PM tilt or “How to know when you’re playing a bad hand!”


I don’t play poker, but I have a friend who does, and he told me that sooner or later all serious players experience something called ‘tilt’.

Tilt happens when, due to a number of potential factors, a player loses their logical reasoning and starts making illogical or emotional decisions.

Contributing factors are many and varied – the most common is a long-running losing streak; other factors are someone getting under your skin or unexpectedly losing with a really strong hand.

So, what has this got to do with being a PM?

Don’t we find ourselves doing similar things?  Your team misses the sprint goal so you commit to hitting an unachievable number of points for the next sprint (i.e. the same as your last sprint), a senior stakeholder or a client wants you to hit X deadline or commit to Y budget (or worse, X and Y!) so you say “Yes!” to keep them happy, or you simply refuse to confront the reality that your plan is failing.

This is the same thing, isn’t it? This is all evidence of emotional decision making.

I know that most of my biggest PM mistakes have been made by ignoring the evidence in front of me and following an emotional desire to hit a goal that is no longer achievable.

What should a poker player do to deal with this problem? Walk away from the table for a bit, leave the game altogether? They can only do that if they recognise what’s happening, they have to know that they are on tilt.

It’s the same for a PM. We have to know when we are on tilt and about to make that bad decision, in order to stop it.

I’ve read a couple of blogs on poker, I really liked Understanding Tilt by Barbara Connors. I knew poker was a game of nerve as well as skill, but this series of blogs was pretty illuminating! So based on this, here are some tips for avoiding ‘PM tilt’:

Recognise the warning signs

If you find yourself in a situation where you are feeling attacked or feel defensive, that is often likely to lead to emotional and poor decision making. Projects can get into trouble for many reasons and it’s natural for a good, invested, PM to feel responsible…  It’s important to look past that feeling and take an objective look at the situation; take a walk round the block or, if you’re in a meeting, feel comfortable saying “I can’t answer that question right now, I’ll get an answer to you on Monday”.

Make sure you are measuring something!

If it’s Agile, track your velocity (or another measure of value); if it’s waterfall, how are you doing against your plan? This will tell you where your project is at…don’t ignore it!

Routine and rules help

When you are measuring something, make sure you do it regularly, so you can see when things are becoming a problem as early as possible.

Tried-and-tested isn’t always right

Just because something has worked in the past doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right for this project. It’s easy to think that the same approach will work every time. Every project is different, every client or stakeholder is different. Whilst much of what you know as a PM is applicable across projects, don’t become blinkered. It’s important to look at the problems you encounter on each project and make objective decisions about them.

There’s no quick fix

Projects generally run for a long time, problems can take a while to become apparent and the right solution may take days or weeks to show results. It’s important to understand that it will probably take time to resolve an issue. Resist the temptation to find that quick fix.

Experience helps, but support helps more

Unlike Poker players, we don’t have to deal with our work alone and we definitely don’t need to bluff. As soon as your metrics tell you things aren’t going to plan, discuss it with someone, another PM, the Product Owner or the rest of the team…don’t hope it will fix itself.

So that’s my thoughts on how to avoid PM tilt, what are yours?


There are 4 comments

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  1. patrice embry

    It’s funny, I often say I’m on “tilt” and I had no idea it was a poker term!

    I think all these tips are great and I need to be reminded of them (often) so this was a great read. If I had to add anything, I’d add that there’s very little room for assigning blame while the project is failing. What I mean is, of course something (or someone) is to blame, but pointing it out, especially if it’s an emotional member of the team, while things are still in crisis makes it even harder to get on track. I try to save that for the end of the project; in the heat of battle, I just acknowledge what’s not working and get folks to handle it.

    Great post!

    • Anthony Glass

      Thanks Patrice, it was fun to write!

      I couldn’t agree more, identifying what the problem is and why it is happening is part of the PM job; a good PM will work this out on their own, a great PM will bring the whole team into that process. Rarely is the ‘root cause’ down to an individual, it doesn’t take too much effort to look past that and see ‘what’ was causing the individual to get into trouble.

      When people blame others, it’s normally a sign that they are feeling defensive, that’s an emotional reaction. As PM’s we can help them identify the root of the problem and arm them with knowledge to avoid it in future. As well as fixing the problem, it helps build the teams confidence that they have the tools to overcome their problems…win, win!

  2. Adam Veitch

    I’m a poker player and have experienced being on tilt! I’m also a Project Manager and have experienced making illogical decisions in order to get over the line, often to the detriment of the project.

    Now, after lessons have been learned and processes put in place to minimise that risk occurring again, I can definitely confirm that the two feelings are very much alike, if not identical!

    I’ve never thought about irrational/illogical decisions in work being attributed to being on ’tilt’ and it’s a great way to visualise it for me personally. As a poker player, I’ve always managed to control tilt by ensuring that I keep my bankroll management rules in check, no matter the size of the bad swing, so I guess as long as I stick to the tried and tested processes and methodology and be disciplined enough not to veer too far away from them then it should be just as easy to manage. 🙂

    Great read, thanks for this analogy!

    • Anthony Glass

      Thanks Adam, really glad you enjoyed it…even better that, as a poker player, you endorsed it!

      I suspect you have the knowledge to extend the analogy; ‘bank role management rules’ and ‘swing’ sound, to the untrained ear, like ‘project objectives’ and ‘tolerance’?

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