retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Will on-line shopping take hold and can it be done in a way that is actually profitable? Is social media simply an environment for making “friends” or is there actually a business building application?

Those and a thousand other questions make up the unknowns in business today. In truth, in most cases we really don’t know what the future holds.

But an interesting parallel came up this weekend in an article on baseball in the New York Times that demonstrated both the hazard of being too far ahead of your time and the power of new measurements to alter the status quo. Hopefully, even the non-baseball fans out there can appreciate this.

Each week, the Times Sunday magazine runs a feature called “Who Made That?” examining the origin of all manner of products, services and ideas. This past week they examined the concept of the relief pitcher.

At one time, relievers were rarely used in major league baseball. The pitcher who started the game routinely took care of all nine innings. In the 1870s, more than 90 percent of games featured just one pitcher and by 1921 that was still the case in 52 percent.

In 2013, just 3 percent of games fell into the category of complete games - pitched by a single player. In short, this has been a stunning change in strategy and tactics and also a reason why baseball games now take so much longer to complete. Pitchers now are specialists, with some facing only certain types of hitters or only working the final three outs of the game.

The idea for all of this actually came up in 1903, when John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, unveiled a new plan to split games between two pitchers. His idea was seen as original and nervy but was soon abandoned. McGraw, like so many others in so many fields, found the thin line between the leading and bleeding edge. In short, he was too far ahead of his time.

According to the Times analysis, the role of the relief pitcher didn’t fully blossom until 1969 when baseball created a statistic - the save - to reward relief pitchers for doing their job. Baseball historian John Thorn said the statistic changed the way relievers were perceived and used.

“Managers are in some measure, prisoners of the statistic," he says. "The creation of the save has come to drive their strategy.” In short, a new statistic provided clear value to a specific role, leading to newfound importance for relievers from Bruce Sutter to Mariano Rivera, who revolutionized and dominated the game.

So what does that tell us about business?

First, it reminds us that innovators don’t always succeed. It’s possible that someday Amazon Prime might be seen as the Rivera of home delivery, making everyone take a different look at the countless services that came before. Or it maybe that Prime is another innovation that came along at the wrong time.

We can’t know.

Second, it reminds us that sometimes we don’t value things because they aren’t easily measured by familiar and current standards. In my work with social media folks throughout the industry, I hear them voice a similar concern. Inside their companies, many layers of management don’t see how Facebook, Twitter or the rest will help build sales, profits and loyalty. Consequently support is slow to grow, handicapping efforts even more.

Again, we cannot know if social media will become a powerful marketing force, but we somehow have to measure it differently than an ROP ad.

That’s the thing about innovation, we can’t know. John McGraw conceived a baseball innovation, but was nearly 70 years ahead of his time. Yet had he and others not pushed the change a new statistic wouldn’t have been created and the impact of a brilliant player like Rivera might have gone unnoticed.

We can’t ever know.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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