An Organizational Expert’s Insights Into The Chicago Cub’s Breakout Season

October 24, 2016

By Cynthia Fukami, Associate Chair of the Department of Management at the Daniels College of Business.

fukami-cindiWow.  This has been quite a year for this sports fan.  I’ll start with my confession—I’m a lifelong, long-suffering fan of the Chicago Cubs.  And I mean lifelong as in from the womb.  I am a student of the game, and also a professor of Management.  I see the two as linked.  Each day when I watch a game I see it as a living example of leadership, teams, culture, and innovation.  I’d like to share some of my observations with you.

Where does culture change start?  At the top?  At the bottom?  All of the above.  The 1908 Cubs (last to win a world series) had a trio, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the amazing double-play combination.  The 2016 Cubs have a trio as well:  Owners to General Manager to Manager.  All three have played a pivotal role in the season of 103 wins.  Today I will focus on the Manager, Joe Maddon.

I have always been drawn to the slightly irreverent leader, and Joe Maddon is no exception.  “Try Not to Suck” was one of his mottos for the Cubs in 2015, and he is also known for quirky experiences like “onesie day,” “pajama day,” clubhouse visits from mimes, magicians, and yes, even bear cubs.  These are interesting ways to take the pressure off of the team through a grueling 162 games from April to October, and to have fun.  But anyone who thinks Maddon just wants to have fun is missing the mark.  He knows the game, makes very good decisions based on both analytics and gut instinct, but is not bound by the old rules.  Like Moneyball, he has introduced what I think is a significant paradigm shift—using star players in multiple positions. 

In industry, we would call this “job rotation,” or “cross training.”  The idea is that you can do your job better if you understand it from the perspective of other jobs.  Also, it provides tremendous flexibility in staffing and deploying resources.  Kris Bryant, the MVP candidate, has played third base and left field.  Wilson Contreras has played catcher and first base.  Javier Baez has played multiple infield positions. My favorite switch occurred when Maddon inserted Travis Wood, a relief pitcher, into left field, where he made a great catch against the vines and pitched the next inning. 

Baseball has always followed a “star specialization” model.  Everyday starting players are groomed for and rewarded for excellence in one position.  Players who can fill in at multiple spots are called “utility players,” and are rarely stars, and are generally less regarded.  In business, some interesting research has concluded that hiring “stars” is not often effective, and is associated with lower performing teams.  In short, Maddon’s new model of playing his starters in multiple positions is supported by Management research and gives the Cubs great flexibility in a long season where injury can rear its ugly head.  Time will tell if other teams will adopt this strategy.  So far, it’s working well for the Cubs.