Source:  Penguin Random House

The idea that marketers need to think like world-class poker players may seem a little odd, but that’s the primary lesson I take from Annie Duke’s book, Thinking in Bets:  Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts (Portfolio/Penguin, 2018).

Thinking in Bets isn’t specifically about marketing, but it describes an approach to thinking about decisions that would serve marketers well. So, if you haven’t read Thinking in Bets, I recommend you add it to your 2024 reading list.

Annie Duke is a recognized authority in the field of decision-making, but her professional journey has been a little unusual. She graduated from Columbia University with degrees in English and psychology, and she has a master’s degree in cognitive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She had finished her PhD coursework at UPenn when she became ill and was forced to take a leave of absence.

During her leave of absence, Duke moved to Montana and began to play poker. She became a professional poker player and, over a twenty-year career, she won numerous high-level poker tournaments, including the prestigious World Series of Poker. During her career, Duke won over $4 million in poker tournaments.

Duke retired from professional poker in 2012 and just last year completed her doctoral work and earned a PhD in cognitive psychology from UPenn. She’s now a sought-after corporate speaker and a consultant on decision strategy.

What’s In the Book

Annie Duke describes the primary purpose of Thinking in Bets in these terms:

“The promise of this book is that if we follow the example of poker players by making explicit that our decisions are bets, we can make better decisions and anticipate (and take protective measures) when irrationality is likely to keep us from acting in our best interest.”

Duke’s core argument is that the significant decisions we make in life are essentially bets on the future, and she elaborates on this argument in the first three chapters of the book. She writes:

“. . . our decisions are always bets. We routinely decide among alternatives, put resources at risk, assess the likelihood of different outcomes, and consider what it is that we value. Every decision commits us to some course of action that, by definition, eliminates acting on other alternatives.”

According to Duke, uncertainty is the factor that makes our decisions like bets in a poker game. When you place a bet in poker, you can’t know for sure that you will win the hand. And, when we make any significant decision, we can’t know with certainty that our decision will produce the desired results.

One key to becoming a better decision-maker is developing the ability to effectively cope with the uncertainty that’s inherent in all significant decisions. She writes:

“What good poker players and good decision-makers have in common is their comfort with the world being an uncertain and unpredictable place. They understand that they can almost never know exactly how something will turn out . . . instead of focusing on being sure, they try to figure out how unsure they are, making their best guess at the chances that different outcomes will occur.”

Duke acknowledges that becoming comfortable with uncertainty is easier said than done. She observes that the human brain evolved to create coherence and certainty, and this makes us prone to illogical thinking and several cognitive biases. Duke describes the hazards of such illogical thinking and cognitive biases throughout Thinking in Bets.

Lastly, Duke devotes more than half of her book to a discussion of several tactics that will help us develop our ability to “think in bets” and make better decisions.

In Chapters 4 and 5, Duke describes how we can use a “decision group” or a “decision pod” to help us maintain our decision-making discipline and thus improve our decision-making skills. In Chapter 6, she discusses scenario planning, backcasting, premortems, and several other valuable tactics that she calls forms of “mental time travel.”

My Take

Thinking in Bets is a valuable resource for any marketer. Annie Duke’s writing style is informal and engaging, and she makes liberal use of stories that are always on point and often amusing.

As I mentioned earlier, Thinking in Bets isn’t specifically about marketing. However, the decision-making principles described in the book are universal. I would argue that Thinking in Bets is especially relevant for marketers because the outcomes of most significant marketing decisions depend on the reactions and responses of other human beings. This means that marketing decisions often involve greater uncertainty than other kinds of business decisions.

Thinking in Bets is a self-help book in the sense that it focuses primarily on how we can improve our individual decision-making. However, Duke offers several suggestions for how business leaders can improve decision-making in their organization.

Duke argues that it’s particularly important for business leaders to encourage skepticism and the expression of dissenting views in their decision-making processes. One way to operationalize skepticism and dissent is by using “red teams.”

Duke describes the role and value of red teams in these terms:

“Just as the CIA has red teams and the State Department has its Dissent Channel, we can incorporate dissent into our business and personal lives. We can create a pod whose job (literally, in business, and figuratively, in our personal life) is to present the other side, to argue why a strategy might be ill-advised, why a prediction might be off, or why an idea might be ill informed. In so doing, the red team naturally raises alternative hypotheses.”

Thinking in Bets won’t teach you how to make specific marketing decisions, but it will help you make better marketing decisions.