If you have ever followed sportsball, the one thing you have surely noticed is that some franchises never win, while others win a lot. In America, the New York Yankees are the example of perennial winners. In English soccer, Manchester United is the club that is the example of consistent excellence. The opposite is true as well. In America, the organization best known for futility is the Cleveland Browns. It’s not just that they never win anything. They find hilarious ways to lose and embarrass themselves.
The question is why? In the case of baseball, market size has always been assumed to be the main driver. With unlimited budgets for payroll and player development, the teams with deep pockets could dominate. The Yankees operate in New York. The Dodgers are in Los Angeles. Over the years, the correlation between winning and market size has been strong enough for most people to assume that’s the reason. Of course, the Mets and Cubs stand out as stark exceptions, so there is more to it.
In other sports, like English soccer, the market share answer does not apply. Manchester is the thirst largest metropolitan area, behind Birmingham and London, but it is a fifth the size of London and much poorer. The dominance of Manchester is a lot like the success of the Green Bay Packers in American football. Not quite to that extreme, but Man U has had much more success than the Packers. While having a big market helps in all sports, the rules and some other factors often neutralize the advantage.
One area where this “something” else is easier to notice is in how teams hire their front office people. The reason the Cleveland Browns, for example, lose all the time is they hire stupid people to run their club. The New England Patriots, in contrast, hired a cerebral coach, paid him well and staffed their front office with smart people. They also make sure the culture of the organizations rewards the smart and punishes the stupid. When these people leave for better jobs, they often fail in their new organizations.
While it seems obvious, the reason franchises have sustained success or failure is due mostly to their organizational IQ. This is most obvious in baseball. The Oakland A’s are credited with being the first team to employ statistics in player evaluation. Moneyball, as it is called, seeks to find the best value in the market for talent, but also the most useful players in the market. The stat-geeks have re-evaluated the stats in baseball and created new metrics to measure a player’s contribution to winning games.
What the Oakland A’s learned is they could get players that were 90% as good as the big stars, for 30% of the investment. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a useful way of thinking of it. They understood that a player who walks a lot is more valuable than a guy who strikes out a lot, but also hits for a high average. The former is on-base more often, so he contributes more runs than the latter. Hitting home runs is a good way to get a big contract and sell tickets, but getting on base is what counts most.
Now, all of the big clubs have armies of stat-geeks doing the moneyball thing. The Boston Red Sox have the godfather of stat geeks, Bill James, on their payroll. The use of stats has become so pervasive, it is changing the game. Managers no longer make decisions during games. Instead, they consult probability charts and select from the options the front office created before the game. It’s an odd form of computer chess. Instead of humans controlling the robot pieces, it’s the robots controlling the human pieces.
The fact is, winning is about avoiding error. Since the Greeks this has been understood, so why is this not a universal part of all sport? The owner of the Cleveland Browns is probably a smart guy. He’s rich enough to own a sportsball team, so he may not be a genius, but he is pretty smart. Why does he not hire a team of behavior scientists to study winning and create personality models for the various jobs within the organization? He could hire people to model how the Patriots run their organization.
It does not have to be a sci-fi version of this stuff to work. The team of analysts could come up with the five facts common to all failed coaches in the Browns organization and then compare that to the least successful coaches in the game. Odds are, they will find some commonalities. Knowing what does not work, they could simply avoid hiring coaches with any of those qualities. That would not guarantee success, but maybe it eliminates embarrassing, catastrophic failure. Better is better.
Sports organizations are systems, so the tools used in system analysis should apply to sports teams, corporations, political movements and so forth. American business employs continuous improvement techniques to fine tune daily operations. Some are more committed than others and some things work better than others, but fixing small things tends to have the greatest impact on performance. This is true in most systems. Fixing a simple error in a line of code can greatly increase system performance.
Despite this well-known reality, human organizations are the least likely to embrace empirical techniques. Politics is the most obvious. If the parties simply required an IQ test for party membership, they would save themselves a lot of trouble. Sports franchises tinker around with this stuff, but they have never embraced it. Even big corporations seem to drift from a focus on incremental improvement in various types of magic. Google is now a cult of sorts, which is how they make blunders like this one.
The point of this post, if there is one, is that there is something that prevents otherwise smart people, like sportsball owners, from using well known techniques to improve their organizations. The result is a repetition of unforced errors. Sportsball owners are hyper-competitive, yet they are often allergic to considering concepts and tactics that work in other organizations. It is only after an innovator proves it can work that we see the rest jump on board and start aping what worked for them.
An even stranger thing about sportsball teams is that this institutional blundering attracts owners prone to the same sort of blundering. These bad franchises come up for sale and the new owners turn out to be as accident prone as the previous ones. In fact whole cities seem to attract losers in this area. Again, Cleveland is a great example. All of their sportsball teams are terrible and the owners are some of the worst in sport. Maybe there really is something in the water there that causes this.
Anyway, it is something reformers and rebels should probably consider when plotting how to attack the Death Star of modern culture. Maybe that silly plot device from Star Wars has a grain of truth to it. The bad guys left the back door to the Death Star open, because in the end, they were the Cleveland Browns of space villains. Perhaps all villains leave a window open at some point. Maybe size makes organizations stupid and then exploitable to those with subversion on their mind.