Why poker players and salespeople don’t learn from their mistakes
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Why poker players and salespeople don’t learn from their mistakes

You never forget your first pitch.

I was a wet-behind-the-ears account exec. We were pitching a big new account. My job was mostly to listen and learn.

I was in awe. Our CEO was a master salesman who could bring an audience to tears. Our senior execs knew their business like nobody’s business. Our creative team had come up with a brilliant big idea. The presentation itself was a thing of beauty.

And it wasn’t just me saying so. The prospect said so too — while breaking the bad news that the account, unfortunately, had gone to somebody else.

But what really impressed me was what happened next. We regrouped and, without fixing any blame, took a good hard look at why we’d lost. In the years that followed, I learned that this was standard operating procedure after a new-business pitch: Win or lose, we’d analyze what we’d done and try to learn from it.

A great idea, except for one thing: Nothing changed.

We kept putting our pitches together the way we always had. As I grew more experienced (and perhaps more cynical), I could predict how it would go down: First a bit about us — who we were, what we believed. Cut to a slide packed with the well-known and impressive logos of our clients. Then the key insight we’d discovered, followed by a curtain pull to reveal the Big Idea that would solve the prospect’s problem and leave them richer and happier.

Don’t get me wrong: It was a good approach and we won more than our fair share of pitches. But where was the learning? Why weren’t we getting anything out of those win-loss analyses we conducted?

Outcome blind
A recent Forbes post by Stephen Meyer, Rapid Learning Institute’s CEO, suggests one reason why. The post profiles Annie Duke, one of the world’s top poker players. In her professional career, Duke noticed that most players improve rapidly at first and then plateau, while top players continue to get better. A key reason why, she says, is because the stars don’t worry about winning and losing.

When top players analyze their own play and the play of others, Duke says, they try to do it in a way that’s “outcome blind.” In poker (and in sales), you can win or lose for reasons that have nothing to do with how well you play. So when Duke and other top players got together and discussed their play, they didn’t even talk about whether they’d won or lost the hand. They focused on how good a decision they made given the information they had.

Lesser players, she says, get sidetracked by the outcome. When they win, they tend to attribute their success to something they did. When they lose, they tend to think they were the victims of bad luck. So little or no learning takes place.

What’s the lesson for sales? Instead of a “win-loss analysis,” try an outcome-blind postmortem. Assume that the outcome is irrelevant to the analysis. Instead, look at the quality and integrity of the process: Did you identify the right problem? Were you in front of the real decision maker? Did you propose the right solution? Were you able to address the prospect’s concerns and objections? Without regard to the outcome, what would you do differently if you had the chance?

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