Although I’ve been accused by co-workers of having a poker face, I’m not a poker player. As a result, this follow-up to yesterday’s post on bluffing is based on secondary research, not real-life poker experience. These rules, adapted from poker bluffing maxims, are helpful in deciding when and how to use a bluffing strategy in business situations:

  • Be attuned to details in others’ behaviors. Study good bluffers and identify why they’re effective.

  • Don’t make it a general practice to bluff. Use the strategy only when necessary and avoid pure bluffs (i.e., you have limited means to deal with the downside of losing) at nearly all costs.

  • It’s dangerous to bluff against careless or inexperienced parties. They’ll tend to miss or incorrectly perceive situations and react unpredictably.

  • Fully understand your position in any situation where you’re considering a bluffing strategy.

  • Make sure the risks aren’t too high when you elect to bluff.

  • When bluffing, do so in a way that’s consistent with what the other person suspects is accurate and true about the situation (i.e., they think you have all the necessary information in a situation, so you act as if you do).

  • Don’t bluff someone you suspect has a stronger position (i.e., more information, flexibility, risk tolerance, etc.).

When to bluff? Here are a few situations where it may be appropriate:

  • A situation is familiar and you need to appear strong and in command even when you don’t have all the information you’d like or a full grasp of this particular situation.

  • You have some negative near-term information that can be corrected more readily if you don’t have to disclose it to the other party.

  • You’re bargaining with someone in a low-importance situation and are indifferent to winning or losing.

Consider incorporating bluffing into your strategy repertoire if you haven’t before.

And given how good interviewees are about Googling interviewers, these last two posts might be enough of a nudge to pave the way for reintroducing my bluffing question with the possibility of getting some decent answers.

Thanks for playing along during Sports Strategy Lesson week. Did you enjoy these strategy lessons? Let me know!

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Brainzooming was just listed on the Idea Connection blog roll; it orders blogs on its site based upon being voted up or down by visitors. If you get a chance, visit the Idea Connection website, check out the various blogs, and support Brainzooming!

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I’ve finally quit asking an interview question about situations in which prospective job candidates would make a conscious strategic decision to bluff. While based on a real-life situation where I had to bluff during a senior executive presentation, hardly anyone would identify when they’d do the same.

That’s too bad, because bluffing can be an effective strategy – just refer back to yesterday’s post about Joe DiMaggio. The key is to not overdo it and to be able to sustain the implications of having your bluff called.

I’ve bluffed several times recently with outside parties looking for assistance where there was little downside if they said no – which the first one did. In every other case though, the strategy resulted in a positive gain for both of us, interestingly enough.

So how about you?

What’s a situation where you’ve had to bluff either in business or personally? Have you seen someone else bluff and get called on it? Or someone bluffing and winning big as a result?

Share your stories in the comments section, and tomorrow we’ll cover successful bluffing tips from the world of poker (hey, ESPN thinks it’s a sport).

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The start of baseball spring training reminds me of a favorite baseball story with a great sports strategy lesson. It’s been so long since I heard it, who knows if it’s true, but it’s so rich with strategy lessons, it almost doesn’t matter!

The Story

During a Yankee World Series appearance, Joe DiMaggio’s arm was reportedly injured. Scouting reports said opponents could run on anything hit to center since supposedly DiMaggio couldn’t throw. How did DiMaggio deal with this blatant weakness?

Even though hurt, he could make one throw a day. Most people would save that one throw for an important play late in the game. Not DiMaggio. Before the game, with the opposing team on-field, he’d uncork a bullet from center to home plate. Seeing this for themselves, the other team wouldn’t dare try to take advantage of DiMaggio’s arm by attempting to grab an extra base when things really counted.

Strategy Lesson One

Strategy lesson one focuses on the fundamental strategic question, “What matters?” In this case, preventing runners from advancing on balls hit to center was paramount. And since DiMaggio’s physical prowess was failing him, he used an alternative – his mental skill – to accomplish this important objective. His adeptness demonstrates a true strategic perspective. Applying this lesson is relatively clear: understand your desired objective and be open to unconventional ways to accomplish it.

Strategy Lesson Two

The second strategic lesson is you don’t have to display all your capabilities all the time for them to be effective. DiMaggio relied on his “brand” reputation, with only slight real evidence, to create a larger-than-reality perception. Using this strategy lesson is more subtle. Suppose you have a brand capability that’s temporarily weakened or under attack. While it’s fine to not rely on the capability, you may still need to let others know it’s in your repertoire. If that’s the case, determine in what ways you can compensate, perhaps by taking advantage of an opportunity to mass resources temporarily and deliver better than typical performance or ward off a competitor.

This two-part sports strategy lesson can help prevent others from taking advantage of you or your brand when it really counts! – Mike Brown

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One of this football season’s most intriguing strategy stories was the Miami Dolphins’ use of the Wildcat Offense – a variation of a 1907 Pop Warner (the coach, not the youth league) offensive formation designed around multi-dimensional, Hall of Fame great Jim Thorpe. It had last been used in the NFL during the 1951 season.

This very different offensive setup features the running back taking the snap from center and an unbalanced offensive line that causes confusion in defensive assignments. The first six times Miami used the Wildcat, it scored four times. In the first 76 Wildcat plays, they scored eight touchdowns and gained 453 yards (or nearly 6 yards per play).

And no surprise, other teams, seeing Miami’s early success, introduced their own version of the single wing offense with varying degrees of success. Even the lowly Kansas City Chiefs incorporated some razzle dazzle in their offense, with their quarterback catching a 37-yard touchdown pass in one game.

Three strategy applications of the Dolphins’ story come quickly to mind:

1. Those who know history are able to repeat it!

This example turns the maxim, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” inside out. Knowing history allowed Dolphins coach Tony Sparano to repeat and introduce a play that had long ago fallen out of favor. Even though considered ancient history, the Wildcat offense was ideally suited to take advantage of his team’s skill set.

Question – Do you know relevant history in your business so you can broaden your strategic options in ways that less-studious competitors can’t?

2. Competitively, surprise can work better than rehashing today’s best practices when looking for dramatically improved results.

Surprise can have a far bigger positive impact in competitive situations than mining today’s best practices. If Sparano had simply looked for the best examples of current offenses, he might have gained some incremental improvements. It’s unlikely though that the Dolphins would have scored four times in the first six plays using a current offensive best practice. The dramatic success was fueled by something not only unexpected but unseen previously by its competitors.

Question – How are you actively cultivating opportunities to use surprise to beat competitors by intriguing prospects and capturing them as customers?

3. Surprise wears off and smart competitors respond.

If you choose surprise as a strategy, it’s only good for so long. The Dolphins’ early success rate moderated with the Wildcat offense’s more frequent use. Competitors catch up and change approaches. You have to be prepared to stay another few steps ahead and move to other surprise tactics.

Question – Before you implement a surprise-oriented strategy, ask yourself, “What are our next three or four variations or additional surprises to sustain our advantage?”

The Dolphins’ surprise-based strategy was a strong factor in their significant change of fortunes, going from a 1-15 record in 2007 to 11-5 in 2008 with their first playoff appearance in 7 seasons.

How can you use the lessons from the Dolphins’ turnaround to dramatically improve your business results in 2009?

Business Week Exchange Reminder

Remember to check out the Business Exchange website Tuesday, February 17, where I’m scheduled to be the featured user of the day. Business Exchange is the new social media site from Business Week that provides networking and opportunities to upload and review content on a variety topics.

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We’re in an annual transitional time in sports. Football just wrapped up, baseball spring training has started, and Matt Kenseth won the rain-shortened Daytona 500 in NASCAR yesterday. There was even a big poker tournament on ESPN Sunday. While there’s not a lot on sports here, this week’s articles will each touch on sports-related strategy lessons.

“One of Them Racing Lessons”
For several years, I ran a NASCAR sponsorship. It was a wonderful testing ground for guerrilla marketing approaches, and surprisingly, yielded a great strategy story from an unlikely source – our driver, Jimmy Spencer, “Mr. Excitement.”
At a 2002 Dover, DE race, our team had a good but not great car. The weather was iffy all day as storm clouds rolled over, and rain drops weren’t far behind. As the rain started, most cars stayed on the track to keep their positions, figuring the race would be rained out.
Instead of following, our car left its position among the leaders, heading for a pit stop to get gas and tires just as the race was halted. As a result, we went to the back of the pack, ruining our chances for a strong finish – if the rain washed out the race.
Why did the team make the decision?
Our team checked all available radar information and saw the rain should stop after too long. Knowing our car’s mileage and tire wear, coupled with how much of the race would remain if it resumed, the team used a strategy based on its insight (and expectation) the race would go the distance.
So what happened?
Unlike yesterday’s Daytona 500, the clouds moved on and the race resumed. While nearly every other car headed for the pits, Jimmy Spencer moved up to third. As racing heated up near the end, the first and second place cars made contact, slowing down just enough for Jimmy to drive underneath them and take the lead. “Mr. Excitement” won the race.
Even though we’d try to script what Jimmy would say, we’d always hold our breath when they gave Jimmy the microphone. In the winner’s circle that day, Jimmy made an unexpected great strategic statement: “We didn’t have the best car today, but we had the best strategy.”
I’m not sure if Jimmy meant all that in his comment, but I’ve used this story many times since because it’s truly a great strategic insight with value to all business strategists! – Mike Brown

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Business Week Exchange

On Tuesday, February 17, I’m scheduled to be the featured user of the day on Business Week Exchange, a new social media site from Business Week I found because of Twitter. The site provides networking and opportunities to upload and review content on a variety topics.

In just weeks, the Brainzooming links posted on Business Week Exchange have made it the number one referral source for the blog! Starting Tuesday at approximately 9:15 a.m. EST, there will be a box on the lower right of the home page with links to my profile and posted links. I’ll include a reminder Tuesday, but if you have a chance to check the site out beforehand that’s great.

Design Pepper Blog Bailout

Here’s an update on the Design Pepper blog bailout contest. Based on final voting, Brainzooming finished second (thanks for the votes), and a volunteer fire fighting department from California won. The contest (which also surfaced through Twitter activity) created many new blog visitors and the opportunity to form a Twitter relationship with several of the great Design Pepper people.

Once again, thanks to everyone for your support!

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