Baseball metaphors overwhelm business parlance. Unexpected events “come out of left field.” We offer clients “a ballpark figure.” Successes are “home runs.”
It’s common to extend the game’s lessons to general business wisdom, such as team-building and -hazing advice. The sport has so many management training fables, in fact, that Jeff Angus compiled the anecdotes into a worthwhile book, Management by Baseball.
But baseball has unique lessons that apply particularly to the tech industry.
You need more than one pitch
Someone can succeed by being the first to accomplish something – for a while. The competition soon figures out that unique capability and responds competitively, though. Successful people and organizations adapt.
Baseball Reference is littered with records of promising young stars who dominated the first half of their rookie season, only to be sent back to the minors… sometimes never to be heard from again. It wasn’t that the players were bad; quite to the contrary. They had dedication and talent – an impressive sinker, a keen eye for a fastball – but their opponents identified their weaknesses and exploited them.
“In a competitive line of work like baseball, innovation is not a single event, but an ongoing effort,” Jeff Angus wrote in a follow-up blog post to his successful book. “By the time the book Moneyball came out, describing the Athletics' affection for relatively inexpensive batters who took a lot of walks and relatively inexpensive pitchers who didn't give up many, the A's had moved on to newer ways.”
A company can build a successful product line with one good idea. But it can’t maintain its lead that way. Every product needs to be enhanced to compete with copycats or new technologies. Tech history is full of tales about companies that didn’t keep up with market changes and refused to change their behavior. IBM, the first company to build a PC, was soon overtaken by clone vendors. Gateway computers kept growing and growing until it exploded when the business model changed.
Blackberry was sure that nobody would adopt a smartphone without a physical keyboard. Microsoft failed in the mobile market because it underestimated Android's business model, and it built on an older technical platform that wasn't quite ready for the job.
The brilliance – or luck – is knowing when to stay the course, and when it’s time to make a change. In Just Play Ball, Joe Garagiola shared a conversation between Pittsburgh manager Bill Meyer and his pitcher:
On the mound the conversation went like this:
MEYER: Give me the ball.
MEYER: Give me the damn ball.
MEYER: Give me the ball, or it’s gonna cost you.
PITCHER: No, I can get this guy out.
MEYER: I know you can. You proved it when he led off the inning.
Yes, you must stay true to your roots and rely on the skills that earned you a spot in the major leagues. But ultimately, the skill that “gets you there” is a willingness to change and the wisdom to know when it’s time to do so.
Every tech business needs to adjust, ideally by thinking about the things competitors aren’t doing. In a keynote speech at InternetWeek, years ago, someone asked Billy Beane, “Now that everyone is 'doing' Moneyball, what's next? How will any team distinguish itself?” Beane answered, “Whoever can figure out how to keep players healthy through an entire season is going to have a significant advantage.”
By the same token, when Lisa Su became CEO of AMD in 2014, she made the strategic decision to stop the company’s efforts to develop mobile chips and focus instead on high-performance computing. By 2020, the company was matching and often beating Intel’s CPUs in terms of performance and its stock price had grown by 1,300%.
You can’t predict baseball
Statistics are a tool. They aren’t the game.
Baseball analysts love statistics almost as much as MBAs love KPIs. Both pore over the numbers with the premise that past behavior determines future performance. It’s true… right until it isn’t. On paper, a victory looks certain. But the game isn’t played on paper, and the tech industry isn’t played on market research analyst reports.
Statistically, it was inevitable that the 2023 Los Angeles Dodgers would beat the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Dodgers won 100 games to the Diamondbacks’ 84. Two of the five best players in the National League, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman, are on the Dodgers roster. The Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks in the season series 8-5, including in all five games played after April. Across the 162 games of MLB’s rigorous regular season, the Dodgers were better.
And they were swept in the postseason, in a series that made any Diamondbacks fan proud. (Especially this one.)
There were four teams in baseball that had over 100 wins in 2023. All of them were eliminated in the first round of the postseason.
Every tech company I know uses performance metrics to predict its future success. It should. The statistics often are accurate. But tech firms get into trouble when they mistake “what it looks like on paper” or “judging by our sales over the last three quarters” as a certainty.
Analytics can help you identify the best performers, yet baseball teams and tech innovation both have an unquantifiable element that metrics don’t capture. Just think about all the tech companies that tried to dominate the smartphone market by purchasing a handset maker. With HP buying Palm, Google buying Motorola and Microsoft buying Nokia, all three companies tried to transform themselves by bringing in parts that did not fit the whole.
Healthy server metrics in ordinary times don’t help you recognize when you need to scale or encourage healthy skepticism about the security of the code you commit.
Those faux analytics even extend to tech hiring. Companies delay hiring because they’re busy looking for someone who checks off every single technical requirement when they could hire the first motivated coder who comes along.
You don’t always need a superstar
Teams succeed even without big stars – if they trust one another.
The home-run hitters get all the attention. But a single player doesn’t get a baseball team to the postseason. Great players can only carry a team so far, which is bad news for Mike Trout, Ichiro, and Ernie Banks.
People love to talk about the superstars and their legendary accomplishments, but it’s far better to have solid production and flexibility up and down the roster. A deep bench can support a temporary weakness; when one player is hot, another picks up the slack. A healthy clubhouse culture eclipses a collection of super-talented individuals.
General baseball-inspired business advice discusses teamwork a lot for good reason – but the tech industry is guilty of too many of its failures. The “tech bro” culture is one element, with its propensity for hiring people just like themselves, and permitting individual productivity to outweigh bad behavior (even if it kills the team).
Diversity makes a difference, in baseball and in team building. Baseball should be celebrated for bringing together people whose only shared value is the ability to hit a round ball with a round stick. Some grew up poor, others with privilege. One player had to sneak out of Cuba on a cigarette boat and another was the son of the owner of a $100 million auto, real estate and computer services empire. The only thing that matters is how well you play the game – and how you help the team reach its goals. Isn’t that lovely?
When teammates contribute their different personal background and experience, they can see the things others don't. A group of “Mini-Me”s rarely creates anything groundbreaking.
Everyone on your team has a role. You don't need three first-basemen; you need three infielders with different skill sets. A tech team needs a complement of skills just like a baseball team. You need speed and contact (say, prototyping skills) to go with power (strong architecture). You need offense (product) and defense (DevOps). And every team member needs to appreciate what the other people contribute.
I’m not the only one to make this observation. “If you want to win a championship, you’ve got to have incredible talent at every position,” said Reed Hastings, chairman of the board of directors of Netflix. “We are a sports team, not a family. Perform well and you will be paid well, perform poorly and you will get a nice check to go elsewhere. And sometimes you might perform really well but we just don't need someone with your skills anymore, so we'll still give you a nice check to go elsewhere, and that isn't a reflection on your abilities.”
What happens when we fail to celebrate diversity? We miss out. The tech industry creates technology that reflects the worldviews of those who build it. When it’s all-white, all-male, all the same, the result is flawed. Case in point: AI racial gender bias and cameras that don’t recognize Black faces.
Most of all, a team needs trust. You need a team where everyone feels safe in saying, "Hear me out. I have a stupid idea...." because those often turn into a clever new way to accomplish something.
- Embrace small ball. Home runs are cool, but the teams that win consistently know how to score runs on singles and doubles. Agile is like small ball, whereas waterfall methodology is like playing for the 3-run homer.
- It’s a long season. The game is one of endurance and consistency. Every baseball player does daily batting practice before every game, with a goal of continuous improvement. Software benefits from small iterations, experiments, and many small changes that introduce adjustments. (Hitters probably wish batting practice counted towards the game as often as prototype code turns into production code.)
- Hurry, but don’t rush. Tech companies need to respond to changing conditions, and also avoid swerves to adopt the latest buzzword-driven technology in the hype cycle.
- Pitch selection matters. In the 2023 elimination game against the Diamondbacks, when Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulled pitcher Lance Lynn, he didn’t bring in his best reliever because he was thinking about the next game.
The next day on MLB TV, Dan O'Dowd pointed out that the things that make a 100-win team – such as trusting your players and thinking about a series not just a single game – aren't the right tools for the postseason where there isn't another game if you screw this up. In the tech industry: What got you there isn’t necessarily what you need for the next step.
Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.
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Whether it's my Commonwealth colleagues assuming everyone understands cricket or Americans assuming everyone has been nursed with baseball, I am constantly amazed how they universally believe everybody understands them... when that's clearly not so:Reply
I'd say that starting from the shores of the EU and going east all of continental Asia, until you hit the subcontinent, the vastest continental mass on Earth and the significant portion of the world's population on it remain blissfully ignorant of both.
The reach of Hollywood, Western cultural metaphores etc. an the other hand is way bigger than that of sports metaphores. If you are US based, just imagine I was going to use football metaphors on you.
You know the real type of football, where people don't steal the ball and carry it off the field in their arms but where it's actually played with feet.
I'm glad you learned something from it, but I'm afraid you left me and quite a few others baffled.
You seem to write well enough, but if you want to have an impactd, it helps to know your audience.