Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yellow Dandelions Trump Black Swans & Blue Oceans

"Luck is the residue of
opportunity and design." 

John "The Bread Street Bomber" Milton & Branch Rickey

The global Business of Business Advice is an odd industry. People write
articles or business publications on a theoretical idea. They try to spin the
idea in an original-sounding way, and if a publisher thinks the sound resonates,
it becomes a book. If the book and the publicity around it becomes widespread
enough, becomes a cult. Hundreds of thousands of readers, some of whom have a
lever, a fulcrum & a place to stand, think they might apply the theory in their own
workgroup or organization.

Roughly, for about every 1,000 copies sold, I estimate there are about 1,500
people who learn enough about the underlying principle to talk about  the
one sentence description of the core theory. I estimate 600 of the books get
read through, maybe 30 people try to implement a project, initiative or makeover
based on the theory, and of those 30, you can count on the normal rate of
success (Angus' Second Law: 85% of corporate projects fail absolutely or are
euthanized (or forgotten) before completion, 10% deploy based on their original
goals and 5% deploy based on original goals and succeed). So for
every 1,500 people who can relate the core idea, 2 (rounding up so as to be a
bit optimistic) turns Business Advice into useful action. For the other 1,498,
it's just plaque, perhaps entertaining or diverting, but nothing that delivers
on the mission -- the explicit promise of business, leadership or management

Two of 1,500 is only an average. It can go up (or, more likely, go down) from
that proportion. There's an underlying reader trend that undermines the chance
for implementation. As a mass, readers would rather read about big ideas than
small ones, and they'd rather read about theory than practice. So the largest
readership goes to the big theoretical idea books than the practical (something
you do that creates positive action). And there's another factor that literary
(book) agents will tell you, too: Readers don't want to act on any of
this Business Advice - they just want to be entertained and feel good.

Here are two favorite examples of fun best-selling global Business of
Business Advice that are pre-destined to never reach the 2-in-1,500 successful
implementation norm: The
Black Swan Theory
and Blue
Ocean Strategy
. They are both giant ideas based that are probably quite true
but close to impossible for any individual or team to apply to anything bigger
than a lemonade stand. The Black Swan is based on the giant idea that, "A
black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet
causes massive consequences." Blue Ocean, "explains
how to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant while
charting a new path to capture new market space that is ripe for growth".

Well, Yellow Dandelions
trump Blue Oceans and Black Swans...not for popularity and sales, but on two

  1. You can actually
    implement this idea in any organization, and

  2. The net benefit of
    deploying it will give you actual (not just theoretical) returns.

The Yellow Dandelion was
second-sacker Fred
, one of the first baseball players to write a book on
"scientific baseball". As explained in Paul Dickson's exquisitely
informative book The
Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign Stealing Have Influenced the
Course of Our National Pastime

In 1889, N. Fred Pfeffer, the bare handed infield star and tactician with the
Chicago White Stockings of the 1880s...published a manual called Scientific
{snip} At the heart of his defensive science was a "Code of
motions so perfected" that every man on a club knew what kind of ball was
to be pitched next. "Knowing this in advance, the men can so place
themselves so as to give the man in the box [the pitcher] the most effective


"Pfeffer believed that the fielder's job was to move at the very last
moment, when the pitcher was in his delivery, and that once a play had begun it
was imperative that the players knew how to back one another up. "Failure
to 'back up' players and positions has probably been as disastrous a feature of
losing clubs as any other which can be specified," he wrote. "Because
of this fatal weakness, scores of otherwise well-played games are needlessly
sacrificed each year."

The Yellow Dandelion
Deployment is one that, because Baseball is so transparent and overwhelmingly
meritocratic (both useful attributes wholly missing from corporate workplaces)
you can just plain see works out.

The teams that grab the
every-event, small but attainable advantages (in baseball parlance,
"execute") tend to win more games because they don't leave games'
outcomes as much to chance. If you watch a game for Yellow Dandelion Deployment,
watch the fielders "cheat" on many pitches, cover each other on
defense in a variety of ways based on the situation, you can see how absolutely
effective this is. Sadly, televised games, while great to watch, rarely expose
the Deployment. But I urge you to watch a major league game live (preferably
from the upper deck as close to directly behind home plate as you can) and watch
the extraordinary clockwork of a skilled major league team that has mostly
veteran players. Pick one non-catcher fielder out for each two-inning span and
try to follow what they do on every pitch, every ball in play. You'll see 120
years of refinement beyond Pfeffer's actionable principles, a level of teamwork
and management acuity beyond everything in the non-MBB management world.


Unlike Blue Oceans and Black Swans, you can absolutely apply Yellow Dandelion
tactics to your benefit in the workplace.

Make sure that on tasks
that must succeed for your organization to succeed, each responsible person
knows she has one or more teammates to back her up, own some responsibility for
overall success. You have to start this overtly, not with a memo. Good managers
always take on the responsibility themselves of each contributor's success,
being there to back him up, but once a manager can break out beyond merely
taking on that backing-up personally and deploy it to the contributors nearest
the task-owner (not all others -- the right fielder can and will back up plays
to 1st base but it's a waste of energy to have him try, futilely, to back up
plays at 3rd) the useful contributors will learn the right back-up moves through

What's the best way to
kick this off?

By both explaining the
back-up theory in advance and then starting to assign back-up contributors to
every task. These back-ups can be "editors", or "timers" or

are most useful when a task is multi-departmental and the contributor assigned
to the task needs to enlist allies or try to push through work happening outside
her span of control; the ambassador helps with that external pressure.

"Editors" I use
to be the second pair of eyes for quality control; the editor is someone the
task-owner can bounce ideas off of and who can check deliverables for conceptual
or trivial kinds of accuracy.

What I call
"timers" are teammates who help the contributor stay on schedule and
co-own the deadline. The timer is not a non-com issuing orders or
applying pressure. The timer relieves pressure by being equally responsible for
knowing the task schedule and helping out the task-owner without having to be

You probably won't have
to delegate each rôle on each project. You can certainly invent other rôles
that make sense within the context of your own endeavour, but invent a one- or
two-word name for each, so you can use the name as a shorthand. But you should
make a habit of assigning one or more back-up rôles to most every task.

At the completion of
every meaningful task with an assigned back-up, you should get the participants
to talk to the team about winning moves, or problems that would have been
smaller with new back-up ideas.

After a series of
successes, you invite contributors to deploy themselves as back-ups or invite
back-ups on their own. (In Baseball, it's terribly inefficient -- that is, a
losing strategy -- to have the manager assign every back-up on each pitch or
every play in the field; players need to be able to do this for themselves based
on established principles refined by their own practice and experiences.)


There are two common problems in Yellow Dandelion Deployments: non-accountable
or otherwise anti-team oriented contributors, and over-or under-management.

Some contributors resist
help, being too egocentric or believing teamwork shows them to be weak. Some of
these people are tractable, for example, if you point out how hard it is for a
single person acting alone to execute a double-play. But some are simply too
insecure or introverted to be comfortable having back-ups. You have one of two
solutions to this problem: if the person is a great contributor with great
success (think Barry Bonds) then exempt her from the routine; if he's not, get
rid of him.

And you can control the
over- or under-management. Over-management is removing from the contributors the
chance to have rôles delegated to them (which is the equivalent of a major
league manager trying to coordinate all players on the field with every pitch).
Under-management is not selling the teamwork benefits hard enough, re-deploying
people to the rôles they seem to best while still giving them chances to be
good at other rôles, or not monitoring the evolution of the system and its

The odds of you becoming
enriched through successfully identifying a Black Swan and then deploying a
counter are not 2-in-1,500, rarer than a no-hitter. The odds of you identifying
and deploying a Blue Ocean Strategy are no better.

But 1,500-in-1,500
managers in any organization that has seven or more employees can apply Yellow
Dandelion Deployments with success. Not only does it work, but it's actually

You may not actually ever
have three hits in an inning, like Fred Pfeffer had in a game on September 6,
1883, but you can knock out a bunch of hits everyday using his "scientific
baseball" principles.

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