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Moneyball plays out every day, on the field and at work.

I’m not a big fan of baseball, but in a fit of boredom and curiosity to see what so many of our clients have been talking about, I finally relented and watched Moneyball last week. What surprised me is that I’ve seen the very same conversations play out in many a boardroom.

In case you missed it, the bestselling book by Michael Lewis and the hugely popular movie that followed, tell the story of the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt).

The 2001 season had closed and fear was in the air. Most of their key talent from the past season had already left, snapped up by wealthier teams, and they were worried about filling those slots. The A’s had never been a big market team and so money was very tight. They had to satisfy themselves with the talent they could afford.

The story begins with the coaches and scouts embroiled in baseball’s version of a succession planning exercise, arguing over which players to recruit with their meagre budget, when Billy Beane walks in and starts to challenge their thinking (Beane’s comments in italics):

"I like Geronimo. The guy's an athlete. Big, fast, talented. Clean cut. Good face. Good jaw."

"But can he hit?"

“He’s got a beautiful swing. The ball explodes off his bat. He throws the club head at the ball and when he connects he drives it.”

“If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good?”

“He’s a minor leaguer. He’ll be ready.”

“So he’s gonna be a big hitter when we put him up against major league guys?”

“I like Perez. He’s got a classic swing. It’s a real clean stroke.”

“I don’t know… he can’t hit a curveball”.

“Well there’s some work to be done, I’ll admit that. And he’s got an ugly girlfriend.”

“What’s that mean?”

“An ugly girlfriend means no confidence, OK? I’m just saying, we are trying to replace Giambi and this guy’s girlfriend is a 6 at best.”

“La la la la.”

“Damn, Billy, was that a suggestion?”

“I suggest talking. Keep on talking just like you are. La la la la la, just like it’s business as usual. It’s not”.

And so began the process of slowly changing his staff’s thinking about how to measure what matters. What’s the good of shelling out big dollars for one player who has a reasonable ability to deliver home runs if the rest of the team can’t get on base? He gradually shifted their thinking away from the big home run hitters, to simply scoring base hits. It didn’t matter how they did it – it could be by getting hit by the ball – if they could just keep getting players on base, they would score more points.  Not pretty, maybe, but effective.

And so it goes, in business are well as in sports.

I’ve sat in on (and, earlier in my career, participated in) too many talent discussions where the facts about performance and potential were obscured by meaningless metrics and what we used to refer to at Pepsi as the GGF – the ‘good guy factor’ (as in, he’s a good guy or he’s a really hard worker or he’s Pepsi Pretty, or he bleeds blue and red). Any of these comments is about as meaningful as the one about the player’s girlfriend being a six, but there it is, front and center in just about every conversation about talent, bench and succession.

Which is why that last comment by Billy Beane should ring in our ears. It’s not business as usual any longer, in baseball or in business. The economy is more challenging, and the labor market more fragmented than ever before. The tools, approaches and mindsets that got us here simply aren’t going to take us where we need to go. It’s time to take a lesson from the Oakland A’s and apply it to your own team: it’s time to start Measuring what Matters.

Of course, the whole story is about how the team learned to focus on the right numbers – those stats that actually work together to win ball games – and along the way, even very average players learned to lean into those very narrow (and sometimes obscure) talents they brought to the table.

The shift in philosophy allowed a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league ($40MM vs, the Yankees’ $120MM) and staffed with misfits to field a contender whose improbable season saw them finish first in the AL West with a record of 103-59, set an AL record of 20 consecutive wins, and advance to the playoffs. Against the odds – or was it?

Oh, and a great article in The Atlantic caught my eye recently. Seems this year’s Oakland A’s are the REAL Moneyball team.

Turns out they didn’t make it into the second playoff round this season either, but they sure were an entertaining (and hugely profitable) team of average players who delivered above average results.

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