When Theo Epstein left the Boston Red Sox and took his new position with the Chicago Cubs in late October of 2011, he wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe to explain his choice to Red Sox fans. He opened by citing Bill Walsh (the football visionary who innovated the West Coast Offense), who believed coaches and executives should seek changes of scenery at least every 10 years. Walsh felt that doing so allowed both the individual and the organization to maintain healthy growth and consistent energy. What Epstein was saying, in essence, was that his time had come (if a bit earlier than he’d imagined), and a great opportunity had arisen.
That was only a bit over four years ago, and Epstein has done a borderline miraculous job of running the Cubs over that span. So I understand why it caused waves, two weeks ago or so, when I suggested on Twitter that the Cubs might be wisest to shelve the much-discussed idea of extending Epstein’s contract beyond 2016, and to move on. As insane and radical as it sounds, though, I still think that. My goal today is to show you why.
About two years ago, when Addison Russell was still an Oakland Athletics prospect and Anthony Rizzo was a .233 hitter, I was something else, too: a collections specialist at a network of mental health clinics. One day, I was sitting in the waiting room of the corporate office, waiting to interview for a promotion I didn’t want all that badly, wasn’t qualified for, and didn’t get. I sifted through the stack of magazines next to me, hoping for Sports Illustrated, but they had only ESPN: The Magazine. So instead, I turned my attention to a copy of the Harvard Business Review, from the previous fall. On its cover, stylized with nonsensical Xs and Os, were the words: “The Radical Innovation Playbook,” and, smaller, “How to engineer breakthrough ideas, PAGE 73.” The magazine has taken this approach for several years now—theming its issues—thus providing multiple angles on a given management topic each time.
If the person in charge of interviewing me for that minor promotion had been but a little more punctual, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. But I was left alone for a while, so I got most of the way through the first article that day. After the interview, I slipped in and asked if I could take the issue home. Thus, I still have it, and I’ve finished that fateful article. Read it a few times, in fact. Here’s the gist.
The piece is by two former co-directors of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). They walk the reader through the things that make the DARPA model, arguably, the best there is for fostering innovation and game-changing breakthroughs. Among those things: project leaders and teams working on fixed-term contracts, with established, non-negotiable end dates. The justification for that stipulation comes in several paragraphs; I’ll quote them at just the length necessary to get the point across.
Projects with set time frames (up to five years at DARPA), leaders who leave when the projects end, and the scalability, diversity, and agility of contract performers have an edge over traditional captive research organizations. All of those things make it possible to recruit high-caliber team members from a broader pool and get them on board faster.
The DARPA model also allows a company to alter its portfolio of projects faster and at a much lower cost than a conventional internal research organization can.
Another benefit of limited tenures is that—combined with a clearly articulated important need and a scientific challenge—they create a sense of urgency. This forces the team to act as a whole to benchmark progress and to continually challenge “how things have always been done.”
As a practical matter, a high-risk effort by a diverse set of world-class experts can be sustained for only a limited period. One reason is the intensity. Another is that both the problems and the scientific advances needed to solve them are perishable.
Leaders who leave when projects end. Altering a portfolio of projects faster. A sense of urgency. A willingness to challenge convention. In addition to being effective, this is an extremely exciting way to do business. Admittedly, of course, the Cubs aren’t DARPA, and baseball simply isn’t as ripe for innovation as many other fields. More to the point, a single business review article does not an academic case make. Still, a lot of the major principles here bear considering. After all, the primary project Epstein took on—not only rebuilding the Cubs, but making them both dominant and sustainable—is complete. He’s even put in place a codified Cubs Way, providing a degree of stability to the ongoing project of team-building.
The Cubs are going to be very, very good over the next five years. Almost any credible executive can safely guide this team through the next phase of its growth, because the cornerstones (and for that matter, most of the capstones) are in place already. That doesn’t mean that Epstein has outlived his usefulness in Chicago, and the moves he makes between now and the end of the season (a big trade to supplement a World Series hopeful? The most challenging Draft of his tenure? One or two high-profile, or several medium-sized, Cuban amateur additions? Maybe all of the above) will be important. There might be no one better-suited to make them.
Epstein remains an excellent baseball executive, and if he’s here for five more years, the Cubs will profit from his presence. A section of the article on the DARPA model discussed “A special breed of leader,” and many of the attributes listed could be a specific description of Epstein. “They need to have deep technical or scientific knowledge,” the authors write, “be natural risk takers, and be thought leaders who can create a vision that inspires an entire community.” That’s Epstein in a nutshell. The Cubs are the league’s most aggressive, flexible, opportunistic and systematic organization right now, and they owe much of that to Epstein’s leadership.
On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine that the designers of the DARPA model might have a better, more finely-tuned sense of when the bloom begins to fall off the rose for dynamic leaders and organizations than had Bill Walsh. Five years might be a better time for the Cubs to seek a change than 10 years would be. When terms like “risk takers” and “a vision that inspires” show up in a description of a leader, there’s an implicit sense that the shelf life is short. Again, the Cubs can’t help but be good, going forward. If they want to keep innovating, keep revolutionizing, and keep exploring the frontiers of running an MLB team, though, they need to look for someone with a whole new set of ideas that can be integrated into the foundation Epstein has laid.
Recall that, late in his tenure with the Red Sox, Epstein made a few missteps—extending Josh Beckett and signing Carl Crawford to a seven-year deal that immediately flopped, most notably. Both deals (and particularly the Crawford deal, which followed a year or so of borderline-creepy digging by the Red Sox) were born of a certain overconfidence, a notion that the front office’s years of experience and codified methods made them invulnerable (with the right amount of thorough preparation) to certain critical pitfalls. It’s because of things like those moves, things that seep in when everyone gets a little too sure of their processes, that the DARPA directors’ description of that special breed of leader tended to preclude anyone moving past their early 40s. It simply gets harder to learn and adapt as one adds experience and success to one’s resume. Assimilation takes over for accommodation in the process of adding new ideas and data points to one’s existing schemas. Slowly, and despite the best and most honest efforts made by brilliant and open-minded people, experience and success become drags on the process of constant, healthy change.
There was another article in that issue of HBR, entitled “Rethinking the Decision Factory,” about how organizations can better manage knowledge workers. One of its key tenets is that those organizations tend to underestimate the ability to port knowledge capital developed by a specific individual or individuals to new ones, especially if steps are taken to codify the knowledge the organization develops in real time. They also often underestimate the availability (and so overestimate the market value) of great knowledge workers. I think that’s as true in baseball as anywhere. We underestimate the number of people out there with great, bold ideas, many of them belonging to groups (demographic, philosophical, and otherwise) underrepresented in MLB front offices right now.
Epstein is a tremendous front-office talent, but he’d be a very expensive one to retain, and the groundwork he has laid ought to allow even slightly less talented replacements to thrive. It’s not that Epstein doesn’t deserve to enjoy his success, revel in it, or be praised for it long after he leaves. It’s just that the Cubs have a chance to be more than a great team. They have a chance to change baseball for the better, in many ways. Opening up the organization to an entirely new perspective, perhaps even from someone in another field of endeavor altogether, could foment that possibility. In my opinion, before they commit to the second five years with Epstein, the Cubs should seriously consider their alternatives, and be willing to take the risk of changing direction in search of the next mountaintop.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.