Know When to Hold ‘Em and Know When to Fold ‘Em… Playing the Poker Game of Innovation

The Gambler

Over the past several weeks, the “Poker” metaphor has come up repeatedly in discussions with my teams… not at all surprising when working with innovative minds and risk taking spirits.  The game of poker is a now infrequent passion of mine, and I have been playing in some capacity since I was in high school. I actually still try to maintain an annual game with some of these same friends over 20 years (is that possible?!?!) later.  I also have played in some low-stakes card games at local casinos and in Vegas, but these have been more like the “Spring Training” of Poker rather than the “World Series”.  Over the years, I have definitely won more than I have lost, and used to joke with my wife that this hobby would one day pay for our kids’ college educations (I’m nothing if not an optimist).  Now… while I may never be in a position to quit my job and become a professional card shark, I do believe that there are several lessons learned at the poker table that can be reapplied in the office.  Every day, in the high stakes game of Innovation, we make choices about which “hands” to play, about how much to invest in a given hand, and about which hands that we should sit out.  To quote Kenny Rogers from “The Gambler”… You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away, Know when to run… and getting this balance right is key to maximizing the odds of success.

1) The goal is not to win the most pots, but to win the right ones.  Particularly if you pride yourself on being a risk-taker, if you always see the glass as “half full”, and if you see the potential in every situation… no matter how bleak, it is critical that you maintain the discipline to not play every hand.  Statistically speaking, the more hands that you play, the more you will win… and also the more you will lose.  There is no prize for winning the most hands in and of themselves, but rather for ending up with the most money at the end.  If you dilute your bets by playing every hand, you likely will not have the time, capacity, or resources to invest big on the big pots.  It is important to take risks, but the right risks- bet big on the pots where the odds are in your favor and the stakes are high.  Choosing which hands not to play is at least as important as choosing which ones to play.

2)  With the right pot and the right cards, be willing to go “All In”.  While it is important to be choiceful, don’t be conservative.  When you get dealt the right hand and the stakes are high, be ready to throw everything you have against it.  Heroes are born, fortunes are made, and legends are formed, when a person or a team leans in, risks it all, and wins big.  One big hand can and will overwhelm dozens of small ones and often dictates who ultimately has the biggest stack of chips at the end.

3) Be willing to walk away from a hand if the situation changes… No matter how invested you are.  We have all been in situations where something looked like a “sure thing” at the start, but then fell apart as more cards began to fall.  Particularly at work, I have seen countless examples of projects that started with huge potential and investment, but through some unforseen technical challenge, a change in market dynamics, unexpected data, etc. that potential disintegrated over time. In these situations, it is excruciatingly hard to “walk away from the table”, because we are attached to the pot that we expected to win and the memory of the “good cards” that we had at the start.  A sunk cost is a sunk cost, and you must be willing to cut your losses if the cards turn against you.  Throwing more money against a pot just to justify the previous investment is a sure-fire way to go home with empty pockets.  There is often a fear that walking away (or running!) is a sign of weakness or of invalidating the good work that happened early in the “hand”.  It is entirely possible to make the right decision to bet big at the beginning and then to also make the right decision to “fold big” later on- we must be willing to adapt and to reassess as each card changes and accept that sometimes we must fold so that we can live to play another day.

4) Treat your chips as a finite resource and don’t play as if you can keep going to the bank for more.  When I have gone to Vegas, I have always made a conscious effort to decide on an amount of money that I am willing to “invest” and then to lock my ATM cards in my hotel safe.  If we play as if we have a blank check, we are more likely to bet big at the wrong times and to be less discriminating with our time and our money.  Knowing that there is a finite number of chips to be played, we are more likely to invest our time, mind power, and money against the “high potential” hands, and to sit out the rest.

5) Know your competition as well as you know yourself.  Poker is a game played against multiple opponents, and their choices will greatly impact your odds of winning no matter how good your cards might be.  When the person across from you bets big, you need to know whether he only bets against a “sure thing”, bets recklessly, or bets unpredictably.  Often we make innovation choices based upon what our competition has done or upon what we believe that they will do next.  If we don’t know our competition’s history, tendencies, and risk-profiles, we are leaving results up to chance.  We need to know them inside and out so that when they act, we know whether to bet, to raise, or to fold.

6) No matter how well you play, and how good the odds are, be willing to accept that sometimes you will still lose.  You might be dealt amazing cards, do everything right, and still manage to lose to some statistical improbability.  In cards, in innovation, and in life, there are no guarantees of success, and you must be willing to accept that you might lose… and lose big.  Over the course of a career, if you play the game the right way you should end up ahead, but you have to acknowledge and accept that some days you will go home empty-handed.  I’ve been dealt a Four-of-a-Kind and lost to a Straight Flush… and while that is awful luck I can assure you that the next time I have Four-of-a-Kind I will bet big again.  When you gamble, by definition, you will win some and you will lose some- you need to accept this fact and be ready to come back to the table and play another hand.  The only way to never lose is to never play.

7)  Putting logic asideSometimes, you still should play your hunches.  Every so often, I will get dealt a hand that looks bleak statistically but that I have a “good feeling” about.  In these cases, where instinct, experience, and energy pull you in a direction contrary to the logic and odds of a situation, you should not be afraid to stay in the hand long enough to see if the hunch pays off.  This should not apply to every hunch, mind you, but to those rare ones in which you can’t necessarily explain why you should keep playing but know in your gut that you should.  For me, the most successful project that I ever launched was the result of one of these hunches… I did not go “All in” from the beginning, but stayed in the game long enough for the right cards to fall and for the pot to get big enough that I ultimately invested big and won.  Again, these should be the exception to the rule, but often our subconscious knows more then our conscious mind can comprehend and we should follow our instincts long enough to see how it plays out.

At the end of the day, every choice that we make about how we spend our time, our effort, and our resources is a gamble.  We only have so many chips that we can play, and how we choose to invest (and to not invest) those chips will dictate our ultimate success, happiness, and fulfillment.  When we sit down at our various tables, we need to make sure that we don’t recklessly play too many hands, but also that we don’t unwittingly sit out the wrong ones.  We need to be vigilant as the cards fall, agile as the circumstances change, and bold in our holding, raising, and folding, so that we can ultimately win the “Crazy Game of Poker”.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Business Travel by Mega-Bus… and Other First-World Problems

First World Problems2

Over the course of my career, I have traveled the world.  With domestic travel to virtually every major metropolitan area in the United States, and international travel around Europe, South America, and Asia, I have racked up frequent flier miles and hoarded hotel points.  With the benefit of a global company, generous travel budgets, and aggressive research plans, I have filled my passport while enjoying the comforts of business class flights and accomodations.  Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work and difficult to be away from my family… but I have at least struggled in style.

The times have changed, however, and as budgets have gotten tighter so have the travel options.  Things are so tight in fact, that I could not find the money a couple of weeks back for a quick in-an-out flight to Chicago for a meeting.  To be fair, this was not a meeting that I had to attend, but rather one that I wanted to prioritize, so the travel “restriction” in this case was justified.  That said, I wasn’t willing to give up, so I started searching for a Plan B.  I could have just driven to Chicago from Cincinnati… it is a 5-hour drive and I actually kind of enjoy the peace and quiet of a long-stretch of uninterrupted highway cruising.  But I am so swamped at work (I’ll come back to that), and was not willing to spend 10 round trip hours behind the wheel when I could have been working.  So I then looked into the Megabus.  For about $20 bucks, I could secure a round-trip ticket on a 6-plus hour double-decker ride.  The ride had heat, Wi-Fi, and a scenic route through rural Indiana, so I bought a last-minute ticket and started the adventure.  Yes… Plan B stood for Bus.

The other issue with taking a bus versus a plane was that I could not do the trip in one day, so I also had to find a hotel room on a dime.  I took to Priceline.com and searched for the cheapest name-brand hotel that I could find, that was walking distance from the bus stop, and that had at least a couple of stars in the rating.  And while it wasn’t the lap of luxury, I did find a respectable place that met my criteria (i.e. cheap), booked it, and started on my way.

The night of my trip, much like most of this polar-freaking-vortex of a winter, was cold… really, really cold.  My sister-in-law was kind enough to drop me off at the outdoor bus stop where for 30-minutes I shivered and waited for my stagecoach to arrive.  There was only one other traveler waiting with me- an interesting, young fellow who was embarking on a 4-day, 4-state trip to follow the Cincinnati Reds caravan, an event where several of the team’s players visit various cities across the Midwest meeting fans and signing autographs.  He had no luggage, no money, and no place to stay, and had decided to keep warm by spending the 3-hours prior to the bus ride drinking the last of his dollars in a bar.  We had the same conversation a couple of times (which he won’t remember), until finally the bus arrived.  Interesting, yes… First Class-y, not so much.

When I climbed the stairs to the top of the bus, I was surprised to find it empty.  I was very relieved by this as I could spread out, plug in my computer, and spend the next 6 hours “building the business” with email, one-pagers, and presentations.  Looking back, it really was not a bad set up.  I had space, I had time, and I had the world wide web.  In that particular moment, however, I was less able to see the “big picture”… I was uncomfortable, I was cold (then hot, then cold, then hot…), and I was tired.  And the work itself was as tiresome as the ride.  This wasn’t the fun, innovative, strategic work that I love to do, but rather the drudgery of busy work, petty email arguments, and politics that I had put off as long as I could.  By the time I finally had arrived in Chicago at 1:00 the next morning, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself.

I limped off the bus, threw my bag over my shoulder, and asked Siri to help me get my bearings so that I could start the half-mile walk to my hotel.  It was even colder in Chicago, and I wanted nothing more than to find my “cheap” hotel and to then find some Zzzz’s.  While walking and staring intently at the map on my cellphone, I only vaguely heard a strong, yet tired voice asking me for help.  An older, homeless woman stood shivering in front of me, asking for bus fare.  She was clearly freezing in the frigid wind chills, so I pulled out my wallet and gave her a couple of bucks without a thought or a word.  After walking about half of a block, I realized that, not surprisingly, Siri had led me the wrong direction so I grew further annoyed and doubled-back toward where I now believed the hotel to be.  Shortly thereafter, I again came across the same woman, who was now waiting for a bus.  She looked at me with sympathy and asked, “Are you lost?”.  I smiled and politely said, “No”, and that I was on the right track for my hotel.  She then started walking with me and said, “Don’t worry, I will help you find it.”  I politely refused a couple of times, but she was determined to keep walking and so we started the cold walk together in the snow.

Along the way we talked about Chicago, about the weather, and about other random topics that came to mind.  I offered again to go on my own, but she said that she was happy to “keep movin’ and be stayin’ warm” so she continued to walk.  When we finally could see the hotel sign in the distance, she pointed it out, made sure I knew the right path, and started to go on her way.  I asked her if she had anyplace warm to go, and she said that she just planned to try to stay on buses as long as she could until the morning allowed for more warm, public places to open their doors.  I asked if there was anything that I could do to help, and she said that there was a place nearby that she could stay- “not nearly as nice as the fancy place that I was staying (and silently griping about)”- but that it was $15 and far too much to ask.  I gave her a twenty, she gave me a hug, and we both went our respective ways.

So, why am I telling this story?  It is not to highlight my own philanthropic performance- to be honest, I would sadly have probably ignorantly paid no attention to the woman if I had not been so directionally-challenged in the city.  I am telling this story as a reminder to keep things in perspective.  On a given day, I can find myself overwhelmed with “problems”… a mountain of emails that I need to climb, political games played by co-workers to make minor issues seem major, and “life-or-death” crises that must be resolved urgently so that the “fate of the business does not crumble around us.”  In reality… there is nothing that we do or don’t do that will bring on the end of the world.

And the ironic thing is, that it is not the “mountians” at work that cause most of the stress- it is the “molehills”.  When there is a true crisis, a real problem that needs to be addressed, a person in need who needs a few dollars to survive in the cold… then we are able to focus, to put all of the crap aside, and to work together to solve a problem.  It is the minor day-to-day issues- the petty argument around an artifical deadline, the posturing for credit or promotion, the complaining about taking the bus versus taking a plane that create most of the conflict, time, and stress.  If we were able to keep things in perspective and to let the mountains be mountains and the molehills be molehills… if we would could focus on what was truly important not just in times of crisis, but in times of peace… if we could remember that even our worst possible day in the office is pretty darn good in the whole scheme of things, then we could find more tranquility, satisfaction, and fulfillment as we all co-exist together in the workplace.

We live in busy and stressful times, and the workplace often reflects and even exaggerates that atmosphere.  It is easy to get caught up in the frantic panic-of-the day rather than to stay grounded on what is truly important.  Every day is a choice… if those around us turn molehills into mountains, we don’t have to climb them.  And we can pour our energy and focus into what is truly important.  God placed this woman in my path on the cold streets of Chicago as a reminder to hold on to the “big picture” perspective and to not let the trivialities become overwhelming… and so I am paying this story forward onto you.

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Wisdom from the Megabus… “I must overcome the lies within me to uncover what lies within me.” -MT

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com

Want Your Team to be SUPER Risk-Takers? Be a SUPER Consequence-Taker

Steelers Risk Taker

It’s Super Bowl weekend, and as an avid NFL fan I plan to plant myself in front of the big-screen, to eat some unhealthy “football food”, and to watch anxiously to see how the Big Game plays out in the Big Apple.  And while I will be surely tuned in, this is one of those years that I will probably be just as interested in the commercials as I am in the main event.  As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, our season ended weeks ago and the long and winding roller-coaster of a year came to a screeching and painful halt during the last game of the NFL’s regular season.  The Steelers came inches away from making the playoffs, and arguably were “robbed” of a playoff berth by some bad officiating.  But that is the end of the story… let’s start at the beginning.

Pittsburgh had high hopes this year, and most experts projected another successful year for the proud franchise with its league-leading 6 Super Bowl titles (after a bad season, yes, I am stuck reveling in past glories).  However, those expectations changed quickly as the Steelers stumbled out of the gate with 4 consecutive losses and were plagued by injuries, turnovers, and poor execution.  Over the next several weeks, they started playing better and won five out of their next seven games to get back into contention.  But then after two painful last-minute losses full of drama, memorable plays, and unusual calls, the Steelers sat at five wins and eight losses and only a mathematician could have calculated a scenario in which they could still make the playoffs.  Pittsburgh needed to win their final three games, and dozens of other games involving teams ahead of them in the standings had to all go their way.  They had a chance, but it was remote.

Dumb and Dumber So You're Telling Me There's a Chance

But as the weeks went by, Pittsburgh took care of business on their end.  They won their final three games decisively and finished the season at eight wins and eight losses.  More remarkably, however, was that every other scenario that they needed started falling into place.  In the end, on that last Sunday afternoon of the NFL season, the Steelers needed only one game to go their way and they would have defied all odds and made it into the playoffs as the sixth and final seed.  Their fate rested solely on a game on the other side of the country as they needed the Kansas City Chiefs to stomp into San Diego and defeat the Chargers.  A Chiefs win and the Steelers were in… A Chiefs loss and the Steelers were done.

Even before this game started, the odds were stacked against the Steelers.  San Diego had everything to lose as they needed to win this game so as to make the playoffs, and Kansas City had nothing to gain as they had already clinched a playoff berth.  And with Kansas City’s fate secured, their coach chose to bench all of their stars and regular starters so as to allow them to rest prior to the playoffs.  It was a smart decision, but a maddening one to Steelers Nation as it drastically hurt our chances. However, as they say, “That’s why they play the game.”  Kansas City’s “B-team” jumped out to an early lead and out-played San Diego for the majority of the game.  As the clock wound down, it looked as if the Chiefs had the game on cruise control and that Kansas City, and thus Pittsburgh, was going to pull off the surprising upset.  But the tides turned quickly and San Diego mounted a comeback and tied the game late.  Suddenly, things looked bleak yet again.  But Kansas City didn’t quit and marched down the field and into field goal range and had a chance to kick a relatively short field goal to win the game as time expired.  They lined up for the kick, while I stood jumping up and down in my living room watching hopefully as the ball left the kicker’s foot and… it unbelievably sailed just inches to the left of the goal posts.  He missed it.  Devastating.  And if that wasn’t enough, replays showed that San Diego was lined up in an illegal formation and that a penalty should have been called which would have allowed Kansas City to kick again.  “Ifs and buts…”  No flag was thrown and the game was deadlocked as it went into overtime.

In overtime, Kansas City again seemingly won the game as they forced a fumble on a fake punt and returned it for a touchdown.  However the referees questionably overturned the play and gave the ball back to San Diego, who drove down the field, scored, and ultimately won the game.  It was a crazy game, and was one that Kansas City, by all accounts, deserved to have won… but the final scoreboard read San Diego 27, Kansas City 24 and the Chargers were in the playoffs and the Steelers were not.

So who’s to blame?  Kansas City’s coach?  Had he played their starters, they likely would have won.  The “incompetent” kicker?  If he makes a clutch kick, then the Steelers make the playoffs.  The referees?  Bad calls (which the NFL later confirmed truly to be mistakes by the refs) gave San Diego second chances and helped enable the eventual comeback.  If any of these had gone in Pittsburgh’s favor, then Kansas City wins and Pittsburgh makes the playoffs.  So who’s fault is it?

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said it best, “I’m not looking to assess blame on anybody else about our current position other than ourselves.”  Yes, their fate had come down to Kansas City winning this one final game, and Kansas City deserved to have won… but the Steelers’ fate never should have come down to that.  Their horrible start to the season, their inconsistent play on both offense and defense, and their inability to force turnovers all season long were ultimately to blame.  They dug themselves into a huge hole, and needed someone else to ultimately bail them out.  Yes, Kansas City had multiple chances to get them out of the hole and into the playoffs… but there is no one to blame but themselves for digging the hole in the first place.

Why am I telling this story (other than than the fact that a month later, I obviously am still mourning!)?  How often in our organizations do we knowingly put ourselves or our teams into situations where we need a “miracle” at the end to deliver a superior product or to enable a deadline to be completed on time?  We often are willing and encouraging to take risks at the beginning of the “game”, forcing ourselves and our teams to dig themselves out of holes and to rally to save the day in the closing moments.  Often the intent is all positive and is rooted in a strong belief in amazing people to deliver amazing results.  And if you are lucky like me, then you are surrounded by incredibly talented and dedicated people who more often than not do successfully make the “clutch kick” at the end of the game so that the risk pays off.

But the thing about risks, is that while there often is a big reward there is equally a chance for a big consequence.  This consequence may be a result of the team failing to fully execute the last second “comeback”, the result of some factor outside the control of the team “penalizing” the work, or any of a variety of circumstances that can conspire against a heroic effort.  And when undesirable consequences do occur (as they sometimes will in a risk-taking environment), how does your organization handle it?  Do you blame the “kicker” who failed to execute?  Do you yell at the “referees” who impeded progress at the end?  Or do the leaders who accepted the risk in the first place take accountability for the consequence, and reward the team for attempting the heroics?

This is not to say that organizations should routinely accept failure.  Rather, it is to say that we must be intentional when taking risks at the beginning of an effort, so that we deliberately understand and accept the consequences that might occur at the end- not only for the work itself- but also for the individuals who take it on.  A metaphor that I like to use is a relay race.  If we choose, for example to start a project late without changing the “finish line” then there is a lot of extra speed and efficient handoffs needed to successfully complete the race.  As the deadline approaches, do we put pressure on the final runner of the race to cross the finish line, when he/she may not have even yet been handed the baton?  And if they do cross the line late, do we let the final runner feel the burden of that failure or do we accept it organizationally for taking the risk to start the race late in the first place?  This final runner can do everything right, break the world record for speed and efficiency but still ultimately fail to “win the race” for the team… do we support this runner as he/she crosses the line or put the consequence of the “failure” on his/her shoulders?

We want big rewards in our organizations, and with the speed and demands of today’s innovation environment these rewards will require big risks.  If we want to create a culture that accepts and rewards risk-taking, then we must have leadership that consistently and outwardly accepts consequences.  If individuals feel that they will be supported in a risky endeavor, then they will fearlessly throw themselves headfirst into making the impossible become possible.  If they fear retribution or blame, then they will more likely become recklessly cautious and refuse to put themselves in position to be the scapegoat to “miss the kick” at the end of the game.  Do you want your team to be SUPER risk takers?  You must lead as a SUPER consequence taker.

Enjoy the Super Bowl on Sunday.  I will try to relax and enjoy the game despite the fact that my Steelers won’t be playing.  And I won’t blame Kansas City’s kicker as I watch the commercials.

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Check out my book, Agents of Change, available in paperback and eBook additions on Amazon.com