I am not endorsing a switch to a career in gambling but there are a few lessons which project managers can learn from the game of poker.
This shouldn’t seem a stretch given that a poker tournament meets the usual definition of a project. Each tournament is unique from a rules, location and setup perspective, it has a start and end, it consumes resources (sometimes more than we would want!) and is expected to generate value.
Play the player, not the cards
While you could certainly memorize the probabilities of achieving each hand ranking, that will still not make you a consistent winner. Luck also plays a role in determining outcomes for a round, but the key competency for poker is being able to read your opponents and exploit their biases and tells.
Success in project management is about building relationships, reading difficult stakeholders and managing expectations. Visible tells in challenging meetings can work for or against you so self-awareness and mindfulness are critical both for poker and for project management.
Find the balance between risk and reward
The player who goes “all in” at nearly every half-decent hand will get eliminated early on. The player who folds consistently based on their hole cards gets blinded out. Neither blind optimism or ultra-conservatism will help you win.
When managing projects there will be times when the safest alternative is the right decision, and other times when there can be significant opportunity (or real) cost of playing it safe.
Adapt your approach
There are hundreds (if not thousands) of poker variants – Texas Hold ‘Em just happens to be the most popular at present. Context is also critical. Just because you have been successful when playing a few hands in a social round with friends doesn’t mean you won’t be wiped out swiftly when playing against pros at a casino.
Utilizing a one-size fits all approach when managing projects is a similar recipe for disaster. The culture of the organization and team, organization policies, project constraints and other attributes should all influence how you manage your project.
You gotta know when to hold ’em
No good poker player always bluffs. Faced with a 2-7 hole card pair, except in cases where they risk getting blinded out, most players will fold.
It can be tempting to take a strong stance when facing project conflicts but situational leadership dictates that you evaluate each situation and apply the tactic that is in the best interests of the project’s overall success.
I’ll close with the following quote from Chris Moneymaker which could also be said about project management:The beautiful thing about poker is that everybody thinks they can play.