What “The Biggest Bluff” Can Teach You About Strategy

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

“The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” will be on my list of the best books I read in 2020.  It’s a layered story, compelling and well-told.

Written by Maria Konnikova, a Ph. D. in psychology and a contributing writer to the New Yorker, “The Biggest Bluff” details the year she spent learning to play poker, starting as a complete novice.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it goes pretty well for her.

It doesn’t hurt that her coach is Erik Seidel.  Seidel – aka “Seiborg” – is one of the all-time poker greats, with nearly $35 million in tournament winnings (that doesn’t include cash games) and eight World Series of Poker bracelets (only five players have more).

(One Area) Where Poker Meets Brand Strategy

The Biggest Bluff book cover

Though I haven’t played poker seriously in about a decade, I remain fascinated by the game.  Poker is an analog for many aspects of business and life; while I’ll spare you that full tangent, one quote in “The Biggest Bluff” jumps out as particularly true in the realm of brand strategy.

Konnikova writes:

“When I inevitably ask [Seidel] the question he gets asked most frequently—what his single piece of advice would be to aspiring poker players—his answer is two words long: pay attention. Two simple words that we simply ignore more often than not. Presence is far more difficult than the path of least resistance.” (emphasis mine)

How does this relate to brand strategy?  Simple:

The most overlooked and underrated aspect of strategy is diagnosis.  We have a tendency to jump to solutions without first defining the problem.  We want to start moving immediately, but often fail to define our starting point.

In a culture that encourages overstuffed calendars and non-stop activity, we rarely take the time to reflect on whether the things that keep us busy are the things that work.

Better Diagnosis = Better Strategy

There are a bunch of hawkers on LinkedIn (and in my spam folder) promising hundreds of “qualified” sales leads.  “More leads” proposes a solution to a near-universal concern: “We’d like to have more revenue.” 

But if your revenue isn’t where you’d like it to be, is the problem the number of leads?  Or is it possible that:

  • You have enough leads, but you’re bad at closing them? 
  • Your customer retention rate is poor?
  • Your offer is a bad match for the market?
  • Your competitors simply do a better job?

The diagnosis has everything to do with the solution we choose.

If we don’t pay attention, we’re liable to grab the first tactic that comes along.  When that fails, we’ll grab the next.

But if we do pay attention – if we replace certainty with inquiry (another Seidel mantra), if we analyze before acting – we greatly increase our chances of taking the best next step.

In brand strategy, as in poker: Strategy is situational.  The best move depends on the context.  And we can only grasp the context if we pay attention.

Some questions to consider:

  • Early in the strategic process, do we identify the biggest obstacles between where we are and where we want to be?  Is our plan designed to overcome these obstacles?
  • Do we frequently assess our situation and consider our next steps accordingly?  Or is strategy a painful, once-a-year sprint?
  • Do we deliberately build feedback loops into our marketing and operations?
  • Before adopting any tactic, do we tie it directly to a problem or outcome?
  • Before adopting any tactic, do we compare several options?  Or do we grab the first thing that comes along?
  • Does our organization reward activity or results?
  • Is our strategic plan a list of tasks or a cohesive set of actions designed to win?
  • When building strategy, do we sometimes find ourselves saying, “That’s a good tactic, but not for us”?

If you enjoyed this post, please:

1. Share with at least one person (or use the share buttons)
2. Sign up for our newsletter, That Branding Thing
3. Find me on Twitter or LinkedIn

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew is a former CMO who helps brands to focus, stand out and grow.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He’s based near Portland, in Oregon wine country.

Copyright 2020 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.