Is Baseball the most “agile” sport on the planet?
Sport, especially Teamsport has always made a great, if obvious metaphor for teamwork: A common goal unites a bunch of people organized in teams which compete to win. Teams make decisions, communicate, manage conflict and solve problems (ideally in a supportive and trusting atmosphere) in order to accomplish their objectives. I imagine Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka had something similar in mind when they were coining the now-famed “moving the Scrum downfield” phrase in their New New Product Development Game.
My kids play baseball. I know, an unusual choice for kids in Germany (sincere apologies to American readers, I freely admit that it’s much less competitive here). Anyway, after living for seven-plus years with the sport I found some astounding analogies between Scrum and baseball, much more than in any other sport I have seen. Let me detail this.
First of all, baseball is the poster-child of a complex sport. So many things factor in that you can’t predict the outcome of a single game even when a first team plays a last team.
The best teams in Major Leage Baseball in regular season are winning only between 50 and 60 percent of their games. I’m saying “only” because in football/soccer that win-loss ratio typically lies at 70 percent upwards (not taking ties into consideration). I guess this is the main reason a pro-season has each team play 162 regular season games a year: to have an appropriate sample size.
Planning is everything, the plan is nothing
Everything starts with setting up a plan for the coming iteration, eh, game. The scheduled pitcher defines how the rest of the defense sets up and plays. Some pitchers throw pitches that will cause lots of fly balls. As a result the rest of the defense is positioned and skilled at flagging down fly balls. Other pitchers throw pitches that dip and cause lots of ground balls. In this case, a strong infield is necessary. But even if you manage to execute your game plan perfectly things might not work out the way you had hoped (and as per Marty de Jonge, we people are lousy predictors), in which case you need to change the plan.
Inspect and adapt
In football/soccer it’s often about enforcing your own gameplay over that of your opponent to succeed. Due to the slow nature of baseball (and the fact that one swing of a bat can entirely change the course of the whole game) this isn’t possible. You have to adapt to the situation at the lowest possible level of detail. Depending on whether the team faces a left- or a right-handed batter the infield will realign from standard positions into the shift. The pitcher will choose the next pitch depending on the pitch count, inning pitched and score, even position himself differently on the mound depending on whether there is a runner on base or not. The batter will adjust to the timing of the pitches he has seen. And so on. Domination comes from adaptability, much as in Scrum.
On the field the team has to be pretty much self-organizing and in any given situation the players have to act as a whole. The job is to make the out, regardless whether you’re the Third Baseman or the Center Fielder. Nevertheless, I always had the feeling that the shortstop might make a great Scrum Master. The role is by definition not more important than any other, but many consider him essential in facillitating the communication in the infield. Speaking of roles, we have something akin to a product owner, too. The field manager has the final say in constructing the lineup, when to bring in a relief pitcher or make substitutions when he’s uncomfortable with a specific pitching-hitting matchup.
The best field managers, much like good product owners, have an eye on their players, set the right conditions for their team to succeed but ultimately put trust in their team to win. And I think that being so essential to the team this is why field managers in baseball actually wear a team jersey — haven’t seen this in any other professional sport.
Communication is key
Since everybody is keeping their eyes on the ball, communication between players is a key factor. Whenever two outfielders collide while trying to catch a flyball or a ball drops in-between incoming players you know they did not communicate properly. The player that has a good shot on catching the ball has to call off the others. Scrum events were designed to ensure there is good communication inside and outside of your team. Frequently I get asked whether we really do need a daily or a retrospective every time. If you don’t want balls drop to the ground regularly, please stick to your events.
What looks like wizardry on the field comes from practice. Just like in the Shu-Ha-Ri principle each player at first needs to know and practice his standard position, fundamentals and techniques. With the basic practices working he proceeds to learn the underlying principles and theory behind until at one point all moves are natural, without clinging to forms. Practice your Scrum.
A Game of Metrics
Maybe the most fascinating aspect is that baseball has always been about metrics. The tracking of player achievements goes back to the 19th century and some of the most common metrics like Earned Runs Allowed (ERA), RBI (Runs Batted In) or Runs Scored can be retraced to the box score invented by Henry Chadwick in 1858. Of course they were refined, detailed and improved over the decades and with the advent of saber metrics at the latest a vast variety of empirical data has been used to evaluate past performance and predict future performance to determine a player’s contribution to the team.
Many of those metrics have been created to eliminate or reduce bias. Take the wins above replacement as an example, where a certain player is compared to a replacement-level player in order to determine the number of additional wins the player has provided to the team. A common pitfall in Scrum implementations I have seen is aiming blindly for more and faster development. Scrum is about providing value. Spend some time to think about good metrics and use them wisely. And reduce your bias.
Objectives and Key Results
While these metrics (and there’s tons of them) will provide you with as much information and predictability as you want on player-level, from a club perspective ultimately it’s about winning games and winning championships. Key results like improving your batting average strongly relate to the possibility to put runners on base and eventually score runs which in turns heighten the chance to win games. Connect your key results with your objectives.
Effectivity over Efficiency
As many observers noticed, there is a lot of standing around in baseball. Heck, sometimes (rarely) during a whole game not one ball makes it to the outfield. Doesn’t look very efficient to me in terms of resource utilization, does it? (Ron Jeffries had a hilarious article on that). But this is not what it’s all about. It’s all about winning the game. Nobody cares if you were sitting in left field the whole 9 innings as long as you make the play when it matters.
It may be a sprint, but in the end it’s a marathon
As with every product, it’s not only about winning short-term, long-term thinking also applies. The strict transaction rules applied by Major League Baseball prevent teams from constructing the winningest roster by acquiring all the most accomplished players, simply because they may not be available at that time, regardless of what you might be willing to pay. When teams fall out of contention time and again a general manager will be forced to think about rebuilding his team to win in the future. If your product idea doesn’t work out, rethink and rebuild.
In the end, only the team matters
Especially in youth leagues many teams win by having the most accomplished forward or the best goalie. These single-player wins have never worked in baseball. You can have the one greatest pitcher but he will wear out after a couple of innings. You may have the best hitter in the league but he will have an at-bat only once every couple of innings. Baseball showed me that it’s all about being a team in the truest sense of the word.
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