Moneyball: The Fine Art of Strategy and other Valuable Lessons
This is not your standard movie review because I'm just not your standard type of girl. Even though Moneyball is a fabulous movie whether you like baseball or not, the baseball and sports factor is not what I want to talk about.
By the way, I'd warn you that there are spoilers aplenty here, but that'd be a bit of a joke if we stop to think for a short second that this movie is based on a true story... Anyway, don't mind the spoilers because they really don't spoil anything.
What's Moneyball about?
Oakland A's GM Billy Beane is handicapped with the lowest salary constraint in baseball. If he ever wants to win the World Series, Billy must find a competitive advantage. Billy is about to turn baseball on its ear when he uses statistical data to analyze and place value on the players he picks for the team.
Douglas Young (the-movie-guy), IMDB
Moneyball can be seen and understood as a sports movie, and it is that, but if one looks only that far when watching this film, then one misses out on half the story, if not all of it.
Moneyball is a masterclass in strategy, leadership, taking and sticking to difficult decisions, and the ever so popular "thinking outside the box".
I've been to multiple seminars with titles such as "Team Management", "Leadership Skills", "Strategic Thinking" and so on. Yesterday, upon watching Moneyball, I felt like I was watching a compendium of all of those courses and seminars in a condensed 2 hour version that left me quite breathless.
Redefining the problem: We aren't asking the right questions
Redefining problems to find new and fresh solutions is one of the most valuable lessons anyone can learn, in business or elsewhere. It's entirely frequent to hear strategists and big thinkers using the discourse "If you're always doing the same things, why do you expect different results?"
Along the movie and rather frequently, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), utters sometimes convincingly and sometimes at the end of his rope and very frustrated: "We are not asking the right questions". This is a maxim in strategy and creative thinking, if there ever was one.
There is a wonderful scene at the beginning of the movie, where Billy sits on a planning meeting with all his talent scouts, not unlike many of the business meetings I've even been to, and shuts them all up asking them to define the problem. "What is our problem?" he keeps asking of one after the other.
Each and every one of them fail to define what the real problem is, because none see past the hard facts, and because all fail to grasp the fact that unless they redefine the present circumstance, they are going to hit the very same wall once and again and forever.
That scene perked me up real quick, and clued me into what I was really watching: A masterclass in strategic and creative thinking.
Asking different questions is the path to get different answers, and Moneyball, based on the true story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, proves that different questions can lead to different results.
Strategy and The Art of War
Ladies and gents, this is NOT a mushy lesson to be learned here, it's a hardcore, invaluable insight into why some plans fail and some succeed: When the going gets tough, one needs to reassess if there were any wrong decisions along the way, and if reassessment brings to light that decisions taken were the right ones, then what one needs to do is adjust the criteria and follow through.
Anyone who has read or heard of the renowned The Art of War by Sun Tzu, will be familiar with its core philosophy that strategy and planning works in a controlled environment. But in a changing environment, competing circumstances collide, creating unexpected situations that require quick and adequate responses to the changing conditions.
Moneyball is a true and precise depiction of this philosophy. Billy and Peter carefully think about and design the game plan, choosing a list of players that they believe can deliver the results within their budget. However the plan doesn't work as they expected. What do they do? They ask the questions again and they feel they still have the right answers, and the right tools, but what they don't have is the support of the head coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who refuses to play by the plan.
Faced with this dilemma, what would The Art of War dictate? Adapt to the circumstances: Take away Howe's capacity to go against the plan, by taking away from him the ability to pick different players than the ones intended for each purpose. In the span of 10 minutes they reconfigure the team, thus eliminating any options of going against the plan.
It's a very risky decision, to get rid of the so-called best players in the team, but they do it because they believe in their plan. Stick to what you think is right –no plan is fruitful if there aren't guts to stick to it, and adjust as needed.
Difficult Decisions and Astounding Leadership
Moneyball holds impressive lessons about team leadership through the good and the bad times, and how to take and stick to difficult decisions, such as transferring or cutting players lose.
When it comes to the difficult decisions, I think the peak scene is when Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), who's never done anything of the sort and shudders to think of the task ahead, transfers one of the players. It's a less than 2 minute scene that is pure magic. Heart and head collide into a masterful representation of respect between the parties while a deed is done.
All managers, any manager, should hear Billy explaining to Peter that firing players needs to be straightforward, without frills, and be done with respect, because that's how players are and that's what they deserve. Any manager will learn more about this difficult task by watching Moneyball than by reading any books or attending any seminars.
And any manager who's been in this difficult position and watches the movie will most certainly feel a shudder of comprehension go through them as the extremely difficult task is performed with maximum simplicity and zero harm to anyone's pride.
David Justice: I've never seen a GM talk to players like that, man.
Billy Beane: You've never seen a GM that was a player.
Billy: We got a problem, David?
Justice: No, it's okay. I know your routine. It's a pattern, it's for effect. But it's for them, alright? That shit ain't for me.
Billy: Oh, you're special?
Justice: You pay me seven million bucks a year, man. So, yeah. Maybe I am a little bit.
Billy: No, man. I ain't paying you seven. Yankee's are paying half your salary. That's what the New York Yankee's think of you. They're paying you three and a half million dollars to play against 'em.
Justice: Where you goin' with this, Billy?
Billy: David, you're thirty seven. How about you and I be honest about what each of us want out of this? I wanna milk the last ounce of baseball you got in you and you wanna stay in the show. Let's do that. I'm not paying you for the player you used to be, I'm paying you for the player you are right now. You're smart, you get what we're trying to do here. Make an example for the younger guys, be a leader. Can you do that?
Justice: Alright. I got you.
Billy: We're cool?
Justice: We're cool.
There are so many leadership examples, not the least of which are Billy face-offs with most of his management team who don't agree with his strategy, that it's difficult to pick a favorite. However, I will highlight Billy's conversation with David Justice (Stephen Bishop), while Justice is at bat practice.
Justice has been around a long time, is the only recognized "star" in the team, and thinks he's better than the rest and, oh boy, a very special player. Billy sets the record straight, tells him what he really is, and what he should become or, rather, how he should act. Because that's one fundamental lesson about leadership:
Not trying not to change how people are, but instead changing how they act.
Again, any manager with two bits of brain can see magic at work in this gutsy and honest dialogue.
Profound Moment of Achievement
Return on Investment
I couldn't leave aside one of the paramount premises in business: ROI. Yes, there is a lesson about return on investment in the movie, too. It's not just about restructuring a team because there is no other way to compete if one hasn't the money to face the big fishes at their level.
It's not just about how big a budget any given team possesses to achieve results, it's also about how much it costs to achieve the results, and what do you get back for your investment.
This is a message that plays all over the movie because money is the root cause to the A's transformation, but just in case someone misses it in the 2 hours while this message is delivered, there is a premium scene towards the end when Billy interviews with John Henry (Arliss Howard), the Boston Red Sox owner.
Here's the question: What's smarter, to win 10 games at 1,400,000 dollars a piece, or to win 10 games at 200,000 dollars each? What's the better ROI, in your mind?
The biggest lesson of all
This is something that I referred to in the beginning: Moneyball is not only a movie about baseball, and watching it just as a sports flick is falling way short of all it offers.
This is a big lesson they try to teach us in any and all seminars about management and leadership and strategy: It doesn't matter what the problem is about –school, work, relationships, anything: There are always different answers if you ask different questions.
As far as credits go, the cast is wonderful and the acting is magnificent, but the top rated item for me is the script, sharp, incisive and never falling into the sentimentality trap so typical in Hollywood flicks. It's adapted from Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and penned by Steven Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin, one of my favorite script writers.
Incidentally, the more I see of Brad Pitt the more I like the fellow.
This movie blew me away and I can't recommend it enough, never mind if you care about baseball or not.