A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

About Organizations…

In my introduction page about this blog, entitled “About This Planet…” I talk a lot about my academic and professional background in organizational communication. While I am sure almost all of you really don’t care that much about organizations and how they communicate I thought I would write a short essay about organizations and culture, and try to relate it back to the Nats. It’ll give me something to refer to in future posts…

Back in the early 90′s, I got a job at a company called KFS World Communications in Half Moon Bay, CA (they’re now known as Globe Wireless). At the time, the company consisted of a lot of real estate and ten employees. Their primary business was to send messages to ships at sea, using morse code. The owner was a man named Ken who had created a couple of small tech businesses, and built them into very successful telecommunications companies. He purchased KFS from Western Union, presumably for the prime real estate holdings. But in the three years I worked there, he transformed the company from one of the last remnants of early 1900′s technology to an industry leader in innovation and marine telecommunication.

What I learned from my experience with for Ken was that as a CEO, you don’t have to know how to do every last detail of every job in your business. What you have to do is be able to find the best talent, hire them, and trust them to do their best. For your part, you have to instill in your employees a sense of pride in the brand, and the desire to treat the company as though they owned it.

This isn’t easy to do. Just ask George Steinbrenner or Daniel Snyder. There is an incredible urge for an owner to have his (or her) hands on the nuts and bolts of the operation.

Larson and LaFasto (1989) performed case studies on dozens of high-performing teams of all types, whether they be in business, non-profits or even sports (a summary of their work can be found here). They identified a number of factors that contribute to the success of teams. The first was “A clear and elevating goal.” This is one area where I believe that the Steinbrenners and Snyders of the world sabotage their organizations – the goal of the organization becomes to further the ego of the owners, rather than win. Of course, winning would also serve to further the ego of the owners. But there is a subtle but important distinction to be made. Suppose you articulate the organizational goal (and by articulating it, I mean through words and action) as “Feeding the owner’s ego”, and compare that to the goal of “Winning the World Series”. As I mentioned above, winning the World Series would certainly feed the owner’s ego. But, at the same time, you can be successful at feeding the owner’s ego without winning the World Series. In fact, there appears to be nothing wrong with the egos of George Steinbrenner or Daniel Snyder, even without winning their respective championships.

More importantly, the goal of feeding the ego of the owner is not elevating – at least, not to the people that need to do the work to make that possible.

When I have done management consulting in the past, this is one of the things I look for – whether the organization’s goal is in fact clear… and elevating. You find this out by ask people in the organization about their work and what is important and what is not. In the process of describing what they do, they usually will give you a good idea of what the organization values and what is superfluous.

As a fan of the Nats, I spend a lot of time watching games and reading the media coverage. I listen to player interviews, and read their quotes in the paper. One shouldn’t forget that Charlie and Dave, and Carpenter and Sutton Dibble are all employees of the Nationals, so their remarks, even when on the air, are all insightful into the workings of the organization. And of course, Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden Mike Rizzo are quoted regularly, though much of what they say is vetted with the idea that it is for public consumption, and they have reason to keep internal information to themselves.

If you look at Larson and LaFasto’s work with teams, you’ll see that the Nats actually score pretty highly (or at least, they appear to, in my opinion) in many of the categories that Larson and LaFasto found important. They’re not perfect, however… but that makes them interesting. And the good news is, there’s room for improvement!

Let me say that there are no guarantees about any of my qualitative claptrap. I think this particular area of inquiry about the Nationals is particularly valid because of the presence of Stan Kasten, and “The Plan”. I know that Kasten prefers not to refer to it that way, but it is significant that he has placed emphasis on the building of organization – which by most people’s interpretation means a personnel organization that fosters the development of player. I see it as something more than that, in part because I believe that Kasten thinks so, too (though I’ve not asked him about it specifically).

I take great pleasure in watching and reading about the Nats, and piecing together the bits of organizational clues. I am not sure that what I learn is predictive of anything, but I believe I have an understanding of the team that allows me to make sense of what the team does. Sometimes I get very excited about it all. Sometimes I am glad I wear a seatbelt.

References:

Larson, Carl E. and Frank M. J. LaFasto. Teamwork: What must go right, what can go wrong. Sage, 1989.