PM Articles > Kent McDonald > Teching Up a 19th-Century Pastoral Game

Teching Up a 19th-Century Pastoral Game

by Kent McDonald

You would never confuse me for a fan of Major League Baseball (MLB). I have, however, been following with a small bit of interest the fits and starts MLB has been going through to introduce instant replay in baseball games. I don't have a particularly strong opinion about the use of instant replay in baseball one way or the other. I have been interested in the story because of the way in which MLB has implemented it. There are several lessons to be learned about introducing a new process or system to a group of users from watching MLB dipping their toes in the technology pool. Because I am a big believer in learning from others' experiences, I thought I would share some of them with you:

  • Involve your users throughout the entire process.
  • Avoid setting arbitrary deadlines.
  • Be very clear about your scope.

Before I get into these lessons, a brief background on the story is probably warranted for all those readers who follow baseball about as much as I do.

  • November 2007 – Baseball general managers vote 25–5 to recommend limited use of instant replay.
  • April 2008 – Baseball season starts. No instant replay.
  • Early August 2008 – With 5 weeks left to go in the season before the playoffs, MLB announces that instant replay will be implemented before the end of the month.
  • August 20, 2008 – Umpires boycott a conference call with the MLB regarding the implementation of instant reply claiming that they have not been listened to and the important details had not been worked out. It's worth noting that instant replay equipment was already being installed in most major league parks as of this date.
  • August 21, 2008 – MLB announces that they had reached an agreement with the umpires that will allow the use of instant replay during games. Most of the details, such as how and when training would occur, had not been decided at that point. Although MLB has been holding discussions with the Players Association, MLB maintains that legally, they do not need an agreement with the players.
  • August 28, 2008 – Instant replay is used in a couple of games with expansion to all games the next day.

Involve Your Users Throughout The Entire Process

Take a look at the timeline above. MLB has had approval from the general managers to implement instant replay since November of 2007. They were already installing equipment in the parks—equivalent to most IT shops deploying a system to production—and they hadn't even talked (so it seems) to the users of the system about how it should be used, let alone trained them. Has that approach ever worked for you? Luckily for the users in this case, they had union tools at their disposal to get management's attention. But is reaching an 11th-hour agreement really the most effective way to gain buy-in and acceptance of the new system? And is that going to guarantee that the system and new processes are implemented flawlessly? And is it really wise to not get buy-in from the players?

There's a reason the Agile Manifesto includes the value statement "customer collaboration over contract negotiation." The introduction of a new process will always be more successful if you involve the customers, users, and other stakeholders involved with the process from the beginning of the effort. This collaboration not only helps to bring in a wide range of thoughts and experience that improves the design of the process; it also strengthens buy-in, so that when the process is rolled out, there are advocates for the new process from within the user community. The alternative, as we saw with instant replay, is a contentious "us vs. them" situation, where the new process is being forced on the workers. People are going to inherently work harder to make a process more successful if they played a part in creating it.

Avoid Setting Arbitrary Deadlines

MLB created an arbitrary deadline with little to no reasoning as to why. Does it make sense to change the rules of the game and hurriedly introduce new technology to support those rule changes during the season? What value is gained from going through this change? Why now, especially since they have had approval to introduce instant replay since November of last year? The MLB is falling into the same trap as many organizations that find some shiny new project to work on. They become so enamored with the shininess of the project or idea that they forget to apply common sense and judgment—to ask whether it is worth doing in the first place and when is the most appropriate time.

Rushing into something when there is a compelling business reason to do so makes sense. The key word there is compelling. When you have to set a date to complete a project, and that date represents a fairly tight time frame, by all means set the date, but make sure you understand why you are doing it. It costs money to rush things. It can cost quality also. When you make people work faster than they normally work, they will not be as careful with their work because they are rushing to meet your expectations.

Be Very Clear About Your Scope

Probably the biggest concern surrounding instant replay in baseball is the "slippery slope." This implementation of instant replay is intended to cover only home run balls—whether a ball that went out of the park was fair or foul, whether a fan interfered with the ball in plan, and whether the ball cleared the yellow line or the top of the fence. Many people have wondered if this will start opening up the use of instant replay for other quirky fielding plays and (gasp) calling strikes and balls. MLB has been adamant that the use of instant replay starts and stops with home run calls.

In this case, MLB got it right. Although there are many details around instant replay that remain murky, one thing that has remained perfectly clear is what it is to be used for. They have avoided concerns about scope creep—at least for now—by being extremely clear about what and is what not covered by this implementation. Although this concept seems rather straightforward, I have seen my share of project teams that could not clearly describe what will and will not be done. You want to be able to describe scope in terms that everyone involved on the project understands, because they should be using that scope definition to make decisions about what features to work on. In the case of instant replay, scope is defined based on what plays it will be used for (home run balls) and where (two games on August 28 and all the games on August 29). For your projects, chose clearly defined dimensions to put boundaries around the focus of your project, and make sure everyone on the team is clear what those boundaries are.

There's No Crying in Baseball!

It remains to be seen whether the introduction of instant replay will have an impact, good or bad, on the rest of this baseball season. The true impact of instant replay depends on how many questionable home run calls occur in games that have some impact on league standings or critical games like the playoffs or World Series. What I do know is that, given the very public nature of baseball, an error caused by poorly defined processes or less than enthusiastic users will certainly not shine a flattering light on the sport. Although any publicity is good publicity, something tells me that baseball would like some good news that helps people forget about steroids and human growth hormone.

We're lucky; most of us do not have to implement our projects in the glaring spotlight of Major League Baseball. But we can take a few lessons from their experiences to avoid the bad press that they have fielded during their implementation efforts, even if that press doesn't make it to ESPN.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

I think this is a wonderful way of relating project management to everyday issues to drive home the relevant lessons. I have really enjoyed reading this piece.

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