My senior year of high school, all I cared about was starting on the varsity baseball team. I could field and throw. I knew the game as intuitively as anyone, to the extent that my nickname was, Coach. But, I had two problems: a batting average that hadn’t topped the Mendoza Line since Little League and foot speed rivaling a three-toed sloth. Against all odds, I batted second throughout the season. In 19 games, I got hit by 21 pitches (including three in the head), had about the same number of walks and sacrifice bunts, and a whopping total of 6 base hits, culminating in an unlikely on base percentage of over .600 – second best on the team.
Our team had great talent and was expected to compete for a league title that year, but we stunk, done in by sloppy play, poor leadership, and lack of morale – all the usual suspects for underperformance. But I didn’t care. Pitch by pitch, at bat by at bat, game by game, 90 feet at a time I was realizing my dream. I wasn’t the best at anything other than playing small ball to scratch out every possible base and contribute in every possible way.
Small ball, or the lack there of, has become a constant metaphor for me as I observe and advise entrepreneurs, university administrators, and public officials on innovation policy and startup activity. In our superlative society, every hire is uniquely qualified to be the best, every idea and initiative the most incredible, every experience the ___-est of some sort. It’s as if every play ever made was a web gem. I’m constantly left wondering where do we go from here. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched organizations make a huge deal of their, “NATIONAL SEARCH” for talent only to hire an ill-equipped, soon-to-be-forgotten or even worse, departed, local candidate. Those hiring can’t afford to lose or make a mistake, so they go with a homer, an insider, someone manageable, unlikely to rock the boat. “Safest” is such a comfortable superlative.
Regions often combine these two phenomena. They love to be included in rankings and articles lauding their economic success, and use those accolades as a marketing tool to attract “top talent”. But not infrequently, economic successes are based on skewed demographics and creative analysis that don’t withstand close scrutiny. Top talent always comes with opinions and expectations and, heaven forbid, sometimes attitudes and egos, as well.
Small ball cuts through all that. It’s not about hype and control. It’s not about handing out plastic participation trophies and oversized cardboard checks so everyone goes home happy. Small ball, whether in baseball and basketball or entrepreneurship and economic development is about
- Focused strategy and tactical execution;
- Quick wits and aggressive play;
- Anticipating circumstances and outmaneuvering opponents.
Small ball is not without risks, like when an individual’s mishap threatens a team’s success or when frantic pace and aggressive play verge on recklessness and loss of control. But in the hyper-competitive worlds of business and job creation, entrenched corporations and rich urban areas often have the strength and resources to dominate power games.
Entrepreneurs and smaller regions that want to play in that world can’t count on rhetoric and tight control. If they want to graduate to the big leagues and succeed on a world stage – maybe even get a real trophy that no one else has – I encourage them think just a wee bit smaller. Otherwise, I’ve got prime real estate in Potemkin’s Village that I’d be happy to sell them.