“Success brings positive reinforcement, and we easily leap to justify the expectation that past success predicts an ongoing record of brilliance…Such delusional thinking is not all bad. It provides a number of benefits: confidence in the face of risk or danger; and blindness to doubt and the possibility of failure. If we weren’t so selectively perceptive, we might just stay in bed all day…These delusions shift from assets into liabilities only when we need to change in order to move to a new level of performance.” – Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Maybe, as Marshall Goldsmith says, a “new level of performance” is not needed for today’s baseball teams. Maybe they can keep getting a little bit better, grinding out a win here and a win there in order to be successful. Maybe the money will roll in no matter what. Maybe teams are already taking new approaches in an attempt to create step-change innovation or major differentiation and we just do not see it because it is all happening behind a curtain.

That is a lot maybes, a lot of stuff we do not know. What we do know is that continuing to use a previously successful strategy is both useful in achieving incremental gains for a certain period of time and a near guaranteed way to be surpassed by the competition. Without innovation, we will always be bested by the market and the diminishing return curve.

You all met Tim Brown in the last two articles, but here is what he has to say on the matter: “[Predictability] leads to results that rivals find easy to copy.” He continues, “It is better to take an experimental approach: share processes, share collective ownership of ideas, and enable teams to learn from one another.”

What Brown is talking about here is creating a design thinking-influenced culture that will lead to improved innovation. Again, maybe teams are already trying to create such a culture, but we do not know. As we did yesterday with implementation, we will look at the methods and concepts of implementing design thinking across an organization from the perspective of design thinkers, businesses, and, as best we can, those in baseball.

Curiosity and Challenging Assumptions

Now that IDEO has been helping companies incorporate design thinking into their boardrooms, processes, and, ultimately, their corporate cultures for well over a decade, we asked, “What do companies that have integrated design thinking into their culture look like?” Brown—IDEO’s CEO since 2001—responded that those organizations "have an ability and a tendency to embrace new ideas (more so than) organizations that haven’t.” Brown notes that, more than anything, these companies are curious. Curiosity causes us to observe our end users, to ask for feedback, to ask why, to ask questions rather than accepting the status quo, and to challenge basic assumptions. When asked on the Design Matters Podcast with Debbie Millman how often he finds IDEO reframing its customers’ questions and problems, Brown resolutely answers, “All the time.”

Curiosity and challenging assumptions are nothing new to innovation in baseball. They are the reason this website exists. They are the reasons for the “Sabermetric revolution” and baseball’s information age. While the mountains of data, complex computer code, brilliant analysts, and Wall Street strategies share the spotlight, none would be on stage if nobody asked, “Why are we doing things this way?” Questions such as “How much does the way a player gets on base matter?” and “Why do we position our infielders in pretty much the same way for every hitter?” and “Is there more to catcher defense than blocking balls and throwing out runners?” and many others do not get asked without such a mindset.

Clearly, baseball is capable of the mindset needed for design thinking, but capability rarely gets anyone to breakthrough innovation alone. Once an organization has been successful with a certain strategy or process, innovation tends to be filtered through the lens of operational feasibility. Brown points out that “almost all organizations, when they start, are explorations; and then they turn into reliable implementation and execution kind-of machines.” For example, Claudia Kotchka mentions that at Proctor & Gamble, a Consumer Packaged Goods giant that differentiated through branding and operational efficiency for decades, “innovation” had tended to become buying or repositioning a brand (usually to sell the product at a premium) and then finding every way possible to improve operational efficiency through reducing costs and increasing run rate. This process was successful at achieving incremental improvements, but step-change innovation was thusly limited.

In baseball, over a decade and a half after the beginning of baseball’s information age, our innovations are all generally starting to follow the same recipe: acquire new information, analyze the information, find what has thus been improperly valued, and adjust process and valuations accordingly. Again, there is nothing wrong with finding these improvements; in fact, they are crucial for sustaining short-term success. The idea here, though, is to also be searching for something more and to do so we need to be able to escape the lens of operational feasibility.

Learning by Doing

Design thinking involves experimentation, prototyping, and iteration in order produce solutions and innovations. While we looked at how baseball teams might be using prototyping or related concepts already, many businesses and their processes are not structured to allow for learning by doing. Rather, these organizations are structured to go directly from analysis to solution to planning to implementation. This approach makes it easy to leave assumptions unchecked and to overlook different perspectives and user experiences. Brown notes,

“The only safe way to do that is to do something that somebody has done before, which by definition is incremental. One of my concerns with the output coming from the management consulting world is not they don’t do great work, they do, but the nature of the way they work tends to mean (the output) has to be incremental because they have to prove something is going to work before they do it. Therefore they revert to the same things somewhere else; we then see these repeating strategies that get implemented time and time again whether or not they are necessarily the best solution.”

Conversely, allowing for the "learning by doing" phase provides a space for small, acceptable, useful failures. A safe space for failure is hugely important because breakthrough innovation almost never happens without some failure along the way.

Baseball, at least for the players, is a game of learning by doing. Learning a new pitch, mechanics, position, or mindset all involve experimentation, feel, and everything else that goes along with learning by doing. But while the failure that is inherent in the game itself is tolerated, it is unclear that failure in experimentation is tolerated. What is clear, however, is that organizations that tend to extend shorter leashes to their front offices and managers (Marlins, Diamondbacks, Mariners) tend to show the least amount of experimentation and innovation. Now, it is tough to tell which is the figurative chicken or egg, but it does seem reasonable (and this is certainly not an original thought) that innovation will be stifled the more experimentation is frowned upon by ownership.


Another way design thinking promotes innovation is through collaboration between multiple disciplines. Kotchka, discussing the benefits of design, said,

“What I like about design thinking, is that it’s really about taking your talents and maximizes what they can do (from an idea creation perspective). In a business, everyone has great ideas, but when you’re in a system, it’s hard to get any of those ideas out. Because it’s multi-disciplinary, it gets the different disciplines talking, all working toward the same end goal and encourages people to really think differently by getting them to think about the end users.”

In baseball, ideas regarding innovation tend to start in the front office and flow downstream. As mentioned in yesterday’s article, teams are not just sending down ideas and hoping they stick; they are asking for feedback too. What Kotchka is discussing, though, is not just involving coaches and players for feedback for the purposes of implementation, but rather involving more parties in the idea creation process. A.J. Hinch offered a sentiment that is consistent with Kotchka’s, noting, “it isn't about where the information comes from (players, staff, front office) as long as the premise is that it helps them become better players.”

Design thinking not only allows for ideas to come from more disciplines, it allows for those with different perspectives to work together to produce better, often more fully formed, ideas. Those in the front office might be more inclined to come up with ideas, but they can also lack the details of what is going on at the ground level. Meanwhile, coaches and, especially, players have more pressing concerns—mainly executing on the playing field—than coming up with new ideas. Roger Martin, business strategy advisor and thinker, mentions this paradox: that those tasked with execution “have the most data, but they also ignore the most. Once they latch onto a theory of how the world works, they only find information that confirms this.” Collaboration potentially works to fight this paradox by asking those with ideas to work with those with experience, while asking those with experience to take a momentary step away from their important tasks of execution.


While we have now discussed the potential benefits of a design thinking-influence culture for baseball teams, we need to mention that organizations cannot simply decide to do so. Doing so requires resources and commitment—particularly from leadership. According to Kotchka, the people most likely to commit to design thinking (or anything new) were either “those that are in trouble” that “might as well try something new “ or those that had gained success through being progressive and thus understood the benefits of change (and the dangers of complacency).

Beyond buy-in, learning the skills and concepts of design and then understanding how to best use those skills is needed. These are difficult tasks, ones that require more than a few professional classes and bringing in consultants (designers) for a month. Brown notes,

“You have to master the skills, you have to master the discipline in order to be truly great…If you go with a strategy of just thinly spreading [design thinking] over the whole organization, you’ll have no mastery, you’ll probably have a lot of failure, people will get disappointed quite quickly, and give up.”

Brown continues by mentioning that it often takes many years of learning, lessons learned, and culture change (often with the aid of design consultants) before companies develop their own “masters,” before they truly integrate design thinking into their organization. As a result, just like the shift, a new pitch, a new batting stance, or anything else, design thinking will not prevail if abandoned at the first sight of failure. Mastery takes time, behavior and culture change take even longer, and none of this can happen without support and direction from leadership.

Lastly, buy-in from leadership is necessary because no team would ever decide on investing in a design thinking-influenced culture based on return on investment (ROI), but then again, no team would ever trade a prospect or sign a top tier free agent if only looking at ROI. Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, has long argued that ROI stifles innovation by placing focus on the percentage of growth as opposed to the amount of growth. The point of all this is to say that incremental innovation (hire another analyst or scout, procure more information, etc.) will always be more appealing from an ROI perspective, but differentiating innovation will rarely be achieved this way. Put more simply by Kotchka, “You cannot innovate based on data because by definition data doesn’t exist yet.”

We do not know what the future holds for baseball. What we do know, though, is that the next ideas to truly revolutionize the game will probably not resemble past ideas, other than by challenging many of the basic assumptions that we currently hold true. It might not have anything to do with design thinking, but design thinking might just help us get there.

Goldsmith, M., & Reiter, M. (2007). What got you here won't get you there: How successful people become even more successful. Hyperion.
Brown, T. (2009). Change by Design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. New York, New York: Harper Business.
Millman, Debbie. 'Tim Brown'. Design Matters with Debbie Millman. N.p., 2009. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
It seems to me the area most primed for innovation is around conditioning and injury prevention. The incentives are there--its easy to figure the cost of losing Jose Fernandez or Matt Harvey for 12 months--but so far the (off-the-field) data sucks. Some club could easily separate itself from the pack if it could find away to keep its best players on the field more of the time.
The Pirates have been trying to focus on this, sort of following the model of the Golden State Warriors. The main strategy seems to be more rest for their everyday players, and not letting them play more than X days in a row.
The NBA and NHL do this a lot. However, I don't think the Warriors have the premium on this thinking. The Spurs won on this principle for years. Sitting the aging superstar throughout the season to keep them fresh for the postseason. And this is the rub. The current nhl and nba playoff formula is packed with 16 teams. The format is begging for sitting players throughout a season. With only 10 teams total in the mlb playoffs, playing your optimal line up is essential nearly every day. So, playing 150+ games is a premium features for mlb. The issue is probably on management to create as many redundancies as possible on an mlb roster.
God this series is the best
I was all set to start skipping the podcast until I heard Sam and Ben talk about this series today and I'm so glad I did. I just read the whole series. Such great writing!