I love baseball. I love Aaron Sorkin. I love, at least since the magnificent The Tree of Life, Brad Pitt. So there were high expectations for my trip to see Moneyball last week. What a shame that it disappointed so much. It glided along well, with some sharp Sorkin-dialogue and a few great scenes, but it never really took off; and I was even tempted to look at my watch two-thirds of the way through. (How it gets 95% on Rotten Tomatoes I don’t know. I’ll blog about Rotten Tomatoes soon.)
But the central premise (based on a true story) is interesting. Baseball manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) is running a team that can’t afford to compete financially with the bigger teams. Every time one of his players proves himself, he gets offered a multi-million dollar contract by someone else and is gone at the beginning of the next season.
Bean notices that people tend to rate players on a limited number of obvious skills and characteristics – how many runs they score, how good their swing is, how fast and accurately they can pitch, etc.
But not many people are analysing the less obvious statistical data about what actually helps a team to win a single game, and to keep winning consistently over a season. It’s not, as it turns out, simply the showy stuff or the obvious stuff – hits and catches and home runs and strike-outs (or whatever – I’m not sure I understand it all); it’s a combination of much less interesting factors like whether someone can make it to first base or whether they can throw a ball from the outfield.
When you get a team of non-stars who, in combination, can do this boring stuff, they beat a team of all-stars. You just need to analyse systematically what actually works, and find people who can do this.
The moral, if there is one, is that we shouldn’t assume we know what works and what doesn’t – until we have done the statistical analysis. Yes, statistics can distort or even deceive, but if you ask the right questions, they can reveal what really makes something work. It’s too easy for us to think we know what works, to take for granted that our criteria for judging something properly are reliable and proven, when often we are just going on unfounded hunches and prejudices.
This is why I always prefer to do detailed written feedback sheets at the end of a course or programme. I’ve heard people say that they like to sit down with people and hear from them directly; and there is certainly something to be gained from talking and listening. But my experience is that in a group conversation, even when you ask everyone to speak, the conversation will still be dominated by the louder ones, or the ones who feel most strongly about the issue (positively or negatively); and as an organiser you will always be tempted to be influenced too much by those who speak with most conviction.
But when you give everyone a chance, in a quiet moment of written reflection, to say what they think in detail about how something has worked, you get a much better picture, and often a lot of surprises. How to get honest and helpful feedback from people is a great art. I’d like to know more about other ways of getting constructive feedback.