Baseball is Ridiculous. (Let's Make Business More Like It).
However you feel about baseball (I happen to love it) at some level, it is objectively ridiculous. Think about it. What would you say if I said, “I have a job for you. I want you to stand by this pentagon while that guy throws hard balls at you as hard as he can. Don’t worry. He isn’t allowed to hit you, but he might sometimes. Your job is to take this wooden cylindrical thing and try to hit them between these two lines that diverge from the pentagon.”
I can tell you’re intrigued. “Ok… what then?” you ask.
“When you do, you have to run and try and touch those four squares. And see those eight guys standing around? They’re going to be trying to stop you. If they touch you with the ball when you’re not standing at one of the squares, then you’re out.”
“What does ‘out’ mean?” You ask suspiciously.
“Good question. It means you have to leave and go sit on that bench there until eight other guys have done the same thing. If you do a really good job of it, you end up right back here. Oh - and it’s really hard. The people who are considered the best in the world at this job only even get to the first square about 4 in 10 times.”
You’re starting to understand. “Huh. Ok. So what happens if I do a really good job and get back here?”
“You get one.”
“I get one?! One what?”
“Oh… um… a run. Let’s call it a run. You get a run,” I say, proud of my ability to think on my feet.
“Ok, and what good does that do?”
“Great question!” I say. “You and your eight coworkers are going to take turns doing this with those guys standing around, and whichever team of coworkers gets the most runs after nine turns wins.”
Your interest perks up! “Ooooh!” you say, “we win something!” What do we win?”
“A game!” I say excitedly, hearing that I’ve finally captivated you. “You win a game!”
Now you’re really interested. “A game! I love games! What game? Trivial Pursuit? Backgammon? Cards Against Humanity? That game is hilarious!”
“Oh… um…” I say, not quite sure how to break it to you. “Yeah… it’s not quite like that. See, the nine turns are the game. That’s what you win. When it’s over, you get to say you won.”
“There’s nothing I get to take home?”
“Let me get this right,” you say, being the type of person who demands clarity. “You want me to do something very difficult with a high risk of injury while other people try and stop me from doing that? If I do a good job, I end up right back where I started? And at the end of the day, all I have to show for my work is some theoretical report about what I and my coworkers did?”
“That’s right!” I say, confidently.
“Well that sounds great! I’m in. In fact, I have some ideas, and if we play our cards right, we can probably turn this into a 10-billion-dollar industry.”
THIS IS RIDICULOUS!!! But that’s baseball. And given that it is a 10-billion-dollar industry, there’s probably a lot to learn from it. Let’s dig into some of the key aspects of the sport (any sport, really) and see why we go so crazy for them, and what we can take away from it.
Players get to see the difference their performance makes. This is probably the most important thing about sports. Imagine if your job were to hit balls, but you did it in the dark, and we suspended other laws of physics and you couldn’t feel or hear when you made contact. Trust me, you would get bored very quickly. Seeing the effects of our behavior is a big reinforcer for behavior, and something great leaders and managers leverage.
Applying it to business. Make sure your employees know the difference your company makes for your clients, and make sure they know the difference their performance makes for the company fulfilling on its mission. Make that connection explicit, and make it regularly because, in business, it isn’t always so obvious. Do you have someone working for you who spends 30% of their time chasing down late payments? Tell them the difference it makes. Say, “I know the connection might not be obvious to you, but that you collect payment with such grace makes a huge difference for our clients. Its important to me that, when I’m working with them, I’m 100% there - focused on their needs and what’s going to make a difference for them. That I know this is handled really lets me do that. They probably don’t give you a lot of ‘thank you’s’ for the work you do, so on their behalf, thank you!”
There’s tons of statistics!! Batting average. On-base percentage. Slugging Percentage. Batting Average of Balls in Play. RBI’s. Strike out Ratio. The list quickly gets into things that are beyond my understanding. But all those numbers are connected to overall results and those numbers let players know how they’re doing and where they need to improve. If a player wants to improve on-base percentage, he’ll work with a coach on developing plate discipline. And not only do they tell where improvement is needed, seeing improvement is a big motivator for making improvements, and the numbers tell that story as well.
Applying it to business. The answer here is very simple, but it takes a bit of thinking and work: quantify people’s contributions and then make sure they know their numbers. What outcomes do they produce that influence revenue? Cash-flow? How do they impact cost-savings? Are they being measured on productivity? Do you have objective customer service measures in place relating to timeliness and quality and do they know those numbers? Then, report them regularly and work with them to see where they can improve. And when you do, be a coach about it. A good coach would never simply say, “You need to hit better.” A good coach will work with a player, watch their mechanics, give feedback, and help problem-solve.
Social connection. What I left out of my silly account of baseball is that there’s a huge social component to it. Players form relationships with each other and with their fans. They celebrate together when they win and (ideally) support each other when they don’t. And it is all centered around producing a common result.
Applying it to business. Create occasions where the entire team celebrates accomplishments and looks at what needs improvement. If that’s not possible, at least create occasions where different departments get together see how their work impacts the work of others and how that work impacts the overall mission. I recommend you keep these short and sweet, but give members of some departments the chance to appreciate the work of other departments. Make the opportunity to speak to the group part of your leadership development plans. In other words, make the opportunity to speak to the group a reward – something that people can aspire to.
There’s probably a lot more that we could learn from baseball and sports more generally. However, if you take these three lessons and apply them to your leadership and management practices, you will have a workforce that is much more engaged in their work and looking for opportunities to improve. And they’ll be doing it in the service of something that makes a real difference – fulfilling on your organization’s mission.