A Good Manager Adapts; A Poor Manager Always Sticks to the Plan

"If he got in trouble in the ninth or got a baserunner, we were going to bring our closer in. That's what we've done all year." – Matt Williams, National manager

On Saturday night, the Nationals were one out away from tying up its National League Division Series against the Giants at one game apiece. On the mound, the Nats had their best pitcher in a groove that pitchers dream about. He had not given up a hit in six innings. The start prior, he went the full nine without giving up a hit.

stupid matt williams
The Nats lost the game because Matt Williams stuck to his plan.

With two outs in the ninth, Jordan Zimmermann walked a batter. As you see from the quote above, Williams had his mind made up. Regardless of circumstances or variables, Williams was going to pull his starter if a runner reached base. Why? Because, “That’s what we’ve done all year.”

That one statement perfectly encapsulated why Matt Williams is not a good baseball manager. Those are the words you never want to hear from a manager in any walk of life.

Watching the Nats for the 2014 season made one thing very clear: Williams was the Nationals’ biggest liability. He made questionable decisions, particularly with the bullpen, all year long. The Nats’ incredibly talented lineup and pitching staff turned Williams into nothing more than a chauffeur for the second half of the season. He just needed to get out of the way.

But come October in baseball, the manager is a difference maker. More than any other sport, the manager in baseball has a distinct impact on the game with specific moves. For two games, Williams has been severely out-managed by the Giants skipper, Bruce Bochy, who not coincidentally has two World Series rings.

Williams’ insistence on doing what has worked in the past made me think of my professional career and the difference between good managers and bad managers. There are many different managerial styles for employees. It’s impossible to say what works and what doesn’t work with any certainty because there are so many variables to the manager/employee relationship. Some employees need the stick – others needs the carrot.

However, there is one trait that is universal to poor managers: they do not adapt. Matt Williams embodied that on Saturday night.

Whether I’m searching for a new job, starting a new one, or working with new vendors, I will invariably ask, “Why?” Why do we this that way? Why are we going in this direction? I need to hear a reason. I may not agree with the reason but I want to know the thought process behind a decision.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it,” makes me cringe. I have heard it far too often in my professional life. Simply put, it is the worst possible answer you can give to explain a business decision.

That answer will get your business in trouble. If you think about the companies and industries that have failed, it is usually their insistence on the status quo. Blackberry did the same thing for years, until its market share was swallowed whole. Fox kept relying on American Idol to drive ratings until the show had nothing left to give and the network now languishes in fourth place.  The American auto industry was on the brink of ruin by failing to innovate. I’m sure you have your own example at the top of mind right now.

Please do not misinterpret – what was worked in the past can certainly continue to work in the future. But there must be a better reason to continue to doing so beyond past success. Our world is changing far too fast to be beholden to what worked last year, last month or even last week.

Two weeks ago, someone asked me a question about our website. I almost responded with, “Because that’s the way it’s always been,” before stopping, feeling embarrassed and answering with, “I don’t know, let me find out.” I found out. It wasn’t a good reason. We will be changing it.

Sure, it would have been easier to succumb to the status quo, especially for a page that accounts for such a minute percentage of our traffic. The path to success is rarely the easier one.

On Saturday, Matt Williams exemplified the fallacy of falling back on past successes. If you cannot adapt to new situations, you will fail. That’s what poor managers do. And that’s why I was a very unhappy person just past midnight Sunday morning.

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