Moneyball and the Mary Gloster

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I have never been much of a baseball fan. I’ve never enjoyed the game the way some of my friends seem to. I certainly don’t understand it. It’s not because I didn’t try.

I read George Will’s book, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. It inspired me to make an effort to understand the game. I figured that if that happened, I would like it more.

But no joy. Even after study and effort, I was still puzzled by how baseball teams operated.

It seemed to my untutored eye that most baseball team owners put their team together by spending tons of money on star players. The stars clumped together with other players and sent out on the field to bring victory.

But, teams with gigantic, government-budget-sized payrolls didn’t automatically win. Teams did not finish the season in order of their salary expenditure.

In fact, the Oakland Athletics finished first in the American League’s Western Division in 2002 with the smallest player payroll of any major league baseball team. Since I wasn’t paying attention, I didn’t even notice.

But when Michael Lewis, who is a wonderful writer, wrote a book, called Moneyball, about how they did it, I decided to buy one more baseball book. The book didn’t help me like baseball any better. But I learned more about competitive advantage

There were two big reasons why the A’s did so well in 2002 with such a tiny payroll. One was that General Manager Billy Beane understood that great teams are made up of the best players you can find and who can do everything you need to win and who fit together synergistically.

The second reason was that the Beane used some sophisticated analytical tools to figure out which players would comprise the best team. Since no other baseball team was using those tools, they gave him a competitive advantage.

That was then. Today everyone is using those tools.

No competitive advantage based on technology or technique lasts forever. Sooner or later your competitors will figure out how to do what you do and your competitive advantage will evaporate.

So what can you do? Let’s get help from the poet, Rudyard Kipling.

One of my favorite Kipling poems is “The Mary Gloster.” It’s very long, but great for reading aloud. My daughters will remember it from when I read them poems before bedtime.

The old shipping tycoon, Sir Anthony Gloster, is dying after a life of great success. The poem is his advice to his ne’er-do-well son. It includes these wonderful lines.

“They copied all they could follow, but they couldn’t copy my mind,
And I left ’em sweating and stealing a year and a half behind.”

Boss’s Bottom Line

When you set about building a team, remember that you’ll do best with talented people who can do everything that’s needed and who fit together well.

The only sustainable competitive advantage is based on people, complete with their knowledge, relationships, creative energy, and messy humanity.

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