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?