Volume 15, 
August, 2017


Inside Baseball
What product developers can learn from major league pitchers


Sheila Mello and Wayne Mackey

Like most sports, baseball runs on the idea of “what have you done for me lately?” It doesn’t matter how successful your team was last season or in last night’s game. It’s a new ballgame—quite literally—each time.

My team, the Boston Red Sox, is in first place in the American League East at this writing, arguably due to some fine pitching. Many philosophical disputes have taken place (usually over beers in the stands) about what matters more: pitching or hitting. As I see it, if your pitcher never lets the opposing team score, you’ll have a much easier time winning games. So I’m going to look at what pitching and product development have in common.

Don’t worry: I won’t suggest that you warm up with a Theraband or throw a bullpen. Instead, I’ll look at what successful pitchers do and what product developers can learn from them.  

Study up

In a way, every pitch is a brand new product. The preparation a pitcher undertakes to face the opposing lineup has a lot in common with the preparation you might do before you roll out a new product.

Look at what makes them tick

Take a page from the pitchers’ book: study up. Don’t throw a product out blindly. Understand the dynamics of your market and your customers the way a pitcher understands opposing batters. What makes them tick? How do they compare to customers (batters) in other markets (on other teams)? What characteristics define them? What are they looking for (curve balls, fastballs, or sliders)? How might they respond to your product (style of pitching)?

Like the pitcher, whose actions can drive the whole organization, your actions as a product developer/designer are at the core of your organization’s identity and fate.

You both need market data

Pitchers certainly don’t lack data about the batters they face. For example, if you were pitching against Andrew McCutcheon of the Pittsburgh Pirates, you could get details about how he performed in various pitching situations. Most pitchers spend time studying these stats or work in concert with catchers. Some pitchers prefer to do their own research, some rely mostly on the catcher, and some work together. It really doesn’t matter, as long as the pitcher ends up understanding the batter.

The advantages of having market data—or the disadvantages of not having it—are most noticeable when a pitcher faces a rookie. When the Red Sox took a gamble on third baseman Rafael Devers this season, pitchers didn’t have much data to go on. The 20-year-old had only been at bat 38 times above Double A status. This seems to be flummoxing opposing pitchers. Even veterans are giving up home runs to the rookie.

Pursuing a new market may put you in a position similar to that of a pitcher facing a rookie. But don’t settle for guessing. Here, you have an advantage over a pitcher who needs to understand a specific player. You can gather data from a range of people in the new market space to understand what they are doing to solve their problems today. You can dig down to understand the root causes of those problems so you know how to address them. Pitchers have to gather data on the fly—pardon the pun—if the batter is new and there’s no information about how he responds to fastballs, for example.

You don’t get second chances

Pitchers, unlike product developers, get second chances to try something different, often within the same game. They have a better idea of what to expect when they face a batter in the fifth inning if they faced that same batter in the first inning.

Launching a product is a lot higher stakes than pitching a single at-bat. You can’t afford to try things out and see how they work. If you pour hundreds of thousands into a product that misses the mark (the product equivalent of a pitch missing the strike zone or, worse yet, hitting the batter) you may not only lose the ballgame, you may lose the franchise. Even if you do early prototyping and quick turns of a new product, if you haven’t taken the time to understand the market, you might fail because you went in completely the wrong direction. Agile or spiral development, which emphasizes quick iterations of partial products to refine the finished product, is not a fix for failing to understand your market. Yes, it gives you more flexibility and time to adjust. But you still need to understand your customers and your market up front so you can create an architecture within which to iterate.

Crafting a winning season

Come October, I hope to be cheering the Red Sox on during post-season games. I can’t promise your next product launch will be an out-of-the-park home run, but I do know that no matter what team you’re up against, in what market, and no matter what development method you choose—whether it’s traditional stages and gates, lean, or agile—the first step is always to dig deep to understand the customer. 

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