Moneyball: The strengths (and limitations) of innovation

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moneyball poster

Billy BeaneMichael Lewis’s Moneyball — the story about how the nearly broke Oakland A’s managed to reshape baseball by using science in place of money to select its players — reminds me about the virtues and limitations of innovation.  (The book has been turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt.)

The virtues: Seemingly impossible things become real with just a bit of imagination (and sometimes a lot of hard work). The limitations: There are variables outside the innovator’s scope — and variables that creep in once the innovation proves successful.

Moneyball, of course, explains how the As built a team by picking an assortment of seemingly mis-fit players by reviewing stats that counted through a scientific and mathematical research by a motley crew of nerdy fans and equally nerdy scouts. The goal: To look for really good players who traditional scouts were avoiding because they didn’t look right — or failed on measures which, it seems, didn’t really count. The A’s, a low-budget team, could not compete with the super-star and well-budgeted teams, so found a better way.

Well, almost. Misfits might play well, but you cannot completely control their inner minds. Nor can you entirely control the competition. As other teams have noticed the A’s success, others have tried to copy the formula, with varying levels of success. As well, other teams know when the As are looking for talent, they may be looking for under-priced greatness — and if they find out you can expect the prices will go up.

Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

I’m not sure if this quote attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci (from dudye.com’s Get into Action:  77 Thoughts on Motivation) is correct, but the message seems right on target here:

“Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”

Still, Moneyball reminds us that innovation, sometimes resulting from necessity rather than inspiration, can take us to really amazing places. To pull it off, however, we need to be ready to defy conventions, yet use some scientific methods. As Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager, discovered, the answers may come from a combination of experience (as a failed, but apparently promising player) and outsiders (an amazingly strange crew of amateur sleuths largely on the Internet). We should keep our minds open. However, we also need to remember Da Vinci’s warning:  Your good ideas will be copied. “Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.”

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