The Infinite Game – by Simon Sinek
There are two types of games: finite and infinite. Finite games have clearly defined rules and boundaries, and all players know what the objectives are and what they need to do to win. Infinite games have no clear rules and there is no winning or losing – the only objective is to keep playing. Business is an infinite game, but too many companies are playing with a finite mindset.
In this episode, we’ll talk about the five essential practices for cultivating an infinite mindset. These lessons are crucial to the times we’re living through right now. Stay tuned for a special interview coming this week 😉
Grab a copy of the book here: https://www.bookdepository.com/Infinite-Game-Simon-Sinek/9780241295595/?a_aid=adamsbooks
Check out our review of one of Simon Sinek’s other book, Start With Why.
The Infinite Game – by Simon Sinek
The benefits of an infinite mindset is obvious. The rise of great societies, advancements in science and medicine, exploration of space – these all happened because large groups of people, united in a common cause, chose to collaborate even though there was no clear end in sight.
But maintaining an infinite mindset is hard. There are pressures all around forcing us back to a finite mindset. The results are all too familiar: annual rounds of mass layoffs to meet arbitrary profit projections, cut-throat high-pressure work environments, dishonest and unethical business practices that reward toxic behaviour, and rewarding leaders who care more about themselves than the people they’re in charge of.
Great leaders are the ones who think beyond short term and focus on the long term. They are the ones who know that it is not about the next quarter or the next election, it is about the next generation.
FINITE & INFINITE GAMES
This concept is based on the book Finite & Infinite Games by James P Carse. We reviewed this book on our podcast back in Season 2.
At least two players. They have fixed rules. There is an agreed upon objective. When this objective is reached by one of the players, they are declared the winner and the game ends.
Football is a good example of a finite game. The teams wear uniforms to identify the players and the teams. There is a clear set of rules, there’s even a referee to enforce these rules. There are penalties for breaking the rules, and both teams know that they have to score the most goals before the time runs out. There is a beginning, middle and end to a finite game, and when the final whistle is blown everyone packs up and goes home.
In contrast, there are no exact or agreed upon rules of an infinite game. Though there may be conventions or laws that govern how the players conduct themselves, within those broad boundaries the players operate however they want. And if they choose to break convention, they can. The manner in which each player chooses to play is entirely up to them. And they can change how they play the game at any time for any reason.
Infinite games have infinite time horizons. There is no defined end point. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as winning an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing, to perpetuate the game.
The more you look at our world through this lens of finite and infinite games, the more you see infinite games all around us, games with no finish lines and no winners. There is no such thing as coming first in marriage or friendship, for example. When we lead with a finite mindset in an infinite game, it leads to all kinds of problems. The most common of which include the decline of trust, cooperation and innovation. Leading with an infinite mindset really does move us in a better direction.
The infinite game of business
The game of business fits the very definition of an infinite game. We may not know all the players and new ones can join the game at any time. All the players determine their own strategies and tactics and there is no set of fixed rules to which everyone has agreed, other than the law. Unlike a finite game, there is no predetermined beginning, middle, or end to business.
Infinite games, the game ends when its time is up and the players live on to play another day. In an infinite game, it’s the opposite. It is the game that lives on and it is the players whose time runs out. Because there is no such thing as winning or losing in an infinite game, the players simply drop out of the game when they run out of the will and resources to keep playing. In business we call this bankruptcy, merger or acquisition. To succeed in the infinite game of business, we have to stop thinking about who wins, or who’s the best and start thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to stay in the game for many generations to come. The benefits of which ironically, often makes the companies stronger in the near term also. Despite the fact that companies are playing in a game that cannot be won, too many business leaders keep playing as if they can.
The benefits of an infinite mindset
In an infinite game, the true value cannot be measured by success of arbritrary metrics over arbritrary time frames. The true value of an organization is measured by the desire others have to contribute to that organization’s ability to keep succeeding, not just during the time they are there, but well beyond their own tenure. While a finite minded leader works to get something from their employees, customers and shareholders in order to meet arbritrary metrics, the infinite minded leader works to ensure employees, customers and shareholders remain inspired to continue contributing with their effort, their wallets and investments.
In business that means building an organization that can survive its leaders. It is also for the business to play for the good of the game. In business it means more than the bottom line. A company built for the infinite game doesn’t think of itself alone. It considers the impact of its decisions on its people, its community, the economy, the country and the world. It does these things for the good of the game.
Finite players are playing with an endpoint in mind. Therefore they do not like surprises and fear any kind of disruption. Things they cannot predict or cannot control could upset their plans and increase their chances of losing. The infinite minded player in contrast, expects surprises, even revels in them, and is prepared to be transformed by them. They embrace the freedom of play and are open to any possibility that keeps them in the game. Instead of looking for ways to react what has already happened, they look for ways to do something new. An infinite perspective frees us from fixating on what other companies are doing which allows us to focus on a larger vision.
CASE STUDY: Victorinox
This is the company that made the Swiss Army Knife famous. After September 11 2001, their business plummeted. Knives were banned from hand luggage on airplanes. People stopped carrying around swiss army knives. The standard present for retirements and graduations dropped in sales almost over night
Most companies would take the defensive posture, but Victorinox went on the offense. They didn’t fixate on how much this was going to cost their company or how their business model was now in tatters. They embraced this ‘Black Swan’ as an opportunity, not a threat. Rather than employing extreme cost cutting and laying off their workforce, they came up with innovative ways to save their employees and save their business. They made zero lay offs, they INCREASED investment in product development, and inspired their people to imagine how they could leverage their BRAND into new markets.
In the good times, Victorinox built up reserves of cash. They knew that they would always be some unpredictable difficult time ahead. So they saved in preparation. The CEO said that looking at history this ALWAYS happens – there are good times, then there are crashes. it never just goes up, and it never just goes down. “We don’t think in quarters, we think in generations”.
This thinking and preparation put them in a position to cope with the unexpected shock (both philosophically and financially). For others, this was a fatal crisis. Victorinox became and even stronger company after 9/11 than they were before. Knives used to account for 95% of their total sales, Swiss Army Knives alone was 80%. Today, Knives are only 35% of their entire business. They expanded into watches, fragrances and travel gear. They’ve since DOUBLED their revenues. Victorinox is not only a stable company, it’s a resilient one.
The detriments of a finite mindset in an Infinite Game
A finite-minded leader uses the company’s performance to demonstrate the value of their own career. An infinite minded leader uses their career to enhance the long term value of the company. And only part of that value is counted in money. In the infinite game of business, when our leaders maintain a finite mindset or put too much focus on finite objectives, they may be able to achieve a number one ranking with an arbritrary metric over an arbritrary time frame.
Any leader who wants to adopt an infinite mindset in The Infinite Game must follow five essential practices
- Advance a just cause
- Building trusting teams
- Study your worthy rivals
- Prepare for existential flexibility
- Demonstrate the courage to lead
(1) Just Cause
A just cause is a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist. A future state so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance toward that vision. The sacrifice may be the choice to turn down a better paying job in order to keep working for an organization that is working to advance a just cause in which we believe. It may mean working late hours or taking frequent business trips. Though we may not like the sacrifices we make, it is because of the Just Cause that they feel worth it. Though we may not like the sacrifices we make, it is because of the just cause that they feel worth it.
It is the just cause that we are working to advance that gives our work and our lives meaning. A Just Cause inspires us to stay focused beyond the finite rewards and individual wins. It is what inspires us to keep playing Whether in science, nation building or business, leaders who want us to join them in their infinite pursuit must offer us, in clear terms, an affirmative and tangible vision of the ideal future they imagine.
Many of the organizations we work for now already have some sort of purpose, vision or mission statement, written on the walls that the leaders hope will inspire everybody. Even the best intentioned attemps are written in ways that are finite, generic and self centered, or too vague to be any use in the Infinite Game.
Some shit examples:
- “we do that stuff you don’t want to do, so that you can focus on the things that you love to do”
- “‘we make the best quality products at the lowest possible prices”
Vizio, the California based maker of televisions on their website says something like: “we deliver high performance, smarter products with the latest innovations at a significant savings that can be passed onto consumers”. They probably do these things, but do they inspire people to offer their blood, sweat and tears?
Elements of a Just Cause in The Infinite Game
A just cause is a specific vision for a future that doesn’t exist. It must be:
- For something
- Service oriented
Must be optimistic and inclusive. It’s more inspiring to be building FOR something rather than fighting AGAINST something.
Instead of trying to “reduce poverty” it’s better to be working FOR “growing the number of people who are able to provide for themselves and their families”. For example, the founding fathers weren’t AGAINST Great Britain, they were FOR freedom and independence : “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
In the Infinite Game of Business, a Just Cause must be greater than the products we make and the services we offer. Our products and services are some of the things we use to advance our cause. They are themselves not the cause. If we articulate the cause in terms of products, then the organization’s entire existence is based on those products
Publishers saw themselves int he book business instead of the spreading-ideas business and thus missed the opportunity to capitalize new technology to advance their cause. They could have invented Amazon or the digital E-reader.
Had the music industry defined themselves sharers of music rather than sellers of records, tapes and CDs. They would have had an easier time in a world of digital streaming. By defining themselves by a greater cause than their products, they could have invented iTunes or Spotify. But they didn’t and are now paying the price for it.
When others can see a vision become something real, skeptics become believers and even more people feel inspired by the possibility and willingly comit their time and energy, ideas and talents to help advance the Cause further. No matter how much of the iceberg we can see, our leaders have the responsibility to remind us that the vast majority still lies unexplored. For no matter how much success we may enjoy, the Just Cause for which we are working lies ahead not behind.
“Being the best simply cannot be a Just Cause”. Even if we are the best (based on whatever cherry picked metrics and time frames of our choosing) the position is only temporary. The game doesn’t end when you become the best – it keeps going. Because the game keeps going, we then start to desperately fight to cling to our ranking of “the best”. This may be great fodder for a pump up rah rah speech, to be the best, it’s a weak foundation to build an entire company on.
“Best” is not a permanent state”. Instead, we should always strive to be “Better”. “Better ” suggest that there is always constant opportunities for improvement. “Better” makes us feel like we are being invited to contribute our talents and energies to make progress in that journey.
“Better”, in the Infinite Game, is better than “Best
(2) Trusting Teams
There is a difference between teams that work together and teams that trust each other. Trust is a feeling. Just as it’s impossible that we demand people to be happy or inspired, it’s impossible to demands someone that they trust us or each other. For the feeling to develop, we have to fdeel safe expressing ourselves first.
We have to feel safe being ‘vulnerable’. Brene Brown said, in Dare to Lead, “trust and vulnerability grow together – to betray one is to destroy both”
CASE STUDY: Alan Mulally, Ceo of Ford in 2006
Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford in 2006. He faced a deteriorating company sliding down to the brink of bankruptcy. He saw a company driven by fear.
Fear is such a powerful motivator that it can force us to act in ways that are completely counter to our own or our organisation’s best interest. Fear can push us to choose the best FINITE option at the risk of doing infinite damage. Alan Mulally walked in as the new CEO of Ford in 2006 – he found a company performing poorly that was being driven by fear and no trust.
To best monitor the company, he ran weekly Business Plan Reviews with his top execs. Every senior exec was meant to report the status of their work against the company’s strategic mission, using simple colour coding: green – yellow – red. Mulally knew there were serious problem, so he hoped to uncover what was going wrong so that they could work together to fix them. But on the first meeting, every senior had everything as Green…. The next week = green, then more green, and green again the next week…
Mulally threw up his hands and said: “we are losing billions of dollars… is there ANYTHING that’s NOT going well????” . Nobody answered.
In the past, the former CEO would regularly berate, humiliate or fire people who told him that things weren’t going well. Execs had been conditioned to hide the flaws and cover up any mistakes, and present a front that every was running smoothly.
Eventually, one executive names Mark, the head of operations in America, changed one of his slides to Red. To everyone’s surprise, Mulally didn’t berate, humiliate, yell at or fire him. Mulally said: “thanks Mark, this is great visibility. Who can help mark with this problem?”. The next meeting, Mulally said – we’re still losing Billions, does any body else have anything that isn’t running perfectly? Still no one said anything. They were surprised to see that in the following week’s meeting, Mark still hadn’t been fired for having something Red.
Soon enough, a few more yellows and reds started creeping into peoples’ presentations. Mullaly would always say: “You HAVE a problem, YOU are NOT the problem”. People recognised that they were safe to speak honestly and tell the truth – shit started working again, trust was slowly being restored, and eventually the teams could work together to pull ford out of a black hole.
Nothing and no one can perform at 100% forever. We need to be honest with each other and rely on others for help during challenges, otherwise we won’t get very far. We must model the behaviour we want to see – we need to create an environment where it is safe to tell the truth, and show people that we support them and that we want to flourish together.
(3) Worthy Rival
A “worthy rival” is another player in the game worth of comparison. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing with a finite or infinite mindset, as long as WE are playing with an infinite mindset. It can be a sworn enemy, a collaborator or a colleague.
Regardless of who they are or where we find them, the main point is that they do something (or many things) as well as or better than us. They make a superior product, command greater loyalty, are better leaders, or act with a clearer sense of purpose than we do. We don’t need to admire everything about them, agree with them, or even like them… We simply acknowledge that they have strengths and abilities from which we could learn a thing or two
Picking our Worthy Rival in The Infinite Game
We get to choose our own Worthy Rivals. We would be wise to select them strategically. There is no value in picking` other payers whom we constantly outflank simply to make ourselves feel superior. that has little or no value to our own growth. We choose our worthy rivals because there is something about them that reveals to us our weaknesses and pushes us to constantly improve. This constant improvement is essential if we want to be strong enough to stay in the game.
(4) Existential Flexibility
CASE STUDY: Walt Disney
Walt Disney was accustomed to taking risks and doing new things. As a young artist working in the new field of animation, Disney was constantly innovating. He was one of the first to make short films in which real actors interacted with cartoon characters. In 1928, he was the first to make a cartoon with synchronised sound, in the animation classic Steamboat Willie. In 1937 he released the first ever feature length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – this was like nothing the world had ever seen before.
This wasn’t experimentation for experimentations sake, it was innately tied to his Just Cause: inviting audiences to leave the stresses and strains of daily life behind, and enter into a more idyllic world of his creation.
Snow White grossed $8m – which is $140m in today’s dollars!! With the money and success generated by this film, he built his own creative studio. His brother, Roy Disney, was CEO and wanted to take the company public. Walt didn’t want investors and a board – he feared the focus on money would meddle with his pursuit of creativity. Eventually this is what happen… The small team culture that was eventually “like heaven” got dissipated as the hierarchy and stratification grew, only those at the top got the perks that previously everyone got, and there were battle with the various workers unions
Walt Disney saw that the company was focused on things that WEREN’T his Just Cause. So he quit. In 1952, 15 years after the success of Snow White, he wanted to do something else that was closer to his ideal of letting people escape daily life. People thought he was going mad: he sold off his property and liquidated his assets, borrowed against his life insurance policy, even licensed out the rights to his own name. He took all of the money he piled to form a new company. Here he would be a place that further advanced his Just Cause.
Rather the helping people escape their daily lives into and idyllic world of his creation on the screen by watching his movies, he built an ACTUAL WORLD where people could escape their daily lives… He built “the happiest place on Earth”… Disneyland
Walt Disney said: “I think what I want Disneyland to be most of all is a happy place – a place where adults and children can experience together some of the wonder of life, of adventure, and feel better because of it. Disneyland is a place where you leave TODAY and enter the World of YESTERDAY and TOMORROW”. Whereas at his first company., Disney, people could only WATCH movies, at Disneyland they could BE IN the movies
This is the plight of the infinite minded, visionary leader. Once he realised that the company was on a path that could no longer advance his Cause, he was willing to put everything on the line to start over again. He didn’t leave because he saw an opportunity to make more money… He didn’t leave because of failing business… He found a better way to advance his Just Cause and he leapt at it.
Existential Flex in The Infinite Game
An Existential Flex doesn’t happen at the founding of the company, it happens when the company is fully formed and functioning. To all the finite-minded observers, it is existential because the leader is risking the apparent certainty of the current, profitable path with the uncertainty of a new path – one which could lead to the company’s decline or even demise. To the finite-minded player, such a move is not worth the risk. To infinite-minded players, however, staying on the current path is the bigger risk. They embrace the uncertainty. Failure to flex, they believe, will significantly restrict their ability to advance the Cause. They fear staying the course may even lead to the eventual demise of the organisation. The motivation of the infinite-minded player to Flex is to advance the Cause, even if it disrupts the existing business model
Existential Flex is bigger than the normal day-to-day flexibility required to run an organisation. We must not confuse this with shiny-object syndrome. When a true Existential Flex occurs (not a short-term silver bullet chasing change of direction) it is clear to all those who believe in the Cause why it happened. Though they may not enjoy the upheaval and short-term stress such a change may cause, they all agree it is worth it and want to do it. Shiny-object syndrome leaves people flummoxed and exhausted rather than inspired.
AT SOME POINT, EVERY SINGLE ORGANISATION WILL NEED TO MAKE A FLEX
It may not happen during any individual leaders’ tenure – some leaders may never had to make this change. But part of EVERY leaders’ responsibility is to breed a new batch of leaders that hold the infinite mindset. So even though YOU may never need to flex, the leaders you’re grooming and growing need to be open and willing to Flex themselves.
REQUIREMENTS FOR A FLEX: adhering to the Just Cause as the guiding light, and maintaining a culture rich with Trusting Teams.
(5) The Courage to Lead
The Courage to Lead in The Infinite Game
The Courage To Lead is a willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future. The risks are real. It is much easier to tinker with the month, the quarter and the year, but to make decisions with an eye to the distant future is much more difficult. These long term decisions may cost us in the short term. It takes courage to lead to make decisions counter to the current standards of business and it take the Courage to Lead to ignore the pressure of outside parties who are not invested in or believers in our just cause.