29. The environment of expectation

A scene that has become the status quo for the fans of Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins: a team that was thought to be no better than a second-to-last finish is challenging for the Central Division title.  After losing a Gold Glove outfielder, a Cy Young pitcher, and even an award-winning general manager from the year previous, the Twins have again cobbled together a winning team.  This season’s iteration is currently one half-game out of first place.

The Twins’ run began in 2002 and includes four division championships in six years with only one losing record (79-83 in 2007) during that span.  Exactly zero players from the 2002 40-man-roster currently play for the team.  Two from 2003.  Eight from 2004.  Ten from 2005.  Fourteen from 2006.  Sixteen from 2007.  Out of 40.  The players, on the majority, change from year to year.

How do they do it?  They don’t have the best players, or the best facilities, or the biggest budget.  Aside from a few shrewd front office moves, it’s consistency from manager Ron Gardenhire.  It’s never sacrificing values.  It’s making few mistakes.  And for the mistakes that are made, there’s an option up the sleeve for quick recovery.  It’s expectations.  It’s the culture.  It’s the environment.

David Heinemeie at 37signals wrote last week:

In my experience, we’re all capable of bad, average, and good work. I’ve certainly done bad work at times and plenty of average work.  What I’ve realized is that the good and the exceptional work is at least as much about my environment as it is about me. Average environments begets average work.

The Twins have excelled at creating an exceptional environment.  An environment expectant of winning.

Praise from your competition may be the greatest testament to an organization’s efforts.  Take, for instance, the words of first place Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen when questioned why he routinely heaps praise upon the team he has dubbed “The Piranhas” for their style of play:

Why? Tell the people in Chicago how many playoffs the White Sox have and how many the Minnesota Twins have since I’ve been managing and since I’ve been playing. I give people compliments when they need to or when they have to. … They build good players. They play the game good. They’ve been playing the game like that since I was playing. And that’s why I do it. People in Chicago don’t like it? That’s not the first time people don’t like what I say. When I say it, I mean it. We come here to kick their butt, but they are here for a reason.

Mr. Heinemeie puts it bluntly:

So if you want your team to excel, quit thinking about how you can land a room full of rock stars and ninjas (note to recruiters: even if these terms weren’t just misguided, they’d be tired by now anyway). Start thinking about the room instead!

And concludes masterfully:

But most importantly, stop using the perceived quality of your team as an excuse for why you can’t try or follow new ideas. That’s a self fulfilling prophesy that’ll never fail to disappoint. Humans are incredibly eager to live down to low expectations.

The Twins were targeted for retraction in 2002.  If they had believed in their perceived quality then, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs. A World Series Championship has eluded the Twins during the run since 2002 (they have two, 1987, 1991).  There’s no doubt they expect to be there every year, though.  But being in the mix as a perennial contender gives the team a chance.  A chance is all a true fan can ask for.

Principle #29: our own system will help it’s team reach its fullest potential by focusing on the environment.  Make it an environment expectant of winning.  Hold people accountable, establish expectations, enjoy the results.

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