Be unique or be gone

We’ve all heard the story of Billy Bean by now. The GM of the Oakland A’s who was immortalized in the Michael Lewis book Moneyball and had Brad Pitt play him in the movie adaptation. As a baseball fan and stats geek, this book was one of the most accessible on the subject for everyone. It is also stacked full of lessons about leadership, management and focusing on the important things — which may not be the popular things.

Baseball is business

Despite the fact that Bean operates a Major League Baseball team, he has many of the business constraints that you and I do. First off, his team is not the Yankees, he doesn’t have a seemingly endless budget, he can’t simply buy his lineup. His management team was old school, they measure things the same way they’ve been doing it since baseball began. They prayed to the alter of power and speed and batting averages and ERA — the same way each and every other team in the league did it, including the rich teams. The A’s are not rich so Bean needed to adopt a different approach in order to build a competitive team. He needed to think differently to compete.

So do you

This describes the majority of the companies that operate today. We are in this odd time in innovation history. Most of the heavy lifting was done 25-30 years ago and companies today are refining that technology and building non-disruptive businesses on top of that layer. 20 years ago the commercial Internet was born and we are still refining it. 30 years ago cellular technology emerged with feature phones and we are still refining it today. The companies that laid the foundation for both these disruptive technologies are mostly dead and gone but their technology still enables the companies of today to build upon them. The thing is, there is so much duplication in industry today that it is very hard to differentiate between them if you are an investor or, more importantly, a potential customer.

Generally, companies today all look the same, feel the same and act the same. They also all look at data the same and are judged the same. With so much sameness, it takes a Billy Bean like character to be bold enough to change it up. To stop focusing on following a similar narrative and break the mold by looking at the data through a different lens.

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”

Albert Einstein

There is competition in every business category and most businesses look and taste similar to each other. Those that are truly on the edge and innovating face the different challenge of waiting for the market to catch up to them. That is, of course, provided they’ve made the right bet and aren’t too far ahead of the curve (think Magic Leap). For the rest of us, we need to start thinking about what the right thing to focus on is in order to build our businesses.

In a stats-rich environment like professional sports, owners and managers have spent most of their history focused on what we would call today vanity metrics. Batting averages, homeruns, RBIs are all personal stats that increase a players contract value but don’t necessary propel the team forward unless all the players excel in those categories. The focus was on the wrong metrics and so were expectations. When the worst team in the league can have a player win the MVP award at the end of the season there is something wrong with the way we rank that data. If the goal is to win the World Series, is having an MVP on a last place team a victory?

When Bean focused on underused metrics like OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) and WAR (wins above replacement) he transformed his team — until the rest of the league caught on. He had a momentary advantage. Most of the companies out there are still focused on vanity metrics — their “batting average” — to define their business. If that’s the case they will be lumped in with the rest of the carnage that will happen when one of their competitors or a startup ends up disrupting them with a different approach.

If Google and Facebook were baseball teams

Put this lens to the business models of some of the largest companies in the world today and it’s pretty clear they aren’t innovating. Facebook earns the majority of their revenue from advertising. They have refined it and with the data they have on all of us and have probably made it as close to perfect as possible. It is still a 100 year old model and still a single source of the majority of their revenue. As soon as we get smart about protecting our data and protecting democracy that business is ripe for renewal. A rethinking.

Google’s value has always been as an innovative search tool. There is no denying that their approach to indexing the internet was the greatest breakthrough for search ever. It humanized the use of the platform and left the early search companies in their wake. Now they are an intent company matching, yup, ads, to requests. Another company relying on a 100-year old business model in order to earn.

Both Google and Facebook gather data from their various platforms (including Google’s Android OS + Chrome browser + Google Maps) to serve ads. Hardly innovative. Hardly democratic. Both companies have subsumed industries and it is most likely that your company has an unhealthy reliance on one or both of them to find an audience.

Then Amazon are the Yankees

Amazon seems to be the only company of the big three that has been able to continuously innovate and earn. It started in commerce but quickly identified other business models to build out (AWS, memberships, streaming) and even have been able to pull advertising revenue from Google and Facebook while those two haven’t been able to do the same in capturing any significant ecommerce revenue from Amazon. Amazon earned roughly $3.9 billion (5% of total revenue) in advertising in Q1 2020 while Facebook pulled in a paltry $300 million (less than 2% of total revenue) from commerce in the same period.

Baseball is doing a better job at adopting data from technology to better their production. The book MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik dives into how coaches are pushing camera technology to create ball players. If there is a hint of natural ability can the proper use of technology be applied to creating technique that turns that hint into a career. If so, it means that the way and types of players that are drafted changes and the game evolves yet again. Nothing is too small to focus on — even counting the number of spins the ball makes after the pitch is thrown. Think about that, they count the number of times the stitching rotates and focus on increasing that number…that is precise and measurable and makes a huge difference.

Under Billy Bean, the Oakland A’s never won the World Series. His approach was quickly adopted and perfected by many of the rest of the teams in the league and it set in motion a new wave of thinking. In a sport that imbues tradition, the constraints put on Billy Bean forced him to rethink how things were done.

Some people don’t consider baseball a sport really but if a bunch of tobacco chewing luddite baseball GMs can adopt a new approach to their business what’s stopping you?

Fight for your people

Imagine having a baseball team with two future Hall of Fame players on it during the same season. Then picture that team stacked with perennial all-stars and a 74-40 record (best in the major leagues) and heading into the second half of August with a 6 game lead on the Atlanta Braves. That was the Montreal Expos right as the strike killed the season, the World Series and the future of the team. They finished with a winning record only 3 more times over the following 10 years before they were folded up and became the Washington Nationals (who then took 16 more years to win the World Series).

So what happened?

People. By the time the next season started they had traded most of the anchor talent away for next to nothing in return and eventually the team fell into ownership issues and everyone else was traded for beer and cigarette money. It was a self-fulfilling circle of doom and the team and city suffered through it — all due to bad management and terrible owners.

What if…

It’s easy to play armchair GM in retrospect. Had the team been able to keep their core together a little longer or the strike not happen, perhaps that team would have been able to win and start a run similar to what the Yankees did a few years later. The difference was that the Yankees were able to keep their core intact — most of that core were to become future Hall of Fame members as well. Winning is essential for a small market team who’s fans are not passionate about the sport unless they win. Montreal is that city and the Expos had their chance but circumstances and bad management blew it.

People are it.

The cost of letting their people go was the team itself. First it was the faith of the crowd, then it was the faith of the players, then it was the faith of creditors and then it was the faith of the league. The franchise was lost when the players weren’t valued. The Expos became known as being the league’s farm system. Great players earned their stripes and then were unloaded when they hit their prime because the team couldn’t afford (read: planned poorly) to keep them. Those core players that were released or traded went on to win and succeed and form the core of other teams and, eventually two of them ended up enshrined in Cooperstown. Many of those players wear World Series rings but with the wrong team logos embossed on them.

Companies make the same mistake

That 1994 Montreal Expos was a team of all-stars and were poised for a dynasty run. I’ve worked with many companies stacked with the equivalent talent and have watched them all walk out the door for almost the same reasons, some with similar devastating results. Where incremental concessions from the company are seemingly impossible to negotiate or the bureaucracy too challenging to get through. People leave at tremendous cost in dollars to replace and train new people, employee psyche and confidence in leadership. Companies operate at the behest of people and the great ones will be great wherever they end up. It should be the company’s responsibility to try to keep them. Period.

The business advantage over baseball

As we are witnessing today, baseball has devolved into a fight between billionaire owners and millionaire players over money. There doesn’t seem to be any joy left to be had in that game for anyone — including a dissolving fan base. Businesses have an advantage because they can show their humane side by offering benefits where pay increases can’t be accommodated. Simple things like transportation, meals, WFH, shifted schedules, fitness memberships, free coffee — small value items with big impact on employee happiness. Hell, even just TRYING to accommodate change and fighting for employees goes a long way in creating a core team dedicated to the fight.

It isn’t easy to keep a team of all-stars together. They are bound to leave at some point because of who they are. But to have a stacked team and not try to do whatever is necessary to win with them sets the tone for the current team and limits the possibilities of attracting and keeping future all stars. Great people want to work with other great people. They also want to work for an organization that will fight for them.

You’ve seen where this ended up for the Montreal Expos. Their history has been erased because their ownership didn’t value their people. Don’t do the same.

*Image credit: PHIL CARPENTER / The Gazette

Never confuse movement and action

After most dinners, my kids ask for the natural nightcap to a great meal — dessert. We go through a back and forth that usually sounds like this:

Me: “How many steps have you taken? You know the rule, if you don’t hit your step goal there is no dessert.”

Them: “Uh”

My wife: “Go run around the yard 10 times and you can have dessert.”

So off they run, gleeful that a small amount of running will get them a fine bowl of ice cream. This is, quite frankly, the ONLY time that running in circles will get you anything.

There is such an important distinction between movement and action but it sometimes gets lost in the motion. We are often “too busy” to take a minute to understand if what we are doing is movement for the sake of it or action with purpose.

We all have a finite amount of time to work on something. That thing could take an hour, a year or a lifetime of effort to accomplish. Eventually time runs out, the opportunity has passed or you get where you were aiming. I think of that as a mission. When it is darkest and you are in it the deepest it is very easy to get lost and start heading in the wrong direction. This happens to us all. No matter how you describe it — losing the forest from the trees, losing your path, whatever analogy you use, we’ve all been there. It is at this moment that knowing your mission or ideal outcome, writing it down and putting it somewhere visible makes all the difference. When I get lost or confused about the thing I’m working on and why, I read that mission or goal and If they line up I keep going. If they don’t line up, I stop.

This is how I check myself to make sure I am not just in motion but I’m actually moving towards my goal. Movement vs action.

There are so many easy distractions that pull us away from what we should be focused on. Most of these are on other people’s schedule. If you don’t control your time you aren’t able to control the action that comes from it.

Some practical things to think about as you walk through your day on the job:


We all hate meetings. We do. Sometimes there are meetings that move the earth but those can be counted on one hand in an entire career. I can’t remember my last good meeting, let alone great one. Can you?


Meetings are mostly movement. Think before you request one. How else can you stop the cycle of meetings for meetings’ sake and turn it into something that creates action. My default is to not have the meeting. Can it be summarized into an email or document and distributed to the members and let them take 10 minutes to read it and get back to you with thoughts instead of using an hour to read it to them in a meeting. If the purpose is to get consensus, ask for it in another form and move on.

If you MUST have a meeting, be clear on the agenda and the goals of the meeting. Distribute information prior to the meeting so everyone comes in versed and ready to ask questions — to move things along. It’s ok to impose on attendees to do some reading before the meeting. This will also force you to make sure ONLY the right people are in the meeting so you don’t waste others time. Meetings are a crucial skill and can be effective to take action but that isn’t the truth today. Do your part. A quick rule of thumb: If there is no agenda, don’t attend/schedule. Period.

Email and messages

Nothing is worse than message overload and that is what we all suffer from. Mainly because they are misused. Most of us use email and a messaging service like Slack or Teams. Email has been around for a generation and yet we are still learning how it fits into business it seems. Slack and Teams are newer but abused nonetheless.

Here is how I use them consistently. Food for thought and you should discuss with your team how you see it working internally.


I think of email as the company archive. We all get way too much because it is way too easy to send. I love email though because I can get a full thought out and send to my colleagues and they can answer it on their own time. This is powerful. When I send an email I don’t need an immediate response. I expect thought and, if needed, a reply at some point. Email for me is movement. If I’m cc’d on anything it means it is something I need to know but a response is not necessary. Those are the best emails.

Messaging Services

Slack and Teams are where the action happens. I mostly use Slack in my work and I think of it as if it was a telephone. When there is a near immediate response needed — if I have a question or a request for example — I send a Slack. Slack is a message wrapped in a form of urgency. Again, I don’t expect an immediate response however I do assume that a Slack message to be of higher priority than an email. Slack messages are action-oriented, short requests. No long drawn out paragraphs here.

A word about SMS.

I use SMS as the ultimate action request. In work terms, this is something that I need a response to immediately. Full stop. If I send a work colleague an SMS it is at the highest priority and help is needed right away. I don’t use it often so it isn’t abused but SMS is the ultimate tool of action for me.

As an organization that uses these tools there needs to be some structure on how to use them effectively in order to not overwhelm your team. It is the responsibility of the company to enable everyone by implementing the right tools for the right reasons.

If all else fails I guess you can ask yourself one important final question: Are you simply mimicking the action of my kids running around the yard for a quick sugar high?

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash