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September 22, 2011 » 11:34 pm

Moneyball and High-Performance Collaboration

On Friday night, the movie, Moneyball, opens in theaters nation-wide. It’s based on the book by Michael Lewis, which I reviewed on this blog back in 2003. I was pretty shocked that they turned a book about how data is changing baseball into a movie starring Brad Pitt. I’m even more shocked to hear that the movie is pretty good, even by sports fan standards. Regardless, it’s a great excuse to revisit the ideas in this most excellent book and to explore the implications on high-performance collaboration.

In a nutshell, Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, who used (what was then considered) radical new ways of measuring performance in order to stay competitive in a market where other teams (e.g. the Yankees) were spending orders of magnitude more money on talent. It documents the huge, ongoing culture shift in baseball away from old-school, hard-scrabble views on player evaluation to a more data-driven system.

In my book review, I wrote:

How do we measure the effectiveness of collaboration? If we can’t measure this accurately, then how do we know if we’re getting better or worse at it? Baseball has the advantage of having well-defined rules and objectives. The same does not hold with most other areas, including collaboration. Is it even possible to measure anything in these areas in a meaningful way?

I think we’ve made progress in exploring this question. There’s a world-wide trend toward leveraging the tremendous amount of data now available to us in order to try and understand, in real-time, how we behave and why. This is a good thing, and we need to see a lot more of this.

At the same time, we also need to be careful about a potentially false sense of confidence about what all this data actually means. I love what Joe Posnanski wrote about Bill James, the father of sabermetrics:

If there is a guiding principle to all of Bill’s work, it is this: What difference does it make? The world is a complicated place. Baseball is a complicated game. This, more than anything, is what the Bill-as-cartoon people miss. He does not think that there are RIGHT answers and WRONG answers, certainly not to the questions that rage in his head. He just thinks that there are ways to get closer to the truth.

“We will never figure out baseball,” he says. “We will never get close to figuring out baseball.”

This, I think, is the critical final piece. Curiosity might have been the flint, distrust of conventional wisdom might have been the steel, but that only gives you a spark. What turned the work into a raging fire was that Bill James has never really believed that he had figured it out. He never even believed that you COULD figure it out. All he wanted to do was get the conversation going, advance the ball, give people new things to think about, let the discussion evolve and keep evolving.

Replace “baseball” with “life,” and you have a philosophy worth living by.

Picture by pursuethepassion. Licensed: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

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