In her interview with Lewis Howes, poker pro and an expert on psychology, Maria Konnikova, shares techniques that you can use to make better decisions from the process of becoming an expert poker player.
“Your goal cannot be the outcome, your goal has to be the process because you do not control the outcome. The outcome – that’s luck, that’s variance, that’s chance, that’s noise. What’s within you to control is the process. What you’re there to do is to make the best decisions you possibly can. If you do that, you’ve won, you’ve accomplished your goal, whether or not you actually win.”
This interview has crystalised an important lesson I’ve learned in my work this week.
A bit of context:
As you know I am the COO of a software development company, G2L-Unity. We have several different types of projects that we manage. One of them, I call Startup Equity Projects, in which we provide discounted development costs in exchange for aggregated equity in the business.
One of our project-companies is a coaching platform called CoCo, which matches coaches to coachees, manages the business development, coaching relationship and programs as well as measures the outcomes and return on impact. We are not only CoCo’s largest investor, we are the developers that built the platform from scratch and continue to be their technology partner. (Note, the platform is currently only available to consultancies and enterprise clients. We’re going to release the platform to independent coaches so that the general public can find a coach in the coming months. Connect with me on LinkedIn for more release information.)
Our partnership often results in our involvement in the day-to-day operations, marketing, sales and training of the platform. When I first started with G2L, I was told of a coach education company that had been in touch with us for years, flittering around the edges, interested in using the platform as the technology-of-choice for their business but for whatever reason they never seemed to make a decision.
This opportunity was one that had multiple exciting possibilities for CoCo’s growth and since I knew and liked what the company offered to the coaching industry, I asked to take the lead to find out once and for all whether they were going to ‘piss or get off the pot’ as my very-British CEO so eloquently put it.
Now, let me jump to the end of the story and tell you the outcome.
They got off the pot. We never got a chance to find out whether it would be a good opportunity.
Am I disappointed that this opportunity will never be realised?
Honestly, yes because I put in a lot of effort to prepare for it, but also, no because the outcome was never my primary goal in taking the lead on this business development opportunity.
When my CEO, Andrew, told me about this company, he’d long given up that they’d ever make a decision. “If they do, great, if they don’t, meh. See what you can do,” he said. He knew that if it worked out, it would be great for CoCo, but if it didn’t, it wasn’t a loss we couldn’t afford to lose. The stakes were low as far as the poker game of business goes.
In the interview with Lewis, Maria quoted her poker coach, legendary player, Erik Seidel, who told her of how to mentally prepare for playing high buy-in games:
“You have to just forget it, the moment that you buy-in, that’s done. That’s a sunk cost. You’ve already done that. And now you just have to play, you have to make the best decisions, these are just chips, and if you can’t do that, that means you’re in a too-high-stakes situation. If you are incapable of making that separation, and if its affecting how you’re making decisions, that means the decision to do this in the first place was a bad one because you’re playing with money you cannot afford to lose.”
When I took over this business development opportunity, I took on Andrew’s no importa (translates to ‘it doesn’t matter’; I’m learning Spanish) approach. If he didn’t care then I had to be clear about my emotional investment going into this opportunity. I had to not care about the outcome.
I made the decision to divorce myself from that which I couldn’t control. I recognised that I couldn’t control the way they wanted to grow and develop their business. I couldn’t control any aspect of anything they did or did not do in the decision-making process. The outcome – signing a partnership deal – could not be my goal.
My goal was the process.
In my prior businesses and career before, I’ve never needed to pitch for anything. I’ve been involved in collating pitch documents but I’ve never taken the lead. Being new to G2L, I hadn’t yet had an opportunity to flex my business development muscle and this was the perfect opportunity to experiment.
The objectives were simple: Put together a pitch document with supporting collateral that demonstrates my ability to match the service CoCo offers to their technical specifications, meet with them and build a relationship that served as the basis for a long term collaborative business partnership.
Here’s what I learned from this whole experience and its process:
Collaboration is the key to success
The two documents I compiled are professional, beautifully designed, clear, and informative. I worked tirelessly to put them together, but I didn’t do it all. I had a team who gave me old content, new ideas, and input to support me.
While I’m a competent designer and writer, I learned very quickly that I cannot be both author and designer at the same time. I tried and I met with brick wall after brick wall in my ability to think succinctly. The two activities utilise completely different parts of my brain so I learned to lean on my team for what I knew I couldn’t do well. I edited and refined their contributions, I made it look beautiful, and they edited my drafts. Without them, there’s no way I’d have produced such high-quality work.
In my businesses, I didn’t have a team. There was only me. I knew then that it was a shortfall in my business capability but I had no experience of the power of having a team to back you because in prior employment I was never a part of a team, I simply had colleagues.
This experience has taught me what it means to share the same vision and to collaborate with other people and for them to care deeply about my success. They knew my success equated directly to the business’ success, and in turn, their own success. I experienced an intrinsic motivation from them to see me succeed, something I’ve never felt before but now realise I’ve deeply yearned for.
And while I will likely never get feedback about the pitch document from the company I sent it to, it doesn’t matter because we now have seriously good pieces of collateral to use with future opportunities. Their opinion was never the goal, the process of putting it together was.
What’s in it for you? What’s in it for me?
When I received their technical specification documents, it became very clear to me that what they wanted we could easily and effortlessly fulfil. I didn’t think that the basic functionality of CoCo was what would truly take their coaching education platform to the next level for the coaching industry but I had some very good ideas for what would. I was ambitious. I invited them to think bigger and to utilise more of CoCo in a bigger partnership capability than they’d previously considered (based on the many conversations with them over the last three years).
Throughout the research, I constantly sought to answer, what’s in it for them? Why choose to partner with us? How can CoCo support them to do more? And, in doing so, what’s in it for us? What do they have that we need? The aspect of the pitch document that I’m most proud of was scoping out their business, finding the gaps and presenting four very strong opportunities for the faster accomplishment of their company’s vision that also supported CoCo’s growth.
And while I will not get to realise that potential with this company, it is far from a loss for me or for CoCo. I now have an exciting vision for what CoCo’s capable of as their competitor. I wouldn’t have seen this potential without this opportunity.
It takes two to tango but only one can lead
When I first took on this BD project, I reached out to the company’s founder and had a meeting with him but he never came back to me with the technical specifications I’d asked for.
Months later, I reached out to their CEO on LinkedIn. I got an immediate reply, which made me pleased to think at least one person in the company knew how to communicate effectively. She agreed to meet with me and with her EA copied in delegated the arrangement of the meeting. Sadly, she then delegated her attendance to another person on her team who we’d previously experienced poor communication from.
It was this person who let both teams down. He wasn’t dancing. He wasn’t even at the tango party.
While I had delegated the task of coordinating the three-timezone meeting to our Admin Manager, Mel, I ensured she kept me in the loop of the conversations. Between Mel and his EA, the date and time were set. Except he never confirmed the invitation, despite Mel’s multiple attempts to get a confirmation from him and his EA.
Two days before the meeting was scheduled, I sent him, the CEO and the founder a copy of the two documents I’d produced. In the email, I mentioned Mel’s inability to get a confirmation of attendance. The CEO replied requesting attendance. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘we might get somewhere now.’
Now, because Andrew needed to get up at 5 am for the meeting, we weren’t willing to hedge bets on this meeting going ahead without a confirmation. There was insufficient time to get confirmation from the CEO so we decided to reschedule. That rescheduling never happened.
The lesson here was that the key person with whom I and Andrew were to meet was not actively communicating nor a key decision-maker.
All business deals must be between key decision-makers, if they’re not active, the deal’s not active. Walk away.
Reacting caused the door to close
Now, here’s where I fess up. So far, I’ve done a good job at making you think that they weren’t going to be a great company to work with. They demonstrated poor communication skills and didn’t seem that interested to begin with – all true, but what’s also true is that I fucked up.
I would be doing a giant disservice to myself and to you if I didn’t tell you that I did something that caused the CEO to decide they were getting off the pot. Naturally, these weren’t her words, but she made it clear that they were no longer willing to tango at all.
I stopped making good decisions because unbeknownst to me at the time, I allowed myself to fail in one of my own primary communication rules:
Use reflection to respond rather than react.
I was pissed off at the guy for wasting our time and rightly so, but, in this game of business poker, you need to prevent what Maria refers to as tilt, the showing of your emotions. I reacted with evident displeasure in sending the email to the guy to cancel the meeting. I wasn’t impolite or unprofessional, I just wasn’t very good at communicating my displeasure – my ‘tell’ was obvious.
When Andrew coached me on this he talked about how business is a game of chess but after listening to Maria’s interview, it feels more like poker.
Maria says in talking about John Von Neumann and his book, The Development of Game Theory:
“Poker is the most perfect analogy for strategic decision-making that he’d ever come across. He actually thought that if you could solve No Limit Holden you would have the road map for solving the most complex human decisions.”
“Poker is a game of incomplete information, so unlike chess which you can see the whole board, you can see all the pieces and there’s always a right move. If you give me enough computational power, I can solve it for you. I can tell you exactly where I’m supposed to move. But, with poker you can’t do that because I don’t know the cards you have and you don’t know the cards that I have and we don’t know what cards are still coming in the deck so it’s not a chess board. All of a sudden, half the chess pieces are obscured.
“And then it’s a game of people, of intention, of trying to figure out what do you know? What do I know? It’s a game of information. That’s starting to look like life, it’s starting to look like actual decision-making.”
I made a decision, albeit unconsciously, to react rather than respond. I didn’t play the round well because I didn’t have all the information. The game was incomplete and I made a poor decision. As a result, the CEO was quite justified in closing the door to the opportunity. I put her in a difficult position of needing to defend her employee and her company because I’d made it clear that he’d dropped the ball.
I’ve learned that you cannot be so obvious in business. It’s a game in which you have to wear a mask and hide your tells.
On my scale of fuckedoffedness, this one peaked at the top of the angry-at-myself end. I worked my arse off to get as close as I did to get around the table with this company that’s been open about their need for a technology partner. I know how to communicate effectively with influence and yet, right when it was crucial I dropped the ball and most likely lost the opportunity for good. That is a sucky feeling, indeed.
I lost the hand but I didn’t lose the opportunity to play the game again, and again, and again.
And again, I will.
Should I have listened to Andrew and not pursued this opportunity?
Possibly. He had the foresight to know they were unlikely to ever make a decision.
But I also wouldn’t have learned anything. I didn’t lose anything from playing this game of business poker. Remember, I divorced myself of control over the outcome (their decision); that wasn’t my goal. My goal was the process, and from it, I’ve achieved a tremendous amount and can only be grateful.