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Stealing home

April 28, 2009

Do you use the expression ‘home run’, do you sometimes just want ‘ball park’ figures or to ‘hit it out of the ball park’.    All of this means more to me now after getting the hottest ticket in America to see the Boston Red Sox play the New York Yankees.  Two of the biggest teams in baseball, and definitely the leading rivalry in Baseball, in a country where rivalry is big business.   

 The pre-match atmosphere was a lot like before  a big football game in the UK, but in the stadium the fans are a bit quieter, more like a cricket match crowd, which maybe in part because the game goes on for around 4 hours.   But half way through the evening the stadium came alive and roared its approval at Jacoby Ellsbury as he made an audacious run from the 3rd base to ‘steel home’.   It is the first time in 10 years that a Red Sox player has stolen home.   It involves making a run from 3rd base to the final ‘home base’ while the pitcher is getting ready to throw the ball.   It is a highly risky move, which is why it is so rare, because you have to get to the base  before the ball.  So it requires speed and split second timing about when to start running.   Why should you care?   The lesson for me was about match winning moments, calculated risk taking that has the potential to change the game.    It is a theme that stayed with me at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where we spent time with Colonel Scott Snook, a former US Army Colonel, now a Professor at Harvard. Scott’s prize winning study of a 1994 US military friendly fire tragedy in Iraq, where two U.S.A.F. F-15 fighter aircraft shot down two U.S Black Hawk helicopters, shows how things can go wrong in a complex system. Very little of what went wrong was purely technical, much of what went wrong involved the human use of technical systems, which were embedded in a complex structure.  For the Chief Constables and council Chief Executives in the room, incidents such as the recent civilian death during the G20 demonstrations, and the death of Baby P in Harringey come straight to mind.

One of the issues is determining who is responsible.  In the friendly fire incident only one court martial took place and the Captain involved was found not guilty. It is possible to identify a whole series of moments where one of the many people involved could have made an intervention that would have prevented the deaths of the 26 people on board the Black Hawks.    We looked at why all those moments slipped away, one by one, as they did in the Baby P case, and it left me thinking less about the ‘stuff happens’ explanation of failure in complex systems, and more about how it is possible to increase the likelyhood that a decisive and significant human intervention is made.  One of the main ways to do that is to give people confidence and to let them know that risk taking is ok and that challenging the system is expected of them.    Jacoby Ellsbury did that on Sunday night and won a baseball game.  He knew it was high risk, but he felt empowered to make that judgement call, on which so much was riding.   We have to make sure that our social workers, our police officers, nurses and teachers feel that they can do what Jacoby Ellsbury did.

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