Play the infinite game

10 August, 2020

Leading with an infinite mindset is the key to success

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen many leaders gravitate towards “short-termism” – making panic-stricken decisions without considering longer-term consequences. An excellent way to approach this challenge is through the lens of finite vs infinite mindsets. 

To explain the concept, Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, turns to the Vietnam War. Pointing out that US forces won most of the major battles and had far fewer casualties than the North Vietnamese, he asks a compelling question: how do you decimate your enemy, win all the crucial battles and still lose the war? For Sinek, it boils down to the fact that the Americans were playing a finite game, aimed at short-term victory, while the North Vietnamese were playing an infinite game, with the goal of outlasting the enemy. Eventually, the Americans simply ran out of the resources and the willpower to stay in the game.

There is a widespread problem among organisations today: too many leaders are playing the “game” by the wrong set of rules. So, this week, my message focuses on leading with an infinite mindset. How can you outgrow the limits of finite thinking? And what are the keys an organisation needs to succeed in the infinite game?

Sinek builds on the theory laid out by James Carse in his 1986 book, Finite and Infinite GamesA finite game has a fixed set of rules, a defined playing field and a prescribed period of play, at the end of which one player is declared the winner – for example, in football or chess. By contrast, an infinite game has no clear endpoint or easily identifiable winners and losers. Opponents come and go, and the rules change frequently. Here, your main goal is to stay in the game. Take politics or business, for example – you can’t “win” once and for all in either of these. You may play finite games within the larger framework, but the nature of the game is ultimately infinite.

What does this mean for those of us in the corporate arena? Too many leaders get caught up with being number 1 or beating their rivals. But what are the agreed-upon rules and metrics? What is the time frame? Who is the judge? The fact is there is no such thing as “best” in an infinite game, only “better” – and that too is a temporary state. As Sinek notes:

The infinite player understands that sometimes your competitor has the better product, and sometimes you have the better product. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes you’re behind. But there’s no such thing as best or worst or beating your competition. There’s only ahead and behind.  

The reality of an infinite game is you’re actually only competing against yourself. The objective every single day is: how do we become a better version of our own institution?

If, as a leader, you’re playing with a finite mindset, you’re setting your company up for failure. Yes, a short-term approach may help you win today – but it will likely prevent you from surviving and thriving in the future.

There is also the issue of legacy, highlighted by Randy Conley in his article on infinite leadership: 

What does it mean to play the infinite game as a leader? It means you leave something behind that outlasts your finite presence or contributions. An infinite leader builds a culture so strong, that when the leader is no longer there, the culture lives on.

With our personal careers as well, we tend to be myopic. We spend so much time comparing ourselves to others, or worrying about our next promotion. I have learnt over the years that our focus should instead be on getting better. We should try to have more onus on our learning and growth, contributing to making a difference and seeking meaning in what we are doing.  This will help find greater joy and fulfilment. And the right career advancement opportunities will come your way.

Infinite-minded leadership during crisis

Even before the pandemic, we lived in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world. Now, in the face of game-changing shifts, the need for infinite leadership has taken on added urgency. Leaders are more prone than ever to making short-sighted decisions, with a financial lens. When profitability becomes the be-all and end-all, your company is officially trapped in a finite mindset. Sinek rightly describes money as the fuel that runs the engine, rather than the end goal. You don’t buy a car just so you can keep filling it with fuel, right? You buy a car to get somewhere – the fuel is simply what keeps you going. In order to play the long game, it’s vital for us to reframe the way we think about the bottom line.

So, how can leaders equip their organisation to succeed in an infinite game? Consider these five necessary keys identified by Sinek:

 1. A just cause

A just cause is an idealised vision of the future. It’s what inspires team members to come to work every morning, turn down better-paying jobs and contribute their best ideas. Your vision should stand for something and be resilient, inclusive, service-oriented and idealistic. (That means “being the best” or “becoming number 1” aren’t good enough! Dig deeper.)

While ultimately unachievable, this vision is what propels an organisation forward and enables it to outlast rivals. Without it, the focus falls entirely on the products you sell and the money you earn, making the organisation operate in purely transactional terms. Don’t confuse “just cause” with goals. As Sinek points out: 

It’s easy to mistake a BHAG (big, hairy audacious goal) for a Just Cause because they can indeed be incredibly inspiring and can often take many years to achieve. But after the moon shot has been achieved, the game continues. Simply choosing another big, audacious goal is not infinite play, it’s just another finite pursuit.

2. Courageous leadership

To walk the talk, leaders must stay true to their vision, even when it means making certain sacrifices or standing up to external pressures. This demands courage – which Sinek identifies as the single-most-important quality in a leader. As Conley adds:

This struggle is often too great for a single person to tackle alone, so it requires all the leaders of the organisation to band together and act in alignment. 

In a talk a few years ago, Sinek cited the example of CVS, a healthcare company whose leaders decided to stop selling cigarettes in line with their vision of the future. This took billions of dollars of revenue out of stores and devastated the stock price of CVS in the short term. However, the move created a huge amount of goodwill and the market eventually rewarded the company for its bold leadership.

3. Trusting teams

A team built on trust makes its members feel safe, and allows them to admit mistakes, ask for help, voice concerns and share personal struggles – without shame, humiliation or punishment. Such a culture is a prerequisite for people to take risks and for innovation to thrive. When trust is absent, fear takes over, leading team members to make finite choices that cause infinite damage. A purely transactional work culture can also drive people towards unethical behaviour to further their own interests.

It’s also up to leaders to trust their team members to exercise good judgment, otherwise the organisation is poised to fail. Take the example of a major American airline, infamous for its poor treatment of customers. Here, Sinek holds the leadership responsible for creating an atmosphere in which employees feel the need to protect themselves from their own organisation, at the cost of doing the right thing.

4. Worthy rivals

In a finite game, we play to beat our opponent. But in an infinite game, we should play to learn from them and spark self-improvement. A worthy rival is someone who reveals your own weaknesses to you. Does the mention of a certain competitor make you feel angry or uncomfortable? If yes, step outside the finite mindset and zoom in on what exactly makes them admirable: Better leadership? More innovative products? Smarter marketing? Use that insight to become a stronger player and outdo yourself, advises Sinek.

Think of how Apple responded when IBM entered the personal computing industry: they took out a full-page ad welcoming their new competitor! Apple realised that having a worthy rival in the arena would push them to become even better – while also increasing the size of the market.

5. An open playbook

For the finite player, disruption is a source of fear. But the infinite player has the ability to not only weather but also embrace change. The key is to have a playbook that allows you to adapt and even transform entirely in order to achieve your vision. Sinek talks about “existential flexibility” – being able to dramatically shift an entire business model to advance your vision: 

Why is it that the technology industry invented the electronic book, and not the publishing industry? Because publishing thought they were in the book business, not the reading business. Why is it that the movie industry and the television industry didn’t invent Netflix? It’s because companies can be so preoccupied with protecting the status quo they don’t make these existential flexes until they’re forced to, and then they’re playing defence the entire time.

You can’t depend on a fixed strategy in a variable world. What you need are flexible plays and a willingness to change direction when required. Finally, it’s vital for leaders to be transparent about their playbook. Without this, you risk your team members making counterproductive decisions because they’re not on the same page as you.

Unlocking an infinite mindset enables you to play the game by the right rules. Invest your efforts into building an organisation that’s vision-driven, resilient and adaptable, so it can flourish not just today but for years to come.


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