Life is Poker not Chess

Life is Poker not Chess

The entire day today I've had this sentence running thru my head. “Life is poker, not chess.” It's because I'm reading Annie Duke's Thinking in Bets again. I read it when it first came out, and I'm going thru it again because she put to words a framing I use in business all the time.

If we were talking ten years ago, I likely would have said, “Life is chess, not checkers.” By that I meant that life was more complex and required more strategy. I am, after all, a strategy guy before anything else.

But the thing about chess is that every single piece is exposed on the board. Every moment in a chess game gives both players the exact same information.

If you score different pieces as different values (based on their worth), then at any moment of the game, the score of each side is transparent and clear to both sides.

That means that at any given moment, there are good, better and best strategies to winning. Whether you know them or not, whether you act on them or not – none of that matters. What matters is that they're exposed for everyone to see and know.

The same cannot be said for poker.

Poker is a much stronger candidate to think about life. Because we live in a world where many things are opaque. There is a ton of partial information that we have and a ton of information we don't have access to at all.

Yet we must make decisions. Even with partial information. And we'll never be certain. No matter how confident we are, there is always the chance we could be wrong.

That's why life is poker not chess.

What does that mean for Agency and Product Owners?

I want to share with you three guides that help me make decisions with partial information. Hopefully it will help you.

No Decision is Final

Most of us like to make decisions with data. That's a good thing. But sometimes we make a decision and never go back and look at the data again. We make a decision and then we get comfortable that that hill has already been climbed.

What I've experienced is that we get comfortable with having made a decision because it removes a level of stress that was there before we made a decision. So the comfort of not having to make it again leaves us wide open to missing things when the data changes.

So I will purposely ask my team about data that we used for an earlier decision, more than once. I'll ask again in case it's time to make a new decision.

In other words, no decision is final. But we live like it is, until we change our minds.

Making no Decision is Making a Decision

But just because I say that no decision is locked forever, doesn't mean I waffle on making a decision. Because, after all, not making a decision is actually making a decision. A lot of times, when you don't make a decision, you're saying that since you only have partial information, you rather wait to get all the information to make a “fully informed” decision.

But that time will never come. Which means you'll never make a decision. Which is its own decision (and often the worst one).

So get comfortable making decisions with partial information.

Learn to Pause & Ask Questions

I know I'm not telling you anything special with these three guides. Mostly I'm trying to remind you of what you already know.

But there's an example in Duke's book that gets me every time.

A guy flips a quarter and gets heads four times in a row. What are the odds?

So Duke first does the math – .50*.50*.50*.50 = about 6%.

But then she highlights all the questions we didn't ask before giving the answer.

  • Is the coin a normal coin or do both sides have heads on them?
  • Is the thrower doing something to make it land on one side more often?
  • Is the coin weighted, such that it will always land on one side?

In other words, we have no idea if 6% is right, or if 100% is right. Or anything in-between.

The trick is that we have to learn to ask questions. To slow down and inject questions before we make decisions.

My team can either love me for this, or hate me for it. Because when it feels like it's a really easy answer (i.e. an answer we all want me to give), I often pause the process and ask a different question.

How big is the problem?

You would be amazed how often we make decisions on poor information. Because the squeaky wheel gets the grease, right?

So one client complains a lot, and suddenly you hear several support folks tell you the same story. But the data is n=1.

Or you have customers complaining about a missing feature, but when you dig in, it's 32 people, out of 30,000 customers.

But when we don't ask, we just assume this is the new alert, issue or trend. Simply because we need to learn to introduce a pause and ask a question.

Business is Poker not Chess

The truth is that I could easily say that business is poker not chess. Every decision we make is one with partial information. When we make decisions we're working with probabilities, not certainties. And the feedback loops are complicated – because we see the results of decisions, but it doesn't tell us if the decision was good or bad.

It's easy to think that all good decisions have good results. And bad decisions have bad results. But in business, that's not true. Good decisions can have bad results, and bad decisions can get lucky with good results.

So we need to embrace a process for making the best decisions we can, not worry too much about the results, and know that we can iterate to keep making better and better decisions.

In the end, the better we are at making decisions with partial information, the better off we'll all be.