“Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek was the second book that I got in the gift exchange for Christmas along with the “26 Marathons: What I Learned About Faith, Identity, Running and Life from My Marathon Career” by Meb Keflezighi. While Meb’s book was a personal story of his running career, the “Infinite Game” was more on the business side. Although the book seemed a bit dry to me at the beginning, I did enjoy it till the very end.
Finite and Infinite Games
In his book, Sinek defines two types of behaviour in business/ in organizations which is finite and infinite. According to Sinek, “finite games are played by know players. They have fixed rules. And there is an agreed upon objective that, when reached, ends the game. […] In finite games, there is always a beginning, a middle and an end”.
Opposed to the finite games are infinite ones. “Infinite games […] are played by know and unknown players. There are no exact or agreed upon rules. […] And because there is no such 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.”
To put it metaphorically, the infinite game is a journey while the finite games are more of the destination.
So how do these concepts apply to the business and leaders?
Business & Infinite Games
In the past few decades, the life span of the companies has decreased significantly. Instead of staying in business for half a century, the companies now average to live 10 – 15 years. One of the reasons for this, according to Sinek, is playing the finite game: placing the short-term goal first such as financial gain or immediate investor satisfaction (“What’s best for me?” mindset) instead of “thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to stay in the game for many generations to come” (“What’s best for us?” mindset).
To provide a specific example, the main distinction between the finite and infinite thinking in the organizations would be building the products that would move the industry forward rather than chase the immediate benefit. The organizations playing the infinite game would consider the impact of its decisions on its people, its community, the economy and the whole country. The problem is though, that there is not that many companies on the market who are playing the infinite game.
Attributes of the Infinite Game
- Advance the Just Cause
What is the Just Cause? In short, it is a vision of the world that we hope to build.
A just cause 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 idea future state they imagine.
Just Cause is in a way something that makes us not just like our jobs, but LOVE our jobs when we deliberately decide to stay late because we want to advance the company and not because we have to.
Some other features of the Just Cause that Sinek mentions are: affirmative and optimistic, open to all who would like to contribute, for the primary benefit of others, able to endure political and cultural change and a bit idealistic – big, bold and unachievable. Ironically enough, the Just Cause chapter made me think of the open-source WordPress project which manages to hit all of these criteria with the Just Cause to democratize publishing.
- Protecting People
What does protecting people means in the infinite game? According to Sinek, to protect people is to “operate our companies in a way that protects the people who work for us, the people who buy from us and the environment in which we live and work”.
In short, this comes down to two essential questions: “How do I get most our of my people?” (finite game) vs. “How do I create an environment in which my people can work to their natural best?” (infinite game)
In this section, I especially enjoyed the part about building trusting teams – trusting team environment in this case would be a team in which you would not mind trusting your colleagues with your child or your wife or your personal matters.
Why do the trusting teams matter? Sinek explains that “when we work on a Trusting Team we feel safe to express vulnerability. We feel safe to raise our hands and admit we made a mistake, be honest about shortfalls in performance, take responsibility for our behaviour and ask for help“.
Trust, however, does not equal performance. There are sometimes people on a team who do not necessarily perform the highest – however, they could be more trusted by the team. I loved the chart that Sinek drew to show the correlation between trust and performance:
Usually, the individuals who makes the best leads are not the highest performers but people with the high performance /high trust correlation or medium performance / high trust correlation. I found this thought very interesting.
- Learning From Your Worthy Rival
Our Worthy Rival is someone who in some aspect better than us so that we can learn from them. It is another player who can help up drive the Just Cause.
If we are a player in the Infinite game, however, we need 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.
“Capitalism is about more than prosperity (measured in features and benefits, dollars and cents); it’s also about progress (measured in quality of life, technological advancements and the ability of human race to live and work together).”
On good leadership:
“The art of good leadership is the ability to look beyond the growth plan and the willingness to act prudently when something is not ready or not right, even if it means slowing things down”.
On placing focus on numbers:
“If leaders, in any profession, place an excess of stress on people to make numbers, and offer lopsided incentive structures, we risk creating an environment in which near-term performance and resources are prioritized while long-term performance, trust, psychological safety and the will of the people decline”.
One more on leadership to finish:
Leaders are not responsible for the results, they are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.
Of course, this recap is far from covering everything in the book. It has way more detailed concepts and ideas. And if there is one most important take-away for me, it will be: just like in business, so in life, the question to ask is “Are YOU playing the infinite game?“