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Innovation is like Poker: A Day to Learn and a Lifetime To Master

Friday, August 13, 2010


It struck me last week that innovating in the public sector is a lot like playing Poker. Good players will tell you that it's not sheer luck, but rather a combination of skill, strategy and tactics. In this spirit, I've taken the liberty of recasting 10 of the most common poker tips for public sector innovators.

1. Don't Play Every Hand / Do Fold More
Probably the number one mistake beginning poker players make is that they play far too many hands. When you're just starting out playing poker, you want to play poker, and that means staying in hands that aren't very good just to be part of the action. But playing more doesn't mean winning more, it usually means losing more. If you find you're staying in half or more the hands you're dealt, you need to upgrade your starting hand requirements.

Lesson for innovators: If you choose your projects carelessly just to be a part of the action you risk dwindling your social capital and ability to influence. Look for better opportunities and take advantage of openings.

2. Don't Play Drunk
Countless nights have I sat across a table from someone & watched them get plastered silly and throw away their entire stack of chips. I've been that person too - and there are nights where you're just playing with friends for low stakes and it's more about the fun than the poker - but if you're in a casino, watch the alcohol. The truth is, while you may be more relaxed after 2 drinks, it may lead to you playing looser and less sharply, even if one's not 'drunk.'

Lesson for innovators: Don't be reckless. Don't burn through your social capital needlessly and be careful of those who do. Try to associate with people who keep their head in the game until the last card is shown.

3. Don't Bluff Just For Bluffing's Sake
A lot of beginner's understand that bluffing is a part of poker, but not exactly how. There's is NO rule that one must bluff a certain amount or at all during a poker game, but many players don't feel like they've won unless they've tried a poker bluff. Bluffs only work in certain situations & against certain people, and if you know a player always calls to the showdown, it is literally impossible to bluff that player. It's better never to bluff than to bluff "just to bluff."

Lesson for innovators: Don't withhold information just to withhold it. Do it sparingly, and with good reason, and whatever you do, never flat out lie to your boss. Even if you could catch them with(?) a bluff, why would you want to?

4. Don't Stay in a Hand Just Because You're Already In It
Another common mistake beginners make is to think that "Well, I've already put that much in the pot, I have to stay in now." Nope. You can't win a pot just by throwing money at it. There may be cases when pot odds warrant a call, but if you're sure you're beaten, and there's no way your hand can improve to be the best hand, you should fold right away. The money you've already put in the pot isn't yours anymore, and you can't get it back just by playing a hand all the way to the end.

Lesson for innovators: It is okay to kill an idea if the timing is off, if you don't have the support, or if the idea wasn't all that great in the first place. Knowing when to call it quits is imperative - there is no shame in it.

5. Don't Call at the End of a Hand to "Keep Someone Honest"
This one follows the last tip. I see a lot of players look at another player's final bet, look at the hand, & say "I know you've got me, but I have to keep you honest," as they throw in a final call. It may be worth it to see if a player really has the hand if you're not sure & you're gaining information that will help you later on, but if you really feel a player has the hand he's representing & you're beat, why give him another pile of your money? Those bets will add up over an evening.

Lesson for innovators: Accept failure and move on.

6. Don't Play When Mad, Sad, or in a Generally Bad Mood
When you play poker, you shouldn't do it to escape from being depressed or having a really bad day. You start out on tilt -- playing emotionally, not rationally -- and you won't play your best. Likewise, if during a poker game, you lose a big hand or get sucked out on and feel yourself going on tilt, stand up & take a break until you feel calm later on. Fellow players will sense your mood & take advantage of it.

Lesson for innovators: Innovation requires presence. If your head isn't in it, it'll show, so take care of yourself.

7. Do Pay Attention to the Cards on the Table
When you first start playing, it's enough just to remember how to play and pay attention to your own hand. But once you've got that down, it's incredibly important to look at what's going on at the table. In Texas Hold'em, figure out what the best possible hand would be to fit the flop. Make sure you notice flush & straight possibilities. In 7-card stud, pay attention to what's showing & what people have folded when you consider calling opponents.

Lesson for innovators: Keep your head up. Innovation occurs within a much larger organizational context. Focusing too narrowly on your piece of the puzzle jeopardizes your initiative and the likelihood of its success.

8. Do Pay Attention to the Other Players
As you play, one of the single best things you can do is observe your opponents, even when you're not in a hand. If you know if one player always raises in a certain position, & another has a poker tell when he bluffs, & a 3rd folds to every re-raise, you can use that information to help you decide how to play against them. Once you know that player 3 always folds to a re-raise on a river, that's when you can bluff & steal a pot.

Lesson for innovators: Keep your head on a swivel. Knowing how people will react to you or your initiative allows you to anticipate action before it happens. Streamline your execution and make sure you are able to adapt and respond as the situation changes.

9. Don't Play at too High Limits
There are many reasons people move up to a higher limit game than they usually play. Good reasons like they've been winning consistently at a lower lever & are ready to move up, & bad reasons like the line is shorter for higher limits or you want to impress someone. Don't play at stakes that make you think about the actual money in terms of day-to-day life or with money you can't lose. Even if you had one super-good night at $2/4, resist the urge to play $5/10. The next tip explains more why.

Lesson for innovators: Start small, scale with success. Build momentum, then use it smartly.

10. Do Pick the Right Game for Your Skill Level & Bankroll
One of the reasons you shouldn't jump into a $5/10 game after winning a huge bunch of money at $2/4 is because as the stakes rise, so does the average skill level of the players sitting there. You want to be one of the best at the table, not the fish who sits down with sharks. If you're making stacks of money at a lower level game, why move? You're winning stacks of money. The swings up & down at higher limits are much bigger, and one big night's win won't last long at a high-stakes game.

Lesson for innovators: Innovation is harder the farther you move up in the organization. If you are having success where you are, think twice before jumping at a higher paycheck, more responsibilities, etc, you might actually get less than you bargained for.

[photo credit:Rambis]