Leading Blog


The Infinite Game

The Infinite Game

IN 1986, Professor Emeritus of history and literature of religion at New York University, James P. Carse, wrote a book entitled Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. He stated that there are two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Carse writes that a finite game will come to an end when someone has won. Only one person can win at the end of the game, and other players may be ranked. In contrast, in an infinite game, “players cannot say when their game began, nor do they care. They do not care for the reason that their game is not bounded by time. Indeed, the only purpose of the game is to prevent it from coming to an end, to keep everyone in play.”

And Carse makes this important observation: “Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.

Intrigued by this concept, Simon Sinek builds on Carse’s idea in The Infinite Game. If there are two kinds of games, it is important to know which game we are playing. “We are more likely to survive and thrive if we play for the game we are in.” Sinek reminds us that we don’t get to choose what kind of game is being played. But we can choose if we want to play and whether we will play it with a finite or an infinite mindset.

In business, playing with an infinite mindset means building an organization to last well beyond our own leadership. It is the long game. Built to last organizations are both stable and resilient.

An infinite-minded leader does not simply want to build a company that can weather change, but one that can be transformed by it. They want to build a company that embraces surprises and adapts with them. Resilient companies may come out the other end of upheaval entirely different than they were when they went in.

Sinek states that any leader playing with an infinite mindset must follow five essential practices:

Advance A Just Cause

A Just Cause is our picture of the future—where we are going. A Just Cause must be for something (affirmative and optimistic), inclusive (open to all those who would like to contribute), service-oriented (for the primary benefit of others), resilient (able to endure political, technological and cultural change), idealistic (big, bold and ultimately unachievable).

A Just Cause is more than a goal. And this speaks to Carse’s thought that a finite game can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game.” Sinek notes, “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.” But the Just Cause does provide the framework for a series of goals that ultimately advance the Just Cause.

We need to rethink our relationship with business. We are stewards. “Shortsightedness is an inherent condition of leaders who play with a finite mindset.”

Build Trusting Teams

Trusting teams are characterized by the team member’s ability to feel free to express themselves—to be vulnerable. Groups of people who simply work together are transactional in nature, motivated by a desire to just get things done. But there is an element of fear—fear of missing out, being mocked, getting in trouble, looking stupid, and not fitting in.

Fear is such a powerful motivator that it can force us to act in ways that are completely counter to our own or our organization’s best interests. Fear can push us to choose the best finite option at the risk of doing infinite damage. And in the face of fear, we hide the truth.

Ethical fading, a condition that allows people to act in unethical ways to advance their own interests, is the result of a finite mindset. And these kinds of problems are not solved by more rules and processes, but by the application of an infinite mindset.

Study Your Worthy Rivals

In a finite game, it is “us” against “them.” We see a competitor to be beaten. “If we are a player in an infinite game, however, we have to stop thinking of other players as competitors to be beaten and start thinking of them as Worthy Rivals who can help us become better players.”

There is a strategy for picking a Worthy Rival. We choose them “because there is something about them that reveals to us our weaknesses and pushes us to constantly improve … which is essential if we want to be strong enough to stay in the game.”

Prepare for Existential Flexibility

While finite minded players fear surprises and disruption, the infinite minded player is transformed by them. “Existential Flexibility is the capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a just cause.”

Sinek shares a great example of Existential Flexibility through the evolution of Walt Disney’s Just Cause. Walt Disney Productions had enormous success releasing Snow White and was a great place to work, until it went public. Things began to change as it became more finite and less infinite in approach. So, he founded a parallel company named WED and began work on Disneyland with an infinite mindset. Disney explains:

Disneyland will never be finished. It’s something we can keep developing and adding to. A motion picture is different. Once it’s wrapped up and sent out for processing, we’re through with it. If there are things that could be improved, we can’t do anything about them anymore. I’ve always wanted to work on something alive, something that keeps growing. We’ve got that in Disneyland.

Show the Courage to Lead

Leading with an infinite mindset is not easy. “Adopting an infinite mindset in a world consumed by the finite can absolutely cost a leader their job. The pressure we all face today to maintain a finite mindset is overwhelming.”

Maintaining an infinite mindset is hard. Very hard. It is to be expected that we will stray from the path. We are human and we are fallible. We are subject to bouts of greed, fear, ambition, ignorance, external pressure, competing interests, ego … the list goes on. To complicate matters further, finite games are seductive; they can be fun and exciting and sometimes even addictive.

Just as it is easier to focus on a fixed finite goal than an infinite vision of the future, it is easier to lead a company with a finite mindset, especially during times of struggle or downturn.

The Infinite Life Is Service

Our life is finite but played in the infinite game of life. But we can play it with an infinite mindset or a finite mindset.

If we choose to lie our lives with a finite mindset, it means we make our primary purpose to get richer or promoted faster than others. To live our lives with an infinite mindset means that we are driven to advance a Cause bigger than ourselves. We see those who share our vision as partners in the Cause and we work to build trusting relationships with them so that we may advance the common good together. We are grateful for the success we enjoy. And as we advance we work to help those around us rise. To live our lives with an infinite mindset is to live a life of service.

We are stewards.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 11:47 PM
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