Below is an interview I did on May 9, 2011 with Nick Thompson, MnDOT Division Director for Policy, Safety & Strategic Initiatives. We talked about the 13th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis.
Tang: Why did you pick this book?
Thompson: I know I picked a book that is an unusual selection for the Commissioner’s Reading Corner. The book was published in 2003 and I read it in 2005. It stuck with me because of the transformational change in the story. I see it as an example of approaches we need to take in the public sector. There are not many books that I will read twice, but this is one of the few I was interested in reading again. I like the author Michael Lewis. I read everything he publishes.
Tang: What is the book about?
Thompson: The basis for the book is the question Michael Lewis asked himself – how did the Oakland A’s, one of baseball’s poorest teams as measured by payroll, managed to achieve a spectacular winning record?
Lewis explains how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, was able to maximize the market of talent with a minimum of spending. Beane used a new kind of thinking and an innovative method of business intelligence and leadership to build a successful and winning baseball team with a smaller budget than the competition. His way of doing business challenged the conventional baseball wisdom and changed the way baseball is played. He challenged a way of thinking that was around for a century because they had to in order to get results.
Tang: Did you read and like the book because you were a baseball fan?
Thompson: No. Actually the book turned me into a baseball fan. It changed my thinking on baseball. Now I look at baseball from a new and different perspective.
Tang: What do you like about this book?
Thompson: I like how the author uses storytelling to present and solve complex problems in an engaging way. As an organization, we face similar complex issues, and through effective storytelling we can have a better dialog with our customers and solve the issues and challenges we face.
Tang: What are the most important things you take away from this book that can be applied to your work or life?
Thompson: Transformational change requires creative thinking and an innovative approach to problem solving. Don’t be afraid to challenge conventional thinking and wisdom in order to bring about transformational change. Defy tradition. Just because we have always done things this way doesn’t mean we can’t try new things and new ways of doing things.
Use data and information intelligently to solve complicated problems and make efficient decisions. Ask questions differently to bring about new ideas and solutions. Instead of focusing on problem solving, use business intelligence to play ahead of the game.
On many fronts at MnDOT, we are trying to find ways that lead to the transformational change. With our funding and budget challenges, we need to find ways to make low cost investments that have higher impact and can yield better results.
Tang: Can you please share an example to illustrate what you mean?
Thompson: MnDOT’s initiative Toward Zero Deaths is a good example of using data analysis and traffic accident information to reduce traffic fatalities on Minnesota roads. For examples, instead of looking at each fatal crash separately, we analyze the data and find commonalities among all crashes, and find solutions to prevent similar crashes from happening. We also step away from just an engineering approach to the problem. We ask different questions, we look at our data and information differently, and we build and operate our highway systems in many ways differently then we did before TZD. And the results have been very positive.
Tang: Please share some quotes from the book that are very meaningful for you.
Thompson: “…at the bottom of the Oakland experience is a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why.”
“Major League Baseball had no sense of the fans as customers, and so hadn’t the first clue of what the customer wanted.”
“If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”
“…intellectual courage was his (Billy Beane) contribution. He’d had the nerve to seize upon ideas rejected, or at least not taken too seriously… and put them into practice.”
Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.
Now I like to read nonfiction books – history, especially during the era of industrialization, and biographies. I read about Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. A recent book I read was The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.
Now I don’t spend as much time in books, but I read extensively web and magazine articles across a wide variety of topics.
To find reading materials, I read some book reviews and go to bookstore to browse.
Tang: Last, but not least, congratulations for your promotion. In January you were promoted from the Office Director for Policy Analysis, Research & Innovation to the Division Director for Policy, Safety & Strategic Initiatives. It was a big promotion. How has life changed for you? What are some of the new things or lessons you have learned in your new role that you would like to share?
Thompson: I am still in the learning phase. It’s a big learning curve for me – dealing with new responsibilities and new issues, getting to know the different offices within the Division and meeting new people. I enjoy working with the new team. It’s been great and fun. I am looking forward to the new challenges that come with the new position and responsibilities.