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Change Management and “Moneyball” (Movie Version) December 1, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in baseball, Communication, Management & leadership, strategy.
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The other day I watched the movie “Moneyball” again and was reminded of a few important characteristics of successful change management. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, an organization struggling with a limited budget to develop, attract, and retain players.

Some background:

At the beginning of the movie we learn that before the 2002 season the A’s have lost three of their best players who have signed more lucrative contracts elsewhere. Beane is trying to figure out how to replace these players, and more generally put together a winning team within the financial constraints imposed by ownership. After a chance encounter with a low-level analyst from a rival organization, Beane realizes that he cannot compete if he builds a team using the traditional ways of assigning value to players. Almost out of desperation, he decides on an unconventional strategy based on the emerging science of sabermetrics. He immediately faces resistance from his experienced staff, specifically the field manager and scouts who are unconvinced and in some cases actively working against the strategy.

Ultimately it’s fairly happy ending: despite public criticism of Beane’s decisions and early disappointments on the field, the A’s have a successful season. At one point they win 20 straight games, setting a new league record, and they make the playoffs, but lose in the first round. Beane is offered a significant raise to leave the A’s and join the Boston Red Sox  where he would have the opportunity to apply the same principles with a much larger budget. Beane declines the offer, but the unconventional strategy has been seemingly validated.

The movie focuses Beane’s underdog status and uphill battle during the season, and I’m sure some of the real-life events have been changed for dramatic effect. Regardless of whether they actually happened or not, there are several scenes that illustrate elements of successful change management.

1. A clear explanation of the new direction. In the movie, Beane leads a meeting of his senior staff to discuss plans for acquiring players for the upcoming season. This looks like Beane’s first opportunity to apply his new strategy, but he misses an important chance to align with his team. It’s clear that he’s the boss with the final authority, and it’s not necessary for everyone in the room to agree, but Beane could have taken the time to explain the new direction and acknowledge the objections. In later scenes, Beane acknowledges this mistake to his field manager who has been undermining the strategy through his tactical decisions, and fires a senior staff member who has been especially vocal in opposition.

The lesson: the team may not agree with the change, but they should be very clear about why change is needed. Team members should have the opportunity to raise objections, but once the direction has been set, their only choices are to support the change or leave the team.

2. Removing options to force compliance. Beane is frustrated by opposition from his field manager who gives more playing time to players whose skills are not highly valued in Beane’s new system. Beane stops short of giving a direct order to the manager to be make decisions that are more consistent with the strategy, and instead Beane trades these players to other teams, effectively removing those undesirable options. This is a variation of what is sometimes called “burning the boats,” from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. You can’t go back to the old way of doing things because that way is no longer an option. As Beane replaces players, his manager has fewer opportunities to not follow the strategy.

The lesson: this seems like passive-aggressive behavior from both parties, but I can see how it can be effective. My preference would be to reinforce the desired change rather than take away choices, but if the old way is very well established you need to help people move on and not be tempted to return.

3. Giving it a chance to work. The A’s get off to a slow start and pressure builds on Beane to abandon the new strategy. In one scene he meets with the team’s owner and assures the owner that the plan is sound and things will get better. It eventually does, despite all the skepticism and opposition, and the movie audience gets the underdog story they were promised.

The lesson: even the best ideas take time. It’s absolutely critical to set expectations with stakeholders to help them understand how and when they will detect whether the change is working. Impatience is one of the biggest causes of failure when it comes to change management. 

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