, tone of voice, and hand gestures to match the affect of the person that I'm speaking with. No one likes receiving feedback, especially negative feedback, but its an invaluable tool for the person that wants to grow and prosper.

Patterns (Micro)

Our initial perceptions of people are remarkably accurate in predicting their likely behavior. People just are who they are for the most part. With a little information about the person (zodiac sign, Myers-Briggs inventory, list of prescribed medicines), you can predict who's going to show up late for that meeting, who stirs up trouble and, on a positive note, who to align yourself with for upward mobility.

Patterns (Macro)

Past performance is the best predictor of future performance. On the macro level, looking at patterns of behavior and performance can help you identify high performers, disengaged employees who, with a shot in the arm, could be top performers, and low performers who should be disposed of at all costs (as just one example).

It should come as no surprise that meaningful insights into life can come from an artificial reality. Human beings create these artificial environments as labs for experimenting with the human condition (with the potentially detrimental effects). One of the most important faculties to cultivate, for our personal as well as our professional lives, is the ability to observe your environment. The data gleaned from meaningful observation provides insights into how you should approach others and, in turn, how others perceive and make use of you. With this data, we can add some stability to what appears to be and, in some cases actually is, the seemingly random nature of human interactions.

Batter Up!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wednesday Witticisms

Tuesday night was a very interesting night in sports television. Here are the 5 events that grabbed my attention:

Looks like the Cleveland Cavaliers got a mulligan on their 2013 selection of Anthony Bennett. If he improves just slightly from year 1 to year 2, it will be like having 2 first overall draft picks (unless the new guy sucks, too).

Yankee living legend Derek Jeter played his last night game at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night. The Cubs presented Jeter with a piece of the iconic scoreboard. In return, Jeter gave the Cubs a signed picture of the Marlins winning the 2003 World Series.

Former NFL players are suing the league for prescribing pain killers to mask the pain of injury, getting the players back on the field quicker, and for withholding diagnosis of serious injuries. In other news, snow is white and heat is hot. No one forced guys to take a bunch of pills to play. Players took the drugs because they wanted to play. Now, the withholding diagnosis stuff - that might play. With all of the recent lawsuits, what's the future of the NFL as the nation's most popular spectator sport? If the ratings from the 2014 NFL Draft tell us anything, the future is still bright.

The Miami Heat beat the Indiana Pacers 84-81, evening the best of 7 Eastern Conference Finals series at 1 game a piece, heading to South Beach. LeBron and D. Wade are officially the Nasty Boys of team pro sports. Best Tag Team...EVER.

On an eerily similar note to the NFL story, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel profiled the widespread use of pain killers and masking agents on race horses, leading to horses breaking down mid-race, killing the horses and, in most cases, severely injuring the jockeys. Veterinarians say that giving painkillers to race horses is an easy way to supplement their income, especially since the practice is widespread. On the owners and trainers end, a horse isn't profitable unless they race. A horse breaks down, you put it down and move on. All of the comparisons between football players and race horses aren't just hyperbole.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Boys Kissing Boys on the Gridiron

Two admissions.
  1. I watched every single pick in the 2014 NFL draft. It was a bucket list item. I've become so enthralled with talent acquisitions, both in my career in Human Resources, as well as my second career as a sports video game General Manager. It was fun to follow along and strategize with the teams. I also got to compare the Bears draft to other drafts, minus the effluvia that the sports writers spew.
I don't know why I had the gut reaction that I did. In my lifetime on the north side of Chicago, I have seen many men kiss each other. I've kissed a few men myself, and enjoyed it. I understand that there are people who are sexually attracted to people of the same gender. I also understand that, for the rest of us who think that we're straight, sexuality is fluid. My crutch is that I'm not used to seeing it on tv. It's a very weak crutch.
No matter what team officials say, Michael Sam became the first SEC Defensive Player of the Year not to be selected in the first 2 rounds partially due to his decision to be brave, and live as an openly gay man. The NFL likes bravery, as long as it's between the white lines.
All of the draft "experts" on television and radio cite Sam's position (he was a pass rushing linebacker , or "tweener" in college), limited athletic ability, and inconsistent numbers sacking the quarterback as objective reasons why Sam was selected in the 7th Round. I have to admit, the experts almost had me until some guy from (insert Division II school in Minnesota) was drafted before Sam. Hell, the Bears drafted a punter in the 5th round.
Are you telling me that a straight punter is worth more than a gay defensive lineman...who played in the toughest conference in college football (the SEC)...and was the best defensive player in the toughest conference?
As brave as Michael Sam is for his revelations, he can't break the "macho man" veneer that the NFL has put over the imperfections (or rather reality) of their employee's private lives. We are naive to think that Michael Sam is the only gay player in the NFL. He's just the first to admit it. I don't know what Michael Sam hopes to accomplish with the podium that he now has, but if his hope was to help create an environment where gay athletes could be themselves, without repercussions, Mr. Sam got the same message that we all got from this weekend's selection meeting:
"It's okay to be gay in the NFL, just as long as you marry a woman while you're playing, and then come out once you retire."
Michael Sam's jersey is the 2nd highest selling jersey of all 2014 draftees, 2nd only to the draft's other darling Johnny Manziel. If it's one thing that the NFL knows, it's how to count money.

Change is always slow to come. Teams in multiple professional sports wouldn't draft or sign black players, until they realized that they were good and realized that, no matter what consumers say out loud, their money speaks louder.

The same will happen with Michael Sam and subsequent openly gay players in the NFL. Let the people on anonymous discussion boards and Twitter spew their hatred and vitriol. So far, the money says that the multi billion dollar LGBT consumer base is squarely behind Sam. I have no doubt in my mind that, when Sam adds his talents to an already fearsome defensive line in St. Louis, the very people that ostracized him will join in the cacophony of cheers.

So, back to my first question. Why was I so freaked out by Sam kissing his boyfriend on live television? I guess, deep down inside, I was jealous. Jealous that he was drafted by a NFL team, and jealous that he got to spend it with the person that he loves.

That's a me issue, not a Michael Sam issue.