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Moneyball by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the 2002 season of the Oakland A’s, an American professional baseball team based in Oakland California, and their general manager Billy Beane. I read it recently after watching the film of the same name and thought it served as a fitting comparison to a behaviour I see regularly in IT culture.

In 2002 Billy had a difficult job to do. With only $44 million dollars at play (yes, this amounts to small potatoes in baseball), the Oakland A’s didn’t have a budget that could compete with other major league teams like the Red Socks. Operating within these constraints meant that the A’s were forced to pick the cheapest players.

In the book, the author takes care to explain the history and culture around decision making when it comes to selecting players as their preferred picks for the team. This culture is based on a legacy of conventional wisdom used by scouts to assess the value of players and is used in teams across America.

Scouts traditionally select players on a number of subjective criteria. Among these: their looks, the attractiveness of their girlfriend(!) and their physical abilities characterised as 5 tools (hitting for average, hitting for power, running speed, throwing and fielding abilities). Scouts consider “5 tool guys” to have all the desirable features of a great baseball player.

But before Billy Beane was a General Manager he started his career as a player. He was identified by the scouts as a 5 tool guy. He was drafted for the Mets, given a massive advance but when he was put out on the field, he was a huge disappointment.

Throughout his career Billy saw this happen again and again. Teams would spend huge sums of money on players who looked good on paper, but in reality were overhyped and under delivered.

By the time the 2002 season rolled around Billy was ready to try something different. He worked with his team to identify the single most important metric for player selection that would deliver the most value for the team as a whole: on base percentage. Billy realised that the ability to get on base and avoid making outs by any means possible was the most critical player attribute and worth so much more than other abilities scouts looked for.

By selecting undervalued players with a high on-base percentage, Billy Beane secured a competitive advantage over his rivals. He was able to build a team that was able to punch way above its weight and went on to win 20 consecutive games, only narrowly missing out on winning the division series.

From picking players to picking digital technology

Now imagine Billy Beane is an IT manager or product manager. Imagine you’re Billy. That you’re not picking players for your team, you’re picking digital technology that will impact the productivity of employees, or that will power customer-facing applications for your organisation.

The conventional practice of IT selection tends to centre around big lists of functional and nonfunctional requirements, selection criteria and scoring matrices. But these often miss the point entirely or obfuscate what’s most important.

Just like the 5 tools that scouts obsess over, it's all too easy to get focussed on features and feature comparisons. Even when it's not entirely clear whether these deliver enough meaningful value.

In Moneyball, the scouts confuse picking people who look like baseball players with picking players who can deliver the most value. It’s easy to do this with technology too. The goal is not to pick a content management system, or an SaaS provider or a particular piece of technology. It’s to choose technology that delivers the most value when measured against what’s most important for your organisation.

At Made by Many we see clients and potential clients make this mistake time and time again, particularly in the case of content management systems, perhaps one of the most heavily commodified software tools. In a publishing organisation are features like social media sharing and integrated digital asset management really so important? If the goal is to improve something like editorial throughput or time-to-publish, then focussing on editorial experience and workflow should be the highest priorities.

In our experience this is often best achieved by building software from open source components and frameworks. The most successful digital products we’ve produced at Made by Many tend to work this way and focus on delivering against clear goals. Everything else can then be prioritised against these.

So ask yourself, are you more like Billy or the old scouts? Are you picking technology that meets an arbitrary list of conditions or that delivers against what is most important for your organisation? Are you able to constantly improve that technology, optimising the value it brings even in a changing market? Have you identified what your most important metric is — is it editorial throughput; employee performance; customer experience...?

It’s not always obvious, but if you can figure this out, you too can gain a competitive advantage and outperform the market just like the 2002 Oakland A’s

Andrew Walker

Andrew Walker, CTO

Andrew joined Made by Many in 2010 with strong background in technical production work and technology strategy. He has over 10 years’ industry experience working across sectors including music, media, automotive and culture.

Andrew is co-founder of Front End London, the popular monthly meet-up for front-end developers.

@ninjabiscuit

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