A few weeks ago, I watched the movie Moneyball, which I never saw back when it was in theaters because sports don’t interest me, and it looked like a movie about baseball. Yawn.

But it’s not really about baseball. It’s about how traditions and bad habits wind up undermining organizations.

In one of my favorite scenes, Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager played by Brad Pitt, sits in a meeting with scouts as they try to figure out what players to recruit for the new season. They need to replace a few star players, and they have little money to spend on recruitment:

KEOUGH: I like Geronimo. Guy's an athlete. This guy is big, fast and talented.

GEORGE: Six foot four.

PITTARO: Top of my list.

POTE: Clean cut, good face.

ARTIE: Good jaw. He's the real deal.

GEORGE: Five tools, good lookin'.

BILLY: Can he hit?

KEOUGH: He's a tools guy.

The scouts are debating irrelevant stuff and using insider jargon like “five tools” and “tools guy.”

ARTIE: I like Perez. He swings like a man …

KEOGH: He's got an ugly girlfriend.

BARRY: What's that mean?

KEOGH: Ugly girlfriend means no confidence.

BARRY: Alright. That's true.

PITTARO: I agree with Art. I like the way he walks into a room …

GEORGE: Passes the eye candy test. He's got the looks, he's ready to play the part. He just needs some playing time.

KEOUGH: I’m just saying, his girlfriend's a 6 …

BILLY: Guys, stop. You're talking like this is business as usual. It's not.

GRADY: We're trying to solve the problem.

BILLY: Not like this. You're not even looking at the problem … Okay, stop. The problem we're trying to solve is that this is an unfair game. There are rich teams, poor teams, 50 feet of crap and then there's us. And now we've been gutted. And now I'm listening to the same old shit about having a good body and being a tools guy like we’re selling jeans — like we’re looking for Fabio.

This is the kind of thing you hear all the time in organizations that operate on an authority model when comes to design decisions.

People will evaluate content and marketing materials based on what the boss “likes”.

Never mind that the boss is not the customer.

Never mind that there’s no evidence that changing the color from purple to green is going to have any impact on customer behavior or the company’s revenue.

And no one in the room is thinking about customer experience. Everyone is thinking about “marketing”.

Director of This: This stock photo of the family hugging on the playground at dusk is nice.

Director of That: We’re a family-friendly company. Nailed it.

Administrator of All-the-Things: Good point. Let’s make the newsletter more cheerful with some exclamation marks.

You hear this kind of stuff and you feel like you’re sitting in that room with a bunch of old men talking about which player has a prettier girlfriend.

That may sound harsh — but it’s not meant to be.

Everyone starts somewhere. If you’ve never known any other way to evaluate content or design, then it’s understandable that you would default to personal opinions. It makes sense to defer to the authority in the room when that seems to be your only option. And if you are the authority, you may not be aware that there are ways to assess design initiatives based on objective criteria like customer behavior.

That I can forgive.

After all, it’s the designer’s responsibility to guide the discussion. It’s her responsibility to develop content based on research and to keep everyone informed of that research.

That said, it’s a different story when the powers that be choose to ignore the research and the evidence and continue doing business as usual — churning out content that has no relationship to customer needs and does little to benefit the organization’s bottom line. That’s a conscious decision to keep the organization in the dark to satisfy one’s own desire to remain in control.

What’s the alternative?

In Moneyball, the A’s hire an analyst — an outsider who doesn’t care about baseball traditions. The character is played by Jonah Hill. Here’s the clip where he explains the medieval thinking that has governed baseball recruitment decisions:

The movie’s script differs from the scene in the movie:

PETER: You've spent your life in baseball and I don't have a very traditional view of the game … Baseball thinking is medieval. It's stuck in the Dark Ages. I have a more scientific view of the game. There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what's really happening. And it leads people who run major league teams to misjudge their players and mismanage their teams. They're still asking the wrong questions. People who run baseball teams still think in terms of buying players. The goal shouldn't be to buy players, what you want to buy is wins …

BILLY: You read Bill James, Pete?

PETER: Yes. These ideas and this approach to the game aren't all new. In fact, some of them have been around for two decades.

BILLY: If this approach has been around for so long, why isn't anybody in baseball doing them?

PETER: That's a much more difficult question than how to win baseball games. Once you begin to pull at that string, your understanding of the world might begin to unravel.

Pete is focused on the business’s desired outcome — winning games without breaking the bank.

To achieve that outcome, he recruits players that get on base because getting on base is what’s necessary to score runs. He doesn’t care how they get on base or how they look on the field. He doesn’t care if they hit home runs, if they’re short or overweight, he doesn’t care if they’re timid behind the plate. He seeks out oddball players who get on base with a lot of walks. He recruits a left-handed pitcher who throws like a softball player because he throws strikes. Unlike other scouts, he doesn’t care if the pitcher looks funny when he throws the ball.

What does this have to do with your organization?

Look at the practices your organization is following.

Start with one habit.

Maybe you send a newsletter to your entire mailing list once a week (or once a month or once a year). Is anyone studying how that practice has been contributing to your organization’s business goals?

Is anyone drawing a clear line between that activity and your organization’s revenue?

You may not be sure how to go about making that connection — and that’s ok.

The first thing is to understand that it’s possible to evaluate the economic value of activities that have been unquestioned standard operating procedures for years — to know that these practices can be optimized based on objective criteria that have nothing to do with the personal preferences of any single person or group of people.

Open Google Analytics and compare the behavior of people the people who come to your site from that newsletter versus those who come from social media — or a Google search or paid advertising. If you have goals set up, you’ll be able to see whether newsletter subscribers are generating more revenue for your business than those coming from organic search.

You may find that visitors from Facebook has a conversion rate of 0.0001%. The newsletter has an 8% conversion rate, and no one has even begun to try to optimize that.

Now, when you’re weighing whether to double down on Facebook and start posting every day, you can take a more informed approach to that decision. You might take the salary of that social media manager you were about to hire and invest that money in an area where it’s more likely to make a difference in your business.

Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “I have no idea where to begin.” Maybe you don’t know the first thing about Google Analytics or studying your customers’ behavior. Maybe you have no desire to learn, but you are interested in the results of that work.

If that’s the case, hit reply and let me know. We can talk more about what in particular you’re up against and see what a good starting point might be for your organization.

Thanks for reading,


This post was originally sent to the SuperHelpful mailing list. Sign up to receive future letters.

Kyle Bowen