Insights, Innovation, and the Tyranny of the Save

by Jay Newman, Jump Associates Creative Commons

ESPN’s Sam Miller recently wrote a piece for ESPN Magazine’s Major League Baseball season preview issue called “How Indians reliever Andrew Miller will end the tyranny of the save.”

It’s a fantastic piece of long form journalism — one that weaves a historical analysis of relief pitching with vivid anecdotes from Andrew Miller’s early career, quotes from his mother, teammates and coaches, theories about great storytelling, military tactics from Napoleon on the battlefield and even a short interview with George Lakoff, the brilliant linguist and “father of framing” from Berkeley whose theories on metaphor and narrative analysis are at the core of applied anthropology (and unfortunately often bastardized by bad design thinking and branding work).

You should certainly read it as a sports fan, but I’d recommend it to anyone interested in leading teams of people toward finding better insights or driving more innovation. The advice at the end of the article is so poignant that it had me head nodding along and thinking of clear analogs to our day-to-day work.

Is there an organizational structure, a role or set of responsibilities, an area of specialization, or commonly followed approach in your company that might be hindering your team’s ability to understand what’s going on with your customers or competitors, or to act on it confidently and quickly?

That’s what Sam Miller thinks is happening with relief pitching in baseball. The main point of his article is to show how baseball’s relief pitching role of the “closer” evolved from a new metric created in 1969 called the “save” — and how that role became so valued and so specialized that managers may be making bad decisions about strategy in a ballgame and how to use their best talent. He then argues that maybe it’s time for that to change, and that the Indians and Andrew Miller are going to drive that change.

Here’s his three pieces of advice to the managers, owners and players in Major League Baseball, in terms that might apply to your team:

Change the metric and give it a heroic name.

Miller quotes Lakoff on the power that the name “save” gives to the role of the closer. ‘“It comes from fairy tales,” Lakoff says. “In the fairy tales, you have a hero, where the villain is possibly going to take over and win the day and do the terrible thing and so on. And the hero comes in with the magic sword, or strength, or stick-to-itiveness, and he beats the villain.”

It’s often true that managers — in baseball and in business — help focus their teams by choosing metrics and designing scorecards to track performance. Lots of baseball strategies have been changing as the sport goes through an analytics renaissance — roster selection has evolved, the defensive shift has grown in popularity, pitching changes are more frequent — but because most of the positions in the sport are fixed and training begins in youth, there haven’t been as many changes to the roles and responsibilities themselves.

Miller argues that the sexiness of the “save” metric has managers deploying the same end-of-game strategies that they have for years, and that they’re not seeing opportunities that are right in front of them.

To change the way the game is played, change the metrics. For insights and innovation, this is so critical. This work is all about seeing the world with new eyes and identifying new growth opportunities that your organization is particularly suited to take advantage of. So you have to be very clear about what you’re telling your teams to go and look for.

Make sure your analysis methods and metrics will allow important behavior and strategy changes to be observable. And remember, the type of insights that you need to guide new market entry are very different than the ones you’ll need to tweak a product for competitive response.

Set expectations earlier in training for the specialized skills that you’ll value.

Miller suggests that if baseball managers are going to start deploying strategies that use their relief pitchers differently, it’s important to begin setting new expectations during the earliest stages of training and development. “Relievers need to know what is expected of them if they’re going to be comfortable, and they need to be comfortable to thrive. So the Indians — and teams across baseball — have begun resetting expectations for their relievers early on.” As soon as an organization realizes that the most important challenge isn’t the “three-out save”, it needs to start grooming pitchers in the minor leagues differently.

In business — and especially in insights and innovation — we’ve been seeing a shift in the talent and skills that companies really need that’s analogous to what Miller describes. Teams that previously recruited talent and designed organization charts based on specialization are increasingly finding that they need more hybridized and more cross-disciplinary. Strategy groups that also provide leadership facilitation. Research teams that combine analytics with rapid design and data visualization skills. Experience with coding could become useful in nearly every department.

If your team is going to start value the impacts that these types of skills have on driving for growth, you’re going to want to start encouraging schools to invest more in cross-departmental programs, to start recruiting more new employees with multiple undergraduate majors and double-degrees, and to build rotational training programs that don’t just encourage building generalized experience in specialty departments but actually integrate the skills of those departments in novel ways.

Show how stardom can come from a wider variety of roles.

And yet for baseball, Miller is talking about a bigger shift in game play than talent development and metrics alone can drive. We’re dreaming up superstars. Celebrities. Role models for the boys and girls playing in little leagues.

He goes back to Lakoff and reminds us that in the fairy tale, there can be helpers — like pitchers who are the setup men — but “they’re secondary. Tonto isn’t the Lone Ranger.” The closer is a key protagonist in baseball’s legend. “They get the reward. They marry the princess. They rule the kingdom.”’

But if all the evidence points to a growing importance of other roles — of managerial strategies that lean more heavily on setup men and the sixth, seventh and eight inning, than our system of star-building is going to need to adapt.

This has probably been happening at your company, too. Have you loosened your dress code to bring younger and more technical talent in the door? Has the makeup of the senior leadership team shifted to add a head of diversity, or technology, or customer experience, or innovation at a level that didn’t exist previously? Did you raise the visibility of your insights function with social media and dashboards all around corporate headquarters — or even put it on the executive floor?

These are signals that you can send to your teams about an immediate shift in the importance of certain roles. But remember that ours is a celebrity-obsessed culture. Your team is going to notice who gets the air time in big meetings, who gets the big promotion, and who gets the big pay days. And it’s likely that for your team — just like for baseball — the shift that your team needs might not just be on one of what new individual is the hero, but how the team operates together with every role deepening its strengths — and integrating across strengths of different specialties.

What can you do to turn teams into the stars? To encourage developing both individual strengths and well as team-oriented strengths? Companies like Google have been investing heavily in figuring that out. Their framework on building highly effective teams is a great place to start. (When it was publicized last year, our folks at Jump loved seeing their data-driven evidence for many of the elements of the team-based culture we’ve been building for years.) There are five key principles: enabling psychological safety; ensuring dependability; providing structure & clarity; fostering meaning; and showing impact.

So what’s next?

Miller ends his article with a paragraph that I’m inclined to quote verbatim because it’s just a great piece of “sum it up advice” about leading insights and innovation.

“The save, like WAR, was born of good intentions; it answered a question that wasn’t being answered before, and it did it in a way that added value to our understanding of the game. And then, when it got loose, it took on a life of its own. It hardened into something that stopped growing. It ceased to inform and began to demand. It helped drive innovation, and then, as it grew into maturity, it became stubborn and resisted innovation. The save made it too easy for too many people to stop looking. If the save teaches us anything about the stories we choose to tell, it’s how important it is to keep sight of what gets left out.”

So take a look at who you’re turning into the heroes of your team, what strategies you’re using most frequently, and how you’re tracking success and ask yourself — am I leaving something just out of sight that could be really impactful for growth, or for leaning into the passions of my team? Could I change how we’re playing the game?