Paul DePodesta is the assistant GM for the Oakland A’s, a team whose winning ways have been documented in Michael Lewis’s excellent Moneyball (my review). DePodesta took part in CSFB’s 2003 Thought Leader Forum, presenting his ideas on The Genesis, Implementation, and Management of New Systems. He starts off talking about the situation in Cleveland, where he worked before going to the A’s:
Despite this situation, I was grappling with a significant issue: the Indians were very successful at this time. We kept winning the division year after year, selling out every game in our stadium and the owner took the team public at one point and was making more money than any other owner. Thomas Kuhn wrote in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “As in manufacture so in science-retooling is an extravagance to be reserved for the occasion that demands it.” There was no crisis in Cleveland, at least not on the surface.
Success breeds complacency and isn’t conducive to creating an atmosphere of critical analysis or innovation. Peter Merholz riffs about this in the context of user experience on the Web:
One of the most annoying realities of a user experience professional’s life is eBay, because it seems to flout everything we stand for. The Web’s most popular ‘pure play’ sports a remarkably unwieldy and unattractive design. eBay is wary of changing it because, hey, we’re making money, right? Yet I wonder about the untold billions more eBay could reap if it tightened up its experience. Yes, initially there would be a lot of grousing, and probably loss of revenue, as people adjusted to the status quo. But overtime, the site’s ability for higher productivity on the part of its users would lead to greater activity, and more sales.
As to why established systems (like eBay’s Web site) have problems making large-scale changes, DePodesta quotes Thomas Kuhn as saying:
The emergence of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity.
No one at eBay wants to lose their job. This applies not only to corporations, but also to other systems. Paul Hammond recalls a recent conversation with Matt Webb about Web design patterns, particularly as it relates to weblogs:
[Matt] argues that we’ve reached the point where website design is just iterating on the same handful of design patterns, and the gains made with each iteration are slowly lessening. If we were to start somewhere else, even if that something was rubbish, there is the potential for subsequent iterations to be significantly better.
The only problem with this idea is that the sites will suffer in the meantime. But even this isn’t an issue on a personal site…
You’re certainly not going to fire yourself if your personal site underperforms because you’re trying something innovative, but there are other barriers. For many, innovation isn’t a priority; people just want to write or share their photos. Or they don’t want to lose their audience (if that’s a priority) or have their friends get confused. And innovation is hard…the tendancy to follow others or to observe best practices is strong. But it would be fun to see if the introduction of some different web design patterns can do for the Web (or even just eBay) what Beane and DePodesta did for the Oakland A’s.
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