Brad Pitt as a Quantum Leader

I experienced a tidy patch of synchronicity last week.
First, I worked my way through the Crisis Management chapter in the Quantum Leadership book I’m reading.  Second, I dragged my husband to the theater to see Moneyball, the new Brad Pitt movie about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s baseball team.  Then, in quick succession, I had the opportunity to see a preview of Windows 8 on a slate computer and  Amazon announced its new Kindle line-up, including the Fire, a heavily customized Android tablet.

Quantum’s take on crisis management is, essentially, “Get used to it.  Get better at it.  Stop thinking of it as something you only do from time to time.”The authors point out that health care systems have long done effective planning for all sorts of crises:  natural disasters, epidemics, terrorist attacks and the like.  But they haven’t been so proactive about the slower moving, unplanned but predictable, crises generated by changes in their business ecosystem.  A  change might be technical:  the hospital that establishes itself as a leader in surgical cardiac care gets passed by when less invasive treatments become popular.  It might be regulatory, new rules about patient privacy,  or financial, reimbursement schedules change to favor out-patient procedures over in-patient stays.  These days a game-changing crisis can come at your business from a dozen different directions.

So the leader may not know WHAT is going to create the next crisis but she can be certain one or more crises are usually bearing down.  Quantum’s authors argue that health care leaders should become skilled in what they call “environmental scanning:” i.e., “read broadly”, “stay current with clinical and systems innovations”, and “synthesize information from diverse sources.”

Effectively managing change means leaders create an internally and externally adaptive environment that has the capacity to anticipate, even predict, the impact of changes, internal and external . . . Looking at change as a constant rather than an exception is a critical leadership skill . . . leaders must recognize in their own roles an adaptive capacity that helps the organization and its people shift and adjust . . .


Whoa, don’t we all wish we could do that?  I could have used those skills more than once in my career.

But the authors also admit that most leaders don’t see the train wreck coming at them until a ‘trigger event’ occurs.

Trigger events are the organization’s last line of defense related to an impending or inevitable shift or change. Triggers indicate that the change impact is ‘at the door’ and now directly influencing the strategy and work dynamics of the organization.

Which brings us to Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane.

When the movie opens, it’s the early 2000’s and Billy Beane is General Manager of the Oakland A’s.  His trigger event isn’t a losing season; it is a winning one.  His ‘small market’ franchise, with its small salary pool, has a better year than expected, gets into the playoffs, and loses in honorable fashion. Then, in a devastating but predictable blow, they also lose three star players as free agents to richer teams who can pay much more.  Faced with the hard fact that he doesn’t have either the money to hire effective replacements or the time to groom new stars from his farm teams, Beane realizes that the game of baseball has changed.  If he tries to play it the same way as the rich teams, his club is destined to be a perennial bottom feeder.  On the other hand, if he can find a way to minimize the effect of money on his player recruitment process, his franchise may still have a chance.

I found the whole movie delightful.  It was a bit light on how Beane gets from his realization to his solution:  using statistical analysis to build a team out of players that are ‘under-valued’ on other teams. It was also, to my taste, very light on the math and spreadsheets — but I’m a geek.  On the other hand, it was fast-paced and funny and the dialog was great — as you’d expect from a film with Aaron Sorkin getting co-writer credit.

Quantum’s authors would probably give Beane, despite a slow start, high marks on vision and synthesis:  how well he understands the extent and the gravity of the changes facing him and his willingness to take bold, high-stakes action to break out of an old, failing mold.

They’d mark him down, though, on execution.

Leaders must help those they lead understand the impact of external trends and changes and how they alter the conception of the work, the way the work is done, and the activities of all workers…


Pitt’s character is almost willfully bad at this.  He puts little effort into explaining to his old-time scouts, who are shoved to one side in the recruiting process, what he’s now looking for in players and why.  And he fights an extended turf war with his own manager, who is responsible for making the new players work together as a team, rather than take the time to sit down and bring the guy over to his new way of thinking.

Inexplicable but familiar, no?  How many organizations do you know that have good people working at cross purposes like that?

The new system doesn’t actually work at all until Billy gives up on his long-held tradition of staying aloof from the players.   But once he starts talking directly to the players themselves about what they need to focus on (getting on base) and how they need to be approaching their jobs, things start to click.  It turns out that, in baseball as in health care, how policy is translated into execution on the front lines is what really counts.

My biggest benefit from the movie was how it changed my reaction to a Quantum paragraph that really bothered me on first reading:

Evidence-based practice requires that the team’s work activity is viewed from the perspective of the difference its work makes, rather than simply from the view of the quality of the work process.  One may work well with a high degree of commitment and precision . . . and still not make a difference or achieve specific clinical objectives.


Before the movie, I was on the side of the old scouts:  They were always looking for the ‘best ballplayers,’ the guys who would score the most runs as hitters or make the most outs as fielders.  As a developer, I like to think that it is important to be the best programmer I can be.  After all, how can ‘quality of work process’ NOT be important?  And I’m still not saying that poor quality work is what we are after; but I agree we have to be doing the right good work.   For example, according to Beane’s statistician/analyst, the guy who scores the most runs himself may not optimize the team’s performance in winning games.  The guy who consistently gets on base and is more often standing out there on a bag, ready to score, may help the team win a lot more games than the ‘star’ would.

kindlefireSo where do Windows 8 and the Kindle Fire come into this discussion?

They symbolize my personal ‘environmental scanning’ challenge.  From a software developer’s perspective, I don’t think we’ve lived through a period of so much peril and promise — or platform chaos — since the early days of the personal computer.  I’m not sure I’d have taken the time to watch the Windows 8 demo if it hadn’t been for the Crisis Management chapter and its admonition to read, or in this case, view, widely.  Nor would I have thought about the new Kindle line-up quite as deeply as I have.  I’m very glad I did both.

windows8_slatepcNow I know:  Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and RIM (the makers of BlackBerrys) all seem to be agreeing on one thing.  They see tablets — touchscreen computers bigger than today’s phone and even more portable than today’s laptops — as the upcoming consumer computer of choice.  How often do all the nine-hundred-pound gorillas line up on the same side of any issue?

Unfortunately, even if I believe them AND they are right, their incompatible offerings don’t help application developers like me chart a clear path.  So, while I have a responsibility to continue trying to look forward and anticipate what is going to happen in the tablet wars, it’s probably even more important that I manage my organization according to the most pragmatic point in the Crisis Management chapter:  “adaptation is more important than anticipation.”

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