Organizations say they want new ideas and approaches. “Fail faster, succeed sooner” is branded on many R&D departments. But scant few are able to accomplish it. If organizations want change, why do they so often fail to achieve it?

A large body of research on this paradox indicates that companies across many industries espouse their desire to have creative and “game changing” minds but rarely promote them into leadership positions. Despite stated intentions to the contrary, studies consistently find organizational bias against creativity.

New ideas challenge existing practices and routines. Creativity can run afoul of people who have spent a long time in an organization and who have established a significant number of powerful connections and allies. There are sub-routines that discourage transformative change. Who reports to whom, performance evaluations and how organizations set expectations for employees – all run interference with the desire to generate and implement new ideas.

Short version: Organizations say they want to incorporate new ideas but find it hard to implement them in practice.

The Hiring Call

That brings us to the Cincinnati Reds – specifically the two new analytics positions they advertised last week.

The Reds new general manager, Dick Williams, through several interviews has expressed a preference for the club to more deeply incorporate modern statistical analysis into their decision-making. What do the new positions indicate about Williams goal? Is it evidence, as some in the press have said, that the Reds are becoming more analytical?

First, it is unambiguously good that the Reds are fortifying their ability to process information. As Steve pointed out earlier this year, Major League Baseball is gathering oceans of new data that teams must assimilate to use effectively. Expanding the Reds capability in this area is welcome.

While the Reds need numbers crunchers, they also need to build upward and incorporate new ideas into their decision-making process. The Reds need people who can find new and creative patterns in the data. They need people who know the cutting-edge of data analysis and can design programs to take advantage of the knowledge it produces. The front office must view new ideas – not just data incorporation – as the lifeblood of the organization. Instead, the Reds chose to build downward and not upset the existing relationship between departments inside the club.

Hiring downward is evidence of an organizational ceiling. The Reds are unwilling to hire above the credentials of their existing employees, people who hold only bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and limited to no experience working with other organizations. This reflects a misdiagnosis of the problem. The Reds appear to believe they just need to become better at what they are currently doing and not seeking out new ways to use data.

The Los Angeles Dodgers recently advertised for a person in their analytics department. The basic requirements included, among other things, a Ph.D. in Computer Science (Machine Learning), Statistics, Operations Research, or related field from a top-tier university and a minimum of five years work experience in mathematical, statistical and predictive modeling.

This position will allow the Dodgers to build proprietary software incorporating self-updating algorithms for any number of purposes, such as: helping to identify when individual pitchers start to fatigue and lose control, what are your best batter-pitcher match-ups, or how many days rest should a player receive? The Dodgers decided that they didn’t just need to build upwards, but they needed to identify the best talent, both on the field and on the keyboard.

Moving Forward

When it comes to baseball experience, Dick Williams is a Reds lifer. So essentially is Sam Grossman, the director of the club’s analytics department. The problem with people who have only worked for one organization is they tend to have a restricted view of their industry. How much “newness” is it reasonable to expect from people who have never been a part of doing it any other way?

Contrast this with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers just hired a 30-year-old general manager who has worked for Pittsburgh, the Mets, Cleveland and Houston. He also had time in the Commissioner’s office. That’s a wide variety of experiences and practices from which to draw. The Cardinals also assembled people from a wide variety of backgrounds when they decided to become a data-driven franchise.

These two new positions suggest the Reds are satisfied with the scope of their current department and want it to do more of what it already does. Bringing on a couple low-level numbers crunchers, after all, is how Walt Jocketty would have expanded the Reds analytics department. Since Williams’ only experience in a major league baseball front office has been with the Reds, he might believe the same thing.

Just like every major league organization, the Reds need a revolution in data management, not an evolution. On Friday, the Reds implied a strategy of gradual evolution.

Bottom Line

Even if Dick Williams has a genuine desire to incorporate analytics into the Reds decision-making, and there’s no reason to doubt that, plenty of organizational headwinds stand in the way. The Reds front office could become yet another in the long list of organizations that say it wants fundamental change but has a hard time delivering.

Williams’ old boss will be around mentoring and consulting for the next few years. Will the new guy feel comfortable overturning past practices? It’s even harder to bring substantial change when your dad and uncle have had a part in hiring the people who would be challenged by new ways of doing things. Last Friday’s job notices are more of an endorsement of the status quo than the leading edge of a new way forward.

In recent interviews, Dick Williams has said he would “put the Reds analytics department up against anybody.” Maybe that’s pure public relations and he knows better. It’s the other possibility that should concern Reds fans: that he actually believes it.