February 25 , 2017 – Tilt

In this case, the title references a poker term. I’m not a big poker player for a number of different reasons, but I do enjoy the game when I have the opportunity to play. I also get sucked into the World Series of Poker occasionally when I’m on the road and nothing else is on TV. (OK, I’m a sports geek who almost always turns to ESPN first when I’m in a hotel room.) The term comes from the pinball function that occurs when a player jostles the pinball machine excessively in an attempt to direct the ball’s path or when the player gets angry and takes it out on the machine. (For those reading in the future who don’t know what pinball is, you need to find a machine and try it.) In poker parlance, it represents the moment when multiple negative events occur in a short timeframe and the player loses his or her objective focus on the data at hand to the point that they make a bad decision based on the emotions brought about by the cumulative effects of those negative events (aka bad luck).

Decision-making is a key competency for any leader. It is also a combination of art and science despite the intense focus on data-driven decisions over the past decade or so. One poignant example of data-driven decision making is the approach Oakland Athletics management, specifically General Manager Billy Bean, took in using detailed performance data to build a “small money” team using Sabremetrics to acquire players other teams passed up whose salary presented significant value. They even made a movie about this data-driven approach starring Brad Pitt. Here’s the rub—the A’s never won the World Series. Neither has any other team that uses the Sabremetrics approach to building a team. Here’s a video worth watching that continues to make my point:

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate having data to help me make decisions. In fact, I’ve spent the past three years at work trying to generate more data to help our agency’s leaders, including me, make better informed decisions. However, over reliance on data can become an obstruction to good decision-making if we let it become the sole focus or sole approach to how we make decisions and ultimately fail to use our brain. This is one reason Artificial Intelligence has not fully realized the promise of science fiction movies and probably never will. AI can’t replicate the function of our brains. The art of decision making comes from our ability to leverage experience, a sense of our surroundings, emotional intelligence, non-verbal cues, etc in order to take risks. Occasionally, we may even make the less prudent decision—the “leap of faith” which the data would push us away from—when we know the risk is manageable.

I’m very clearly a “gut feel” decision maker. Here’s one anecdotal example: When we moved to Texas, we started house hunting almost immediately after arriving. The first house we toured was painted full on Mary Kay pink throughout the interior. Other than that, the house was perfect for us and placed in a great neighborhood for our family. I just knew we would end up in this house and wanted to sign the lease then and there, but we ended up looking at several more homes before returning a couple days later to sign the lease on the “pink house.” Was I psychic? Did I have enough data? Was I ready to settle and just got lucky? I don’t know, but I just feel sometimes I simply know deep in my soul what the right answer is. I guess one could argue that I’m still relying on data, but in this case the data are coming from internal sensors—soft data. Anyway, those are easy decisions for me to make, but difficult decisions for me to communicate or justify for those who need hard data.

The risk of Tilt is just as high for decision makers who rely more on soft data than hard data. In fact, it’s probably higher since those decision makers who take a leap of faith rely more on feeling and naturally have a harder time maintaining objectivity. I admire the professional poker player who can lose hand after hand after hand and maintain their objectivity when things don’t seem to be going their way. But even those steely-eyed, ice in their veins professionals don’t solely rely on the data. Data in a poker match sometimes means knowing you have a 55% chance to win. That data requires you to apply the art of decision making on occasion. You just have to avoid the Tilt over the long run in order to keep the game going.

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