How to Fix a Slump

Ever see this diagram? (It’s from comedian Demetri Martin.)

I like this, because I think it’s true. From the outside, success looks like effortless progress; from the inside, we discover the journey is a lot more complicated. In fact, the most interesting part of the line is where it turns sharply downward, into one of those nasty-looking tangles where progress stops, development stalls, and frustration rises. It raises an interesting question:

What’s the best way to fix a slump?

Normally, when we hit a slump, we experience an overwhelming instinct to ignore it — to shut our eyes and just try harder, and hope things change.  That makes sense — and it feels satisfying. But is it the best way?

We find an interesting case study from Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates centerfielder. Drafted in 2005, McCutchen was a can’t-miss prospect, a first-round pick who performed outstandingly well for two years in the Pirates minor leagues — until, suddenly, he hit a dry spell. He stopped hitting. His average dropped to a puny .189. This was it: McCutchen’s slump, his crisis; his line was headed straight for the basement.

In this case, the Pirates organization used a surprising strategy. When McCutchen hit his downturn, they flew hitting coach Gregg Ritchie to visit him. Ritchie carried a piece of paper:  a print-out of McCutchen’s hitting flaws — specific, targeted problems with his swing mechanics that Ritchie had noted a year and a half earlier.

Until that moment, McCutchen didn’t know the list existed. But now, working with Ritchie, he used this list of flaws like a blueprint. He lowered his hand position; he shifted his weight — together, player and coach fixed his swing. And it worked: McCutchen got out of his slump, and kept moving up. He’s now an All-Star.

I like this story because I think it gives us insight into how to best handle these downturn moments. We instinctively want to do it alone; to lift ourselves back on that upward track out of sheer will.

But what works better is to approach the slump more like a science problem. Cool off the emotion. Collaborate and gather information. Figure out the shortcoming, and start re-wiring the improvement. In a word, be agile.

I also like it because it shows the importance of organizational agility. The Pirates handled this well, because they understood when to make the intervention. Coach Ritchie knew all along McCutchen’s swing had potential problems, but he didn’t try to fix those problems early on because his swing was working (as McCutchen said, if coaches had tried to correct him, he would have ignored them — and rightly so). No, the Pirates wisely waited until the the problem arose — until they had McCutchen’s full and desperate attention. Then, together, they went to work and built a better swing.

Fixing slumps is not about solo strength. It’s about group agility.