Objective distance is overrated. Try getting a little more personal.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about people analytics.
I was told recently about a people analytics group that prided itself on its independence. They did not mingle with operations, they never made site visits, and they did not explain their models. They aspired to be the alternative view, uncorrupted by “the way things have always been done.” They reasoned that it’s easier to see things clearly when not down in the muck.
If you spend any time studying decision-making, you know this kind of independence is highly prized. Sources get more weight if they are uncorrelated with other sources. But if you spend time in organizations, you know this approach has a downside, too. In practice, decisions rarely come down to the optimal weights prescribed in a model. For better or worse, in the messy real world of ambiguous evidence and contentious objectives, organizational decisions — especially those about the people you’re hiring, developing, managing, and trying to retain — usually hinge on relationships and trust.
To have impact, analysts must learn to traffic in that currency. And to accomplish that, they must wade into the muck. In the end, perfect independence is not a virtue but a vice.
Sig Mejdal, one of the most successful analysts in baseball, understands this. Mejdal left a career as an aeronautical engineer to work for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005, the dawn of the Moneyball era. Helping with the team’s player draft, he was there for a successful seven-year run, including two World Series championships. After moving to the Houston Astros with new general manager Jeff Luhnow in 2012, he helped rebuild that long-suffering franchise, culminating in yet another World Series in 2017.
How does Mejdal spend his time? In the summer of 2017 he was a coach in Troy, New York, deep in the Astros minor league system. This 51-year-old was wearing a uniform, coaching first base, warming up players, and eating with the team after games. The top analyst in the organization spent his summer evenings riding the team bus between small towns in upstate New York!
The Astros are considered a model for blending analytics with traditional expertise. They took this unusual approach with Mejdal because of their commitment to embedding analytics in the organizational DNA.