Moneyball — as seen by an enthusiastic Agilist

The following is one such episode where I had an especially bad day at work and chose to cope with my favorite stress relieving activity: working out with a movie. To make it even better, I picked a Brad Pitt movie — Moneyball — from my saved movie wish list and watched it while pretending to workout in my home gym (shh…that’s where I hide from kids!)

After watching the movie for 15 minutes, I couldn’t believe it. It was as if Brad Pitt was an agile coach, coaching through the movie. It could be my overstimulated brain on agile concepts or my inner nerd relating everything to my small agile world. But honestly, who cares. If Brad Pitt is teaching you, you learn.

Normally I am not an avid sports person but I love this genre of movies mainly due to the relentless spirit of characters portrayed; for example,. Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side or Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes. There is just something so captivating about their mindset that made them the champions they are and you want to absorb all that energy to somehow make a difference in your life.

Moneyball is a movie about the GM (General Manager) of Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, and is set in 2001 when the team was in a difficult spot after losing the American League Series due to the loss of many of its star players. The budget was limited, as usual but, as they say, the show must go on. In comparison to standard Project management theory, this is the triangle of Budget/Resources/Scope and here, two out of the three are busted. So how do you manage a team like that? In addition to the “not giving up” spirit, you rely on analysis, your gut, and your knowledge of the team. This results in a change in the mechanics of team management for this game. And voila: the longest winning streak in 103 years of baseball from a team that was almost written off from the Baseball world. Easier said than done, you might say? Below are some lessons learned:

  1. What’s the Problem? — Replacing the players was not the real problem in Moneyball; Beane made his scouts rethink what the real problem was and focus on it. Lot of times, it’s necessary to look at the problem with a different lens rather than executing the same steps just because it has worked in the past. This reminds me of the agile principle of “responding to change over following a plan.” And mind you, although his scouts didn’t agree to think differently and stuck to their usual, old strategy, it was this very concept that made him think differently.
  2. Harnessing Change for a Competitive Advantage — This was the theme of this movie and Beane’s approach in bringing this change — a change that will alter baseball forever. When Beane met Peter Brand and understood a new way of thinking from a Yale economics graduate in terms of buying wins/runs rather than buying players. He did his due diligence of understanding the new concept and brought Peter over to his team to help him build the Oakland A’s new team. The new concept combined with his own failure made him look for a new formula.
  3. Focus on the Big Picture- With Peter Brand, Beane focused on the big picture: how many games to win and the amount of runs the team needed to win those games. They both heavily relied on statistical data to derive the value of players. This was a new way of thinking — and it ushered in the execution of the latest strategy, making a team of champions. His new team in 2002 was largely built on this principle, and won 20 consecutive games in 100+ years.
  4. Reflect, Tune and Adjust Often — After the first match of the series, Beane admitted to having included Art Howe (the manager), from the beginning to help him understand his vision for the team. He reflected on every match and made constant changes to the team. The same way it’s important for agile teams to do retrospectives at the end of each sprint and adjust. Some of the changes he made, like switching Peña and Giambi were unconventional and could have gotten him in trouble but he knew this was needed to shake things up.
  5. Agree to Disagree — It’s important to respect people with a specialized skill set because you hired them in the first place for their expertise — but at the same time it’s equally important to understand the process and believe in your instincts. Sometimes experts have narrow vision and that may restrict them from thinking of things differently. It’s very important to challenge each other and hold each other accountable regardless of your skill set, position, or experience. Everyone in the team should feel safe to disagree, voice their doubts, and make suggestions.
  6. Plan — Lots of times, we lose sight of planning with the word Agile. Agile doesn’t ask us to not plan, it asks us to be flexible with those plans. We should be able to adjust plans often based on our learnings and keep them iterative. It’s important to let everyone in on the plan and be clear with your vision. It’s also important to set the right expectations of frequent changes while being open and adapt to these changes.
  7. Continually Seeking Excellence — It’s important to build the team in such a way that each person is helping the next. What team members learn from each other is priceless and adds to the team’s dynamics. Team members learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They never settle and are always hungry for more. In the end, remember it’s a process!!!

Some more Leadership lessons (for all Agile and Non Agile Leaders of all levels)

  1. Learn from mistakes, don’t let mistakes define you. Beane’s own sports career became his strength to think about player selection differently.
  2. Adapt or fail.
  3. Short term failures shouldn’t define long term goals.
  4. Just because something has always been done one way, doesn’t make it acceptable.
  5. Sometimes the journey teaches you more than the destination.
  6. Invest in your team as they are the very reason you dream for them.

This new strategy and frame of mind didn’t get the Oakland A’s to where Beane was aiming for, but he definitely introduced the world of baseball to a new way of managing — a more agile and robust way. As Beane says in the movie: “It’s hard to not be romantic about baseball.” I share the same feeling about Agile concepts ;-).

A Dye Hard Brad Pitt Fan and An Agile Coach- Kamal

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