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Yankees Win World Series – What’s the Verdict on Moneyball?

Posted by Mark Bennett on November 13, 2009


All you need is a stone and a sling. Neither sword, nor armor.

To borrow some phraseology from Kris Dunn, “Wrong question, Sparky.” The takeaway from Moneyball is not about it being right or wrong, but how it asks you to reconsider the way you look at how talent creates value for your organization. The aftermath of its publication in 2003 teaches us that the larger game never ends; that there is no single optimal answer for all time. There’s no trick to winning either, but rather a way to see what others are currently missing or choosing to ignore, use that to your advantage, and also obtain insight into building a better strategy from it. A lot of people are still missing that point.

Public Service Announcement: This post is not all about baseball nor the ins and outs (no pun intended) of winning baseball divisions. Rather, it asks: Why should HR people still care about the Moneyball story, especially since 1) it has almost been played to death the last six years, and 2) it seems there’s all this proof that it didn’t work.

People still debate the “correctness” of Moneyball. They point out that the stars of the book, the Oakland A’s, didn’t win their division and the Yankees, with the largest payroll, won everything. Even many who agreed with the way in which the A’s had utilized measures that other teams ignored are now observing that it is no longer a competitive advantage since the other teams with larger payrolls were adopting those very measures. Many readers took away from the book that it was just a trick and once the trick had been exposed, the advantage was lost, so what was the point?

The point was that it wasn’t about coming up with a trick. That’s the narrow view. Moneyball told a story about how an organization that had a constrained payroll was forced to rethink the strategy for winning the most games. Rethinking your strategy is the point. That this story took particular twists and turns just made it unexpected, concrete, credible (to some), and in some parts, even emotional (i.e. “sticky”). It should come as no surprise that the specific steps, measures and outcomes didn’t maintain an advantage or last. The fact that your steps and measures don’t produce the same results they used to does not necessarily mean you throw them out, especially to revert back to previously discredited measures.

That is itself another takeaway; competition never rests and you must keep searching for the next thing that will help you win. One very good way to keep winning is to focus, as Peter Bregman writes, on playing the game you can win. Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker about this very kind of thinking. In “How David Beats Goliath,” Gladwell gets into David’s thinking:

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said (in Robert Alter’s translation), and picked up those five smooth stones.

In other words, David figured he wasn’t going to win playing by the other guy’s rules, so instead he focused on something less conventional. Conventional wisdom at the time was that you fought brute force with brute force: sword against sword, armor against armor. Nobody thought any other route had a chance, so why bother? It’s not about playing a one-time only trick either; it’s about confronting the harsh reality of a situation and choosing the option that gives you the best chance.

There are people still applying the real lessons of Moneyball (and many other books that came before and have followed) and are finding/rediscovering insights into how to win, how to play the game they can win, or even change the game so they win. Kris Dunn and Tom Davenport show how basketball teams are benefiting from focusing on measures that better reflect the overall benefit to the team when a player is on the court vs. individual measures. This would seem to have some application in business as well. But again, this isn’t all about finding a trick that nobody else has discovered yet. Sure, it’s great when the competition is still looking in the wrong places while you trounce them, but you also want to use this information to get better understanding and insight into how your business and the marketplace, and the pieces that comprise them, actually operate and interact. That is what will really help you continue to win going forward.

Photo by hawkexpress

4 Responses to “Yankees Win World Series – What’s the Verdict on Moneyball?”

  1. KD said

    Hey Mark –

    Nice post! I guess I would say that companies who can go out and get the best should go write the check that it takes. Talent still wins. I think what the moneyball theory teaches us is that the have nots from a money standpoint can still compete, they just have to be smart with the cash and really stretch the value their comp dollars can give them with a very purposeful approach. Right?

  2. Hi Kris –
    Thanks! I agree, all else being equal, if a company can afford it, they should probably pay what it takes to get the best. However, even the best talent won’t save you if you have a terrible system. What I’ve also seen you write is that even cash-rich organizations (with a working system) can get so caught up in the “pay what it takes” approach they lose sight of whether they are getting the best value for what they are paying. Both the direct opportunity cost as well as the indirect cultural/system side effects end up hurting them. For somebody like a Steinbrenner, that might not have been as big a deal, but for those investors looking for the right risk/return ratio, it could make a difference.

  3. Victorio said

    At the end of the day it’s knowing how to maximize your assets, human and otherwise, to achieve goals.

    Great post Mark, especially as it talks about my favorite baseball team. I thought there were lessons to be learned as well from them and wrote a post back in October about it.

  4. […] It’s based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis and I’ve referred to it several times in previous posts. My colleague Ravi even posted a cricket […]

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