I came across a big idea in Max Depree’s Leadership Is An Art, last week. Depree states, “You see, every great pitcher needs a great catcher.” It reminded me of reading Chip Hilton books as a kid. Author Clair Bee always referred to the pitcher/catcher relationship as a “battery”. Both cells must be “live” for it to work. A winning “battery” is intimately knowledgeable of each other’s tendencies, communicates well, and strategizes together over each batter. Even while the game is in process. Our economy is in a season of ideation. I am just not sure who is pitching and who is catching, or how well all the players are communicating with each other. I am convinced that great pitchers need great catchers.
Small business owners are reflecting, imagining, and challenging the business environment with intensity I have not observed previously. It seems different from 2008, when we experienced the broad weight of a financial collapse. The COVID economy, while equally harsh, also seems to have bristling underneath it the possibility that things could turn very quickly – just maybe. Yet, I also notice a certainty that ways and methods will be permanently different. I believe that is why Max Depree’s statement stood out to me. Idea generation is not enough. Someone’s going to have to make the play.
What I Love About Catchers
I marvel at the flexibility of catchers. Playing nine innings from a squat is challenging. That is one kind of flexibility. What I really marvel at is the flexibility of working with multiple pitchers during a game. Catchers work with lefties and righties, sidewinders and overhand, fastballers and control pitchers, and pitchers with crazy breaking balls. I enjoy the drama as the pitcher and catcher meet on the mound for a conference – what will be different next pitch or next batter? They appear to be constantly fine-tuning to retire the side, little tweaks here and there that can have a big impact. After some painful Little League baseball experiences behind the plate, I know that catching is never as easy as it looks.
What I Love About Pitchers
Pitchers, at the top of their games, are also a marvel. The mind and body control required to place a ball exactly where prescribed, often at astonishing speeds, is almost incomprehensible to an amateur. I am also impressed with the gifts of awareness and intuition of great pitchers. Just the slightest leaning of a batter creates opportunity. All a great pitcher needs is an inch or two. Pitchers will do whatever it takes, too. Sometimes people just need to get moved off the plate. Of course, there is nothing like the good humor of the eephus pitch!
It’s Different In Business
I do not believe the standard binary pitcher/catcher relationship can be effective in this fluid economic environment. To presume that the business owner is the Ideator in Chief who pitches new stuff to clients and employees is myopic. Breakthrough changes in business models depend upon all three constituents – owner, client, and employee – participating fully in the process and being prepared to both pitch and catch. I hope that realization will be a relief to business owners. Some may be better catchers than pitchers.
Here are just a few considerations for success in this fluid ideation environment.
Clients as Pitchers
Business owners are ultimately responsible for the economics of meeting client needs. But it is futile to provide economic solutions that do not meet client needs. I put this one first for a reason. In all the angst of meeting the challenges of the COVID economy, too many small business owners have failed to collaborate. We guess at preference and mimic other models but fail to ask the serious questions of the end-user: Is my product or service still relevant? What features are now superfluous? How about your delivery preferences? What have you seen elsewhere that YOU like? Get ready. Some ideas may come in hot, and some may seem as crazy as a Phil Niekro knuckler.
Employees as Pitchers
Ironically, when Max Depree offered his quote about pitchers and catchers, he was on the verge of offering eight powerful ideas about rights in the workplace. To Depree, these are requirements to gain full participation, commitment, and energy from every single employee in the organization. Number one is the right to be needed. Number two is the right to be involved. Don’t worry – accountability is further down the list. I guarantee that your employees know more about what clients prefer and will accept on any given day better than you ever will. Hand them the ball every once in awhile.
Owners as Pitchers
If you are leading well, you are listening well, not just with respect to your company but with respect to your industry and the economy in general. Your ability to “zoom out” and consider ideas that seemingly do not apply to your industry will produce the most creative and nuanced ideas. Some people may think you are crazy to try it. Do not lose faith in your intuition, but you might want to pull the whole infield to the mound for a conference before trying something radical. Whatever you do, stay away from “Because the I’m the owner and I said so”. Pitchers with no catchers get a little exhausted chasing down their own pitches. I also wonder how accurate one can be without a target.