Small Ball versus the Big Inning

Small Ball versus the Big Inning

For those in the U.S. of a certain age ** cough cough **, baseball holds a special place. Not so much recently, but there was a time when baseball really was the national pastime (now, most would argue that it is more than past it’s time).

Even so, business borrows quite a few terms from the sport – home run, bullpen, extra innings, pitch hit, on deck, stealing signals to name just a few.

There are a couple more esoteric baseball terms that I think business owners and entrepreneurs should be aware of, especially in trying to navigate the current economic challenges we are facing: Small Ball and the Big Inning.

Small Ball more or less refers to an incremental approach to baseball. It is a strategic approach where the emphasis is on small moves to advance runners on base, either by bunting, stealing bases, forcing pitchers to balk, putting middle reliever pitchers in to face particular batters on the other team. In other words, it is a strategy not meant to generate a lot of runs in one fell swoop – it is meant to build a lead one run at a time, methodically and with purpose. It doesn’t take a lot of talent to play small ball well – but it does take a mastery of the game and it’s fundamentals, and favoring teamwork over luck.

The Big Inning, on the other hand, emphasizes heroics over methodology. The Grand Slam Home Run, Stealing Home, Extra Bases. Having the Big Inning means having the talent to “swing for the fences” and is more often successful based upon luck and talent rather than great coaching or knowledge. The Big Inning favors individual achievement over team effort, and offers inconsistent results.

How does this apply to business strategy? Let’s look at some examples.

I daresay many people start Web companies in order to hit the home run. To be acquired with one big pop. To be a one big hit wonder. To have the Big Inning.

As a result, there are very few winners: Google, Ebay, Amazon ongoing; Mark Cuban and Marc Andreesen from the first wave. In order for this approach to ever stand a chance of working, you have to be very good – in fact, the best of breed or class – and you have to be very lucky, arriving at exactly the right confluence of timing, market conditions, and liquidity.

Others are masters of Small Ball.

Look at LinkedIn. They drive me crazy with their conservatism. But, they play business Small Ball masterfully; grow the business slowly, pick and choose business partners who only advance your cause, add features only when ready. As a result, LinkedIn is growing faster by rate than ANY social networking site (though some would argue quite succcessfully that they are NOT a social networking site, they are always grouped with LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace et. al).

Some would also argue that Facebook is playing a game of Small Ball; incrementally changing platform, not accepting the big payday right away, having a longer business view. Even with their setbacks (Beacon) they have been consistent in their adherence to a set plan.

Sometimes when playing Small Ball you get picked off trying to steal second base. You get thrown out playing too far off first base. You get thrown out trying to lay down the bunt. That’s OK – setbacks happen.

Remember, there are nine innings of play.

Is having the Big Inning desirable? Absolutely. Should it be your main point of emphasis? No way. The odds are way against you, unless you are unarguably the very best in your field, product area, or expertise.

You are much better served by focusing on the small game and incrementally working toward the prize, with a game plan in hand. The odds are with you, the whole team can be involved, and your knowledge of the game is usually rewarded over time.

You still have to work to win – but you don’t have to have Manny Ramirez or Alex Rodriquez on your team to insure success.

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