Monday, August 24, 2015

The High Stakes Poker Affecting your Agile

Business is not like poker,
but many in leadership think it is
Before I worked as a technology professional, I worked in a casino as a pit boss.  Each night, I would see fortunes come and go based on the flip of a card or the fall dice.  It made an indelible impression upon me.  I met plenty of fantastic people and I also learned a great deal about myself and leadership.  Some of the lessons I gained on the casino floor still linger with me.  This week I noticed something as stocks were falling and the business news was discouraging, business leaders see what they do in the same high end poker players play their game.

When you watch poker on television it looks glamorous and sophisticated.  The reality is much more pedestrian.  What looks like two hours of key decisions is really six to eight hours of grinding action punctuated by a few interesting hands.  The producers of these poker programs make sure that the action is properly edited for television.  Getting to the final table is also a marathon which could last a week sitting grinding out hands of poker eight to ten hours a day until the final eight players are left.

Many of the people who are in senior leadership positions are like those poker players.  They are survivors of your corporate culture grinding out their positions by taking calculated risks when necessary and sitting out a majority of the action.  They are not innovative or creative people by nature.  They know when to bluff, bully, and calculate the odds when they have a promising looking set of cards in their hand.  They also understand the old adage, “If you can't spot the sucker in your first half hour at the table, then you ARE the sucker.”

This is why it is so hard for agile initiatives to happen at some organizations.  The constant experimentation, transparency, and risk taking necessary to innovate are an anathema to people who have spent their entire careers keeping their metaphorical cards close to their chests.  Poker is also a zero-sum game where there is always a winner at the table and a loser.  Someone succeeds and someone fails or gives up.  This gives failure an additional stigma which is something that business leaders which to avoid.

Agile is about the opposite of this kind of mind set.  It resembles a bunch of grown people playing with Lego pieces rather than a serious high stakes card game.  It requires creativity which many people find alien and scary.  Finally, it means trust and transparency which is the last thing you will ever find at a poker table until this last card is turned over.

So if you are leading an agile effort go to your local poker room and take a look at the players around the table.   The reality is they are going to look much like the business people you are going to have to convince to try a new way of doing things.

Until next time.