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What baseball can teach technologists about teamwork

If you want to build great software, you can go it alone. You can design and build your product, make infrastructure decisions, manage releases, get the word out. Yet soon enough, if things are going well, you’ll start to get traction, you’ll want to scale, and your solo run will be over: You’re going to need to work with others. You’re going to need to create a team.

You’ll find books and blog posts that will tell you how to create and manage a team, and they will include all sorts of helpful generalities. But I’ll suggest a simpler framework for keeping the right things in mind: Think about your product team like a baseball team.

Nick Myers (Cooper) and David Bairstow (Thomson Reuters) are moderating a discussion on this subject at South by Southwest! Details here: Building Team Chemistry in Baseball & Technology.

Why baseball? Because both business and baseball are highly competitive, and baseball provides simple, clear object lessons for just about anything that you might confront in assembling a team — how to spend money, how to evaluate talent, how to measure success. It’s filled with vivid illustrations about teams that vastly underperform, teams that outperform, teams with rigid philosophies, teams that are fluid and flexible in their function. Most of all, baseball lays bare the fact that it is damnably difficult to create a highly functioning team. It’s really easy to assemble a bunch of individuals who don’t give a shit about anything but their own achievements; it’s a lot harder to assemble people who are willing to learn, willing to work with others, and willing to do whatever it takes to win. A highly functioning team is not only about talent, not only about payroll, not only about organizational support, not only about leadership … And yet it includes each of these things.

Find the right players

In baseball and technology, success starts starts with assembling good people. There’s no way around this. If you don’t have the right people, you’re not going to compete. Ask the Kansas City Royals. They haven’t had a perennial All-Star player since the 1990s, and they’ve only had one winning season since the mid-80s. (Disclosure: I am from Kansas City).

The challenge is not only to find great people, but to define who the right players are for your team. As longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver put it, “A manager’s job is simple. Just pick the 25 best players for what he wants done” (emphasis mine). For Weaver, finding the right players meant finding players who could play a variety of positions in the field, which allowed him to employ a more situational, opportunistic style of baseball. It’s not the only style of baseball, but Weaver worked it on the way to a World Series championship with a decade’s worth of very competitive teams.

Fear conventional wisdom

If you’re looking for someone to take the lead on a product, it’s only natural to see the words “Product Lead, Apple” in a LinkedIn resume and say to yourself, “Let’s give this one a call.” Baseball executives used to do this kind of stuff all the time. They identified a conventional need — “we need a big bat” or “we need a left-handed starter” — and they go after a guy with that particular trait or great numbers.

Today’s baseball executives evaluate players and positions with much more sophistication. They look for players who perform well in situations and environments that match their needs. If you’re looking for a lead designer who can work across multiple product managers and scrum teams, you’re going to need someone who can consult, cajole, and sell as well as they can design. The point is: Don’t go after a big bat if what you really need is someone who gets on base. Get real about what’s going to be needed to be successful in the role, and beware conventions and role names.

If you saw the movie Moneyball, you saw that the Oakland A’s experimented with new methods of evaluating talent and performance. In the film, the team’s scouts were portrayed as a group of grumpy old dudes who evaluated prospects with their guts, while the young guys in the corner uses “sabermetrics,” baseball-ese for advanced statistics.

If you’ve ever tried to hire someone, you know how tempting it can be to use your gut: “Hey, she went to Stanford, so that must mean …” Unfortunately, this method is doomed to failure, no offense to Stanford. Even more unfortunately, there’s no sabermetric version of a person’s career performance on LinkedIn. But the real lesson here is that the A’s took the lingua franca of baseball performance — player stats — and applied it in a very different way to cut through the noise. So: What is the lingua franca of your category? What can you do to get beyond the traditional ways of evaluating talent?

Stay in your lane

Ever hired a dev manager who thinks he knows your business better than you do? Or a design director who can’t stay out of the details? … It’s easy hire great people who don’t know the boundaries of their greatness. Baseball is littered with cautionary tales of high-performing (and expensive) individuals who detract from the team because they’re in the wrong lane, playing the wrong role. Conversely, the best baseball teams are characterized by players who know exactly what their role is, and who are employed by their managers in the right way.

Of course, people are often rewarded for ignoring the boundaries of his or her lanes. Steve Jobs never met a boundary he didn’t ignore, which was part of what attracted great people to him. But how many Steve Jobses come around in a generation? You want team members with ambition and drive, but if you end up with people who are more driven by individual success or gratification than by the success of the team, you’re going to have a harder time succeeding. Seek folks who want to be part of creating the Apple organization of your industry, rather than people who want to be the next Steve Jobs.

Identify your World Series

In baseball, the ultimate goal is clear: Win the World Series. Everyone knows this — fans, players, coaches — and it provides a very simple benchmark for evaluating overall performance. Your World Series should be a big goal, not simply increasing revenue 10% or landing a big account. It’s a monumental achievement: an IPO; the millionth download of your app; becoming the market leader in your category.

It’s okay if your World Series is unattainable today. In baseball and in technology, there are teams with no realistic shot at a World Series this year, or next. The task for teams like this is to establish a path to that ultimate prize. Most teams should be asking themselves: What’s the first milestone on our way to the World Series? You need to win your division first.

Get lucky

Let’s face it, there’s no champion in the history of any sport that hasn’t benefited from some moment of luck. The 2010 San Francisco Giants were on the verge of losing a critical game in the playoffs when the opposing second baseman experienced an utter meltdown in the field, making three catastrophic mistakes that allowed the Giants to escape with a win and go on to the World Series. Diehard Giants fans will recall the 2003 playoffs, when a critical error swung momentum toward the Florida Marlins, who ended up winning that game, and then went on to win the World Series.

So you could say that it all works out, but that’s probably one of the areas in which technology and baseball are very different. If you’re waiting around for your luck to change in product development, you won’t be around for long.

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