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How to Place Bets in an Uncertain World

Spoiler Alert: The Answer is to be More Human

by Jeremy Nulik

When teenage kids misbehave, some parents take away the car or cell phone. Others make them mow the grass or clean bathrooms. When she was raising her eight sons, therapist, author and self-proclaimed drama researcher Cy Wakeman did none of those things. Instead, she made her kids play poker — with her and with their next week’s allowance.

Before her sons reached their teen years, Wakeman, author of “No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement, and Drive Big Results,” would teach them about the rules of poker, what a winning hand looks like and how to strategize. During these sessions, the kids would see everyone’s cards so she could explain the complexity of the game.

In my recent interview with Wakeman on the “More Human” podcast (which you can subscribe to anywhere you listen to podcasts), she highlighted a conversation she had with one of her sons when he was “grounded” and asked to play poker. Before he was willing to place his bets, he wanted to see his mother’s cards.

“But that is not how poker is played,” she explained to her son. “You are betting on your cards and your skill with the knowledge you have.”

And it dawned on Wakeman that this is similar to what we experience in the work world, as it relates to how we deal with risk and what makes humans unique.

When all of the elements are known, when you can see all of the cards, playing the game can feel better. However, that is not the way things work in life or in business. There are unknowns. And today, it seems there are more unknowns and more uncertainties than we have ever faced. That is why the leader who hopes to place effective bets on the future must be able to interpret and deal with change, and that leader must also enable a team of other humans to understand how we can approach uncertainty.

A way to lead your team members in developing abilities to deal with uncertainty is backcasting, a simple framework to review the ways they experienced emergence and creativity in the past. With it, you can bring into their consciousness the idea that they are far more change-ready and therefore capable of dealing with uncertainty than they realize. Here are a few steps:

1. Think of a ubiquitous technology or process in your company or your industry. It helps if the technology or process is taken for granted. A pop culture example is the degree to which we can accomplish all of our business tasks from a mobile device while traveling in the air.

2. Take the team back five years and ask each person to recall what life was like. Have them tell the story of how they would accomplish similar tasks without the innovation. In the mobile device example, you would need to have multiple pieces of hardware and the attendant software, cables and power sources.

3. Take the team back another five years (now 10 years back) and repeat the exercise. This will begin to resemble the present day very little. Review what has changed and what has remained the same. With the mobile device example, you would have to wait until you arrived at your destination and arrange for some time in a business center or office building. You would have to call and schedule a meeting with your team at home during business hours.

You can step into the DeLorean and move back farther if you wish, but it is likely you can achieve the intended effect with the steps above. That is this: Human beings were built for change. We are at our best when there is uncertainty. If all were certain, we would need only machine solutions. But that is not our world. If we hope to have relevance for our brands or companies or selves in the future, then we must learn how to be more human.

Jeremy Nulik ( is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.

Submitted 2 years 43 days ago
Categories: categoryMarketing Works
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