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As long as you do what’s conventional, you won’t be accused of a blunder

A lot my after-hours life is centered on baseball this time of year, so allow me to look for a strong lesson for the business world from my favorite sport.

Baseball today is much the same game that was played over 100 years ago. It has deeply-rooted conventions and established ways of doing things. [link] And it’s slow to change. There are tremendous pressures not to break the bounds of common practice in baseball. A ruled error for a player in baseball means not achieving something that, conventionally played, should have been doable. In fact, sometimes a fielder who misses a ball gets no error because he doesn’t try to make a tough play.

As baseball stats guru Bill James has noted, “A blunder by a manager is a move that is A) unconventional, B) doesn’t work and C) occurs at a moment of focus in the game. If you put those three things together, you have a blunder. As long as you do what’s conventional, you won’t be accused of a blunder.”

The disincentive to innovation in baseball, like in so many areas of life, is powerful. That means a lot of potentially-successful and innovative approaches to the game will not even get a tryout.

For example, conventional practice has the best pitchers go in as starting pitchers, at the beginning of the game. Late game, a series of relievers come in to finish the pitching. Some innovative thinkers in baseball management would love to try starting the aces in the third or fourth inning, using the one-inning talent first. The potential in that is great for having the best arms hold on to a win or help the team come from behind. But starting the aces late would be odd and unconventional, and no one wants to try it (and fail).

The few baseball managers who show a tendency to “think outside the box” are the exceptions that prove the rule. For example, in April 2008, Bobby Cox, the Atlanta Braves manager, temporarily moved his pitcher to left field so he could bring him back to the mound later. The Braves lost, but fortunately Bobby Cox has the status in baseball to avoid his unconventional move being seen as a terrible blunder. Still, the baseball bloggers and other commentators reacted as if a crazy-like-a-fox manager had done something truly odd. But what he did was logical, legal, sensible, and could have worked.

We need the leaders in organizations to feel empowered to buck convention, to try new things, and to fail sometimes. Baseball managers, with their ancient game of traditions, are starting to wake up to new ideas. Are business people caught in their old trap of sticking to convention?

Many are. We need to do some careful reflection on how much that’s true and get conversations going about it. If more people are aware of how traditions and conventions in their game might be inhibiting them, we’ll have a clearer shot at making the changes that need making, and maybe we can win more games.

Image: bobbychuck24 via Flickr, cc license

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