The Next Home Run for the Federal Workforce

In 1997, Billy Beane became the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Upon arriving at his new job, Beane quickly recognized that the ‘old way’ of scouting for talent was no longer feasible for the Athletics’ shrinking budget. Faced with a scouting staff entrenched in a paradigm as old as the game itself, Beane needed help to construct a new roster based on a new way of thinking. Beane turned to an unlikely source – a recent college graduate, Peter Brand. Brand was a Yale- trained economist who was challenging many of the assumptions in the industry.[i] Instead of asking the same questions about a player’s age and apparent athleticism, Brand scoured statistics until he and Beane found a new way to identify undervalued talent. The approach was coined “moneyball” as it was rooted in finding the most cost-effective players in the market.[ii]

While it took time for Beane to get his staff to realize that deeper data is worth more than tradition and visceral impressions, his patience paid off. By the end of the first season, Beane’s implementation of moneyball helped the Oakland A’s become fiercely competitive in the league and disrupted America’s favorite pastime. The Oakland A’s continue to be successful; however, of more lasting importance is what Beane was able to do with his management team. Beane was able to attract new thinking, create an inclusive environment that allowed scouts to develop new recruiting processes and steered his staff so that their unique perspectives led to healthy discussion and more innovation.

Billy Beane brought a new lens to an old challenge by recognizing the need for diversity both on and off the field. The tendency to defer to the existing way of thinking about a problem is not unique to the world of sports – it’s a challenge for all organizations, particularly fiscally constrained government agencies. So how can Bean’s diversity strategy transcend the world of baseball?

One way is for organizations to rethink how they define and harness human capital. Over the last ten years, cognitive scientists and neurologists have made progress in understanding how the mind works. For example, many of us – even those who aren’t scientists– are familiar with the distinction between left- and right-brained thinking and its impact on work performance.[iii] Although this taxonomy is overly simplistic, neurological research does show that individuals have differing cognitive styles. Tests show that most individuals have particular thinking strengths – some are inclined to be better at math, others at pattern recognition or creativity.

The confluence of science, technology and management theory regarding human thought is opening up an opportunity for organizations willing to embrace diversity of thought as an organizational priority. Many organizations could make advances similar to the ones in the Moneyball story by blending the cacophony of ideas in their workplace to spark innovation and creativity. Government agencies, in particular, should consider how best to match the diverse thinking styles of their employees to the variety of problems they face. By doing so, government agencies can develop a more nuanced appreciation of the value of their workforce, much the same way Billy Beane did vis a vis the Oakland A’s roster. It’s time for government leaders to examine the business case for cognitive diversity..

To read more on an actionable framework for organizations to recruit, manage and advance a diverse and inclusive workforce check out Diversity’s Next Frontier at http://dupress.com/articles/diversitys-new-frontier/?id=us:em:client:dup426:awa:fed

And to hear more from the authors join them at the NextGen Conference on July 25th in Washington, DC. Register at www.nextgov.com or join the conversation at @govlab #thoughtdiversity ##NGGS13



[i] Peter Brand famously applied the statistical system called Saber Metrics developed by Bill James.

[ii] Lewis, Michael. Moneyball: The art of winning an unfair game. W.W. Norton Company (New York: 2003).

[iii] Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future., (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2005)

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Profile Photo Elizabeth Arnold

Cognitive Diversity is something we aren’t talking about enough, yet it has the promise to be a differentiator in the way teams perform work and make decisions. I’m all for it Nes – let’s play ball!

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Profile Photo Beth Schill

Great piece Nes! I think that the importance of embracing how we each think differently is incredibly necessary – not just in government but everywhere.

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Profile Photo Michael McKittrick

Great piece…one correction, Peter Brand was a fictional character for the movie – based on a number of people, including Paul DePodesta (Beane’s real assistant).

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