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What the Houston Astros' Fast Transformation from Last Place Team to World Series Champ Can Teach You About Managing Change

What the Houston Astros' Fast Transformation from Last Place Team to World Series Champ Can Teach You About Managing Change

I'm a long-suffering fan of the Houston Astros.

I have fond memories of talking about Nolan Ryan with my Dad the first time I bought baseball cards. I have less fond memories of watching them lose heartbreaking games in extra innings of the 2005 World Series. I remember Albert Pujols battering a home run off Brad Lidge that broke his spirits for years. I wondered if we were never destined to win.

Now they’re back –and they finally did it!

So, following my team’s first World Series win, humor me while I try to extract change management lessons from their rise from the worst team in baseball to its champion in a few short years.

Anyone leading a large change over time can learn something from the approach of the Astros during their turnaround. Let’s start with the major participants and stakeholders in the change.

If you're not familiar with the Astros' story, this great video by Tim Kurkjian explains it beautifully in a few minutes.

The Players

No player wants to be on the worst team. They have devoted their lives to their art of baseball. Even the players on the worst team in baseball are some of the best baseball players in the world and they are used to winning.

To continually be defeated at the thing that you would strive to do your entire life drags on a person. The Astros players were on a team that lost many, many games in hopes it would allow longer-term success.

In addition to the hits in the standings, players that showed promise that weren’t part of the long-term plan were sent packing in exchange for assets that could help the team later, when they were ready to contend. This meant high turnover and, I would imagine, low morale. It's hard to maintain a clubhouse culture that supports winning when anyone who showing success gets traded away.

The players had to be part of this change. Strange to say when most of them wouldn't be around when the team started winning, but the culture endures beyond individuals. Part of the eventual success of the Astros was their clubhouse culture. The sense of leadership and the willingness to work together in the sense of camaraderie really gave them more than the sum of their (considerable) parts.

When you are leading a change that affects your organization you’re going to need people like Altuve. You need a culture that is demonstrated by the people who stay and lead. You want to embody it as much as possible.

Any organization develops a culture that outlives the tenure of its members. Being able to walk the line between rebuilding while still maintaining a positive culture requires effort and leadership.

One could argue that most of this came on the heels of the Astros (arguably) best player: José Altuve.

Altuve embodies the growth mindset. He worked relentlessly and overcame long odds to become one of the best players in baseball. This wasn’t expected of him, and the fact that he achieved it was due to his tenacity. He worked hard. Any new player coming into the organization he led would recognize that.

When you are leading a change that affects your organization you're going to need people like Altuve. You need a culture that is demonstrated by the people who stay and lead. You want to embody it as much as possible. By demonstrating your commitment to the long-term vision and having the pieces in place for people to demonstrate the way that they are going to see that commitment through, you stand a better chance of maintaining the change.

Even when success may look far away, the fact that you can see some of the pieces in place now gives you hope. That hope makes the journey bearable.

Just as the Astros had to convince the team members who would remain on their roster that their eventual plans for success would materialize, you need to make the case to your team that that vision is going to result in a win everyone can be proud of.

The Fans

For any sports franchise, the fans are the critical shareholder. If the fans are unhappy the money stops flowing (or at least slows down). The fans want to see an entertaining product —but mostly they want to see a winning product. Once they lose interest it can be hard to get them back.

I went to Astros games in the lean years, more than once it seemed like there were more fans of the visiting team than Astros fans. It’s not hard to see why. Fans come to sports to be distracted and entertained and it's hard to do that when you're reminded of defeat and failure.

You have stakeholders that justify your change. You’re hoping to accomplish something that will fulfill a mission for those stakeholders. Your backers and customers are hoping to have their needs met better. If in the process of the change you meet those needs worse in the short-term, you're going to have to make accommodations.

One detail that struck me during the Astros’ lean years was the change in policy that allowed you to bring in outside food. This was a nice touch because it took away some of the pain of having to eat overpriced stadium food in acknowledgment that it wasn't really fair for the team to be taking even more of your money.

This didn't do much to console me as my team was losing to the Cardinals 14 to 2, but it did make me feel as if the ownership of the team recognized that accommodations were reasonable.

That recognition and attempt to do right by the customers (who are the stakeholders in this case) is something that you should seek out in your change. By readily acknowledging what is happening throughout the change, while simultaneously doing what you can to ease the burden (even if it's only in a symbolic way like lowering the price of food) you're doing something to demonstrate not only the commitment to achieve the ultimate change but also to decrease the burden on the people who are not enjoying that change process.

The Front Office

The front office were the people who actually had to change how they worked. They are the analog for the people implementing the technical details that support the change. In the case of the Astros, they had to switch from a more traditional form of baseball scouting and recruitment to a more analytics-heavy organization. Staff had to watch players that they had tried to cultivate traded away. The inclination of the Astros to sign veteran players to try to stabilize the team had to be shaken loose.

ESPN MLB analyst Eduardo Perez explains how the Astros commitment to their change plan led them from the worst record in baseball to World Series champs in five years.

Front office staff who are accustomed to trying to build winning teams had to build lean teams. Instead of working on a one-year plan for more wins, they were asked to put together a five-year plan.

Baseball is a game of traditions: seventh-inning stretches, peanuts, singing Take Me out to the Ballgame. The Astros asked people who have done this their entire lives to do things differently —and to watch their teams lose while doing so. That is not an easy sell.

When someone has been doing something one way their entire career, being told that they must do it in a different can imply that their entire body of work and success is not adequate. That is a severe blow to the ego.

The front office not only had to bring in staff who represented their new way of thinking, but it had to be willing to educate and lead their existing staff in that same direction. This requires education (and in some cases personnel change).

You may find yourself in a similar position with your change. You're asking people to develop and embrace new skills or technology. It may be necessary to move them away from their comfort zone and get them to a new perspective.

One way of doing that is to provide a safety net and ensure that they have a place in this new world that you're building together.

Empowering the people in your organization by giving them resources to learn and supporting them through the change helps accomplish the goal.

The Steps They Took

The transition the Astros took from the team they were to the team they are represents the kind of change that so many organizations have to go through. The environment in baseball had changed and the Astros had to change in order to become competitive again. This happens in business and in communities all the time. When things change you have to adapt. The Astros did that and they did it successfully. So what can we learn from how they approach their change to how you can approach your changes?

Clarity on the Change

The first lesson is that they recognized that they needed to change. Continuing to tread water as a mediocre team was not going to get them to where they wanted to go. If the Astros were going to win a World Series it was going to take drastic action. The team knew that was the goal. It was expressed clearly to everyone involved. They also knew how they were going to do it.

The approach was not going to be to try to outbid the larger market teams on very expensive star players. Instead, they would build from the ground up. The slow way.

General manager Jeff Luhnow demonstrated building homegrown teams worked while in St. Louis. The goal was to win the World Series, but also to do so building from the draft and from savvy, budget-conscious decisions.

The Astros knew they would have to lose before they could win. But it wasn't something they had done (intentionally) before. Being clear on the process gave all that losing a purpose, and they never hid what they were trying to do (as evidenced by the 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story above.

The Astros knew they would have to lose before they could win. But it wasn't something they had done (intentionally) before. Being clear on the process gave all that losing a purpose, and they never hid what they were trying to do (as evidenced by the 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story above.

Being able to make that change clear to everyone involved gave them the marching orders they needed to make decisions in alignment with that goal.

I'm reminded of something Chip and Dan Heath mentioned in their book Made to Stick when they noted that Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher had all decisions filtered through the lens of their goal of being the low-cost airline. If any decision did not support that goal of becoming the low-cost airline, then it wasn't the right decision for them. That is the importance of clarity on the desired change.

If you know the goal, and you know the parameters for getting there, you can keep the direction intact.

Transparency

It’s hard to get people to navigate these types of changes especially when the costs are so high. We looked at how the change impacted the players, the fans, and the front office. So how do you maintain momentum and morale when this is happening? Transparency is critical.

When the stakeholders and the people involved saw that the changes were occurring for a certain goal and saw what those changes were they could at least process them. When you engage in a change and you do it in darkness or secrecy it's easy to fill in the gaps with assumptions, rumor, and misinformation. You might wonder if the way the team was structured was strictly a cash grab: slash the payroll and pocket the difference. It could certainly look like that.

But when there's clarity on that the team was willing to take many losses in the near term to sustain wins in the long-term, that transparency eases some of the frustration and prevents misconceptions from filling the information vacuum.

Of course, you have to depend on how much people believe you and the goodwill that you carry despite the hardships of the change. That leads us to the next point…

Shoulder the Blowback

Regardless of how much transparency you have, people are likely to be upset during the change. The Astros faced this is they became the laughing stock of baseball with their frequent losses. These kinds of shrieking comments and anger can cause even the strongest of wills to bend try something different. You might sign that aging veteran with a larger contract than you wanted just so that they can see that you're making an attempt. But every dollar you spend now on a team that will not win cuts off your opportunity to spend that dollar later on a team that can contend.

A team has to be willing to embrace the blowback the comes from the change. The Astros did that, and you'll have to as well if you're going to lead a difficult change over long periods. This doesn't mean that you become insulated to the challenges or insensitive to the hardship, but you do have to maintain your composure and stick to your plan in spite of them.

Rally the leaders

Having strong leadership in place makes everything else happen. When your leaders are respected and maintain the will of the organization, then they can get you through the hard times to the more successful ones. They can provide the transparency that is believable and respected. They can commit to the vision and point the way —even when it seems easier to deviate from the path. Most importantly they can build the tools necessary at the execution level to make sure that the changes are successful as they move forward. It's very easy to lose sight of the small details that make a change successful over time. Without that attention to detail from everyone in the front office, the long-tenured players, and the managers you run the risk of losing with no long-term gain.

Justin Verlander, in his short time with the team, already demonstrated the importance of leadership in rallying toward a hard-to-reach goal. His great pitching helped, too.

It's important to give credit to everyone in the Astros organization who was willing to maintain their composure and commit to this vision in spite of how difficult it was. It was a hard road to bear and they were questioned along the way. Committing and maintaining that plan in spite of the criticism in the fear got them to where they are today.

You’ll have to do the same with whatever your big change is.

What can you do with this information

This post is my way of celebrating the achievements of the Astros and mounting a monumental change. I’m proud of them for winning their first World Series in a time when the people of Houston needed something to cheer for. 

But there is something for you to learn and use from this story as well —even if you don’t like baseball. If you can learn from some of the lessons that the Astros franchise did throughout the change, you might be able to improve your own organization as well. Here are a few steps to consider:

  • Recognize the blowback: you will possibly have a strong blowback against whatever change you are executing. Be prepared for it. Address it with the type of transparency and directness that the Astros did. Reiterate your vision try to maintain morale commit to the change. It's okay to accept the blowback and recognize it, but don't let it push you off plan prematurely. Acknowledge it, recognize it, and hear it for the benefit of your stakeholders and making adjustments. If it provides you with some useful information to calibrate then, by all means, do that. But don't let it scare you away from your ultimate goal.
  • Even if you plan for blowback, don't assume people will be negative. Look for bright spots: in his excellent book Stretch, Rice University Professor Scott Sonenshein wrote about how many change agents assume the change is hard and so they project a negative impression upon the people they are trying to assist in their change. This causes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the people experiencing the change can pick up on the body language that the change management people are unconsciously projecting, and that causes them to react negatively. Assuming (and projecting) positive energy makes it more likely that your audience will be receptive to the change.The best way to do this is to find bright spots throughout the change that you can capitalize on. Do something that helps people appreciate what's going on. In the case of the Astros, the bright spot was Jose Altuve, discounted or improved food, and the recognition of big market teams that were more likely to come to Houston as a part of their move to the American League. Whatever your bright spots are throughout the change, be sure to show them. Even if it's bright spots that are to be realized later (like exciting young draft picks.)
  • Share what you can: By providing as much clarity on what's happening is you can it helps people understand the change in being more receptive to it. The Astros allowed a substantial amount of access to their organization for a Sports Illustrated story about the rebuilding process. That became the fabled Sports Illustrated article that predicted them being the 2017 World Champions three years ago. Everybody thought that was a joke, but it showed the commitment to the process and the transparency did to demonstrate to the stakeholders that the Astros were serious about winning and that they had a plan.

Conclusion

You might not be turning around a baseball team, but you are probably facing some big change. Every organization is. Being able to navigate that change over time without losing sight of the mission is a survival skill for every company, non-profit, or community. I hope the Astros’ story can inspire you to work through your change as much as it has inspired me.


Before you go...

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How to make sure your presentations support your change management efforts

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