Moneyball: Overcoming Resistance




I recently finished teaching two sections of Management Information Systems (MGIS 317) at the Haskayne School of Business here in Calgary, Alberta. One of the topics that we covered was Change Management. As a professor, I like to have classes that are educational and interesting. With this in mind, I thought for the topic of change management I would review the movie Moneyball from a management perspective. Since the lecture was well received by the students I thought I would write a post on this topic.

The movie came out in 2011 starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Jonah Hill as Peter Brand the stats analyst, Philip Seymour Hoffmann as Art Howe the manager, Robin Wright as Sharon, Billy Beane's ex-wife, Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteberg the first baseman and Robert Kotick as Stephen Schott one of the A's owners. The book, Moneyball written by Michael Lewis was published in 2003. I have read the book twice and seen the movie a least 3 times. The book is interesting but a bit dry at times. From an entertainment point of view, the movie is better. 

When we look at the movie from a management perspective the movie is about Billy Beane (one of Brad Pitt's best acting roles) overcoming various constraints and formidable obstacles.

First, we start with a severe constraint. In one of the opening scenes Beane meets with the owner Stephen Schott to ask for more money to hire better players. Schott refuses and tells Beane that he has to live within the existing budget.

This initial constraint of "no more money" sets the tone for the entire movie. Anyone in business knows that this is a common constraint. Most owners impose budget constraints. What is interesting is Beane's response. He decides to live with the constraint (willingly as opposed to grudgingly) but has to shift his entire way of thinking and his method for managing the Oakland A's. He reacts by hiring Peter Brand (a fictional character of the real assistant GM, Paul DePodesta) from the Cleveland Indians. Brand (played brilliantly by Johan Hill) plays a sophisticated analyst using sabermetrics. Sabermetrics, a term coined by Bill James (mentioned extensively in the book), is the empirical analysis of in-game baseball statistics. 

Beane and Brand come up with a list of players that they would like to hire but immediately face resistance from the existing squad of traditional scouts.

The scenes in the movie are exaggerated but overcoming this second obstacle - team resistance - makes for good drama. Although Beane tries to use his skills of persuasion, none of the scouts are able to switch from traditional methods of scouting to making decisions based on data and numbers. This is highlighted when they insist on replacing a player poached by another team with a high priced player instead of hiring a few cheaper players based on replacing the "on-base percentage" statistics. "On-base Percentage" (OBP) is a key metric for determining who can get a team on base. If a team can get on base they can score runs. And if they score runs they have a chance to win games. By reversing this logic, a low OBP by a team means that the team has less of chance to score runs and win games.

Ultimately, Beane and Brand hire the players are cheap and have the right statistical mix. They think they are set-up well to win games only to find out that the manager, Art Howe (a small role but well played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), won't play these players and instead favors players that he prefers. This is the third obstacle - mid-manager resistance. 

Encountering resistance from managers is an experience that I have had all too frequently. And expected. Often people don't like change. And often people are looking out for themselves more than the company they are working for. In the case of Beane and Brand, their solution is to trade away all the players that Howe likes and leave him with just the players that they want to be played.

This tactic, although drastic, works well. Howe starts to play the right players.  But then Beane and Brand experience the fourth level of resistance - from the players. They aren't taking the game and their part in it seriously. 

Employees get paid to do a job. However, sometimes when you ask them to change they resist. This happens all the time and that is what managers are for - to manage people and processes. In this case, Billy Beane reacts by getting mad and calling their behavior into question. Anger isn't always the right response to resistance and inappropriate behavior but sometimes it works. A good manager or leader knows when to show anger and when to use other skills in their arsenal.

The movie plays out the drama and ultimately the Oakland A's win 20 straight games. In this century, this is the highest number of straight wins by a MLB team. 

Start-ups and existing businesses will experience constraints and resistance - often excessive amounts of each. But all is not lost because of a few obstacles - success will happen. In fact, many start-ups develop into a great companies because of obstacles that the founders experienced early on.  Examples include Dell focusing on getting orders before shipping computers. Microsoft facing unprecedented challenges in recent years.

Many of the obstacles that companies encounter will be similar to what Billy Beane and the Oakland A's experienced:

  • Constraints imposed by Owners
  • Team members who won't change the systems they use
  • Managers who won't use resources assigned to them
  • And employees who aren't serious about helping the company 

Solutions to these challenges aren't simple but often a solution can be found. Often the solution is changing the system, changing the team, changing managers and changing the reason why people are employed.

If you get a chance, watch Moneyball again. Look at the movie from the point of view of a manager and see if you see the same obstacles that I did. Enjoy.