When the Houston Astros won last year’s major league baseball World Series, it marked the end of a long and challenging road. It was the first time in the club’s 56 year history that it won the title and only 4 years ago, the team lost a staggering 111 games out of 162. The team gives much of the credit to Houston Astro’s General Manager who was hired in 2011, coming from a background of McKinsey Consulting and several years as the Vice President of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. Upon arrival, he began undertaking a data-driven transformation of the baseball operations for the Astros. He believed an analytical approach should be the driver of player selection and on the field decision-making, such as where to position players on the field in game situations for each particular hitter.
As background, the Astros had never been focused on analytics before. They had a strong reputation, as most professional baseball teams did, of relying on the judgment of their scouts to spot high-potential young players. The field managers would decide which players should be elevated to the major league team based on their experience-based judgment, and they would make on-the-field decisions such as how to arrange the defensive players for a particular batter.
As you would imagine, there was very strong resistance to the general manager’s data-driven efforts. After all, these were people who have been around baseball a long time and had developed confidence in their instincts in guiding them in making personnel and on-the-field decisions.
By 2013, when the team was making some modest progress, players were complaining about where they were being instructed to play on the field. Also, coaches and scouts were gripping about the idea of using analytical information as the prime driver of decisions rather than relying on their judgment.
By 2014, the coaches and front office personnel were beginning to understand the power of the analytical approach but there was still strong resistance among the players. The general manager made the decision to take a few days and spend time with all the players in the classroom explaining exactly what the basis for all of the analytics was about.
After going through all the numbers and findings which demonstrate the power of these analytical approaches, the players began to understand how to use the data and how it could improve their results. From then on, the pushback by the players basically disappeared and the Astros began winning more and more. Also, prized young talent began to emerge that was clearly due to the sophisticated analytical selection process. The ultimate achievement was last year’s World Series victory.
The lesson is clear here: if you are asking folks to do something different, it pays significantly to involve them in the reason why such a request is being made. You want them on your side, not fighting against new directions because they flat out don’t understand it!