There are two kinds of games: finite and infinite. Play a finite game to win, play an infinite game to continue to play. James P. Carse, discusses these two games in his book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility.
In a finite game, the game comes to an end when someone has won—one person. In contrast, according to Carse, 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.”
Simon Sinek builds on Carse’s idea in The Infinite Game. If there are two kinds of games, we ought to know which game we are playing. “We are more likely to survive and thrive if we play for the game we are in.” Although we don’t choose which game is in play, we do decide to play the game with a finite or infinite mindset.
In business, playing with an infinite mindset means building an organization to last well beyond our own leadership. It is a long game. Think Disney.
An infinite-minded leader builds a company that can both weather and be positively transformed by change. Resilient companies may emerge from upheaval entirely different from when they went in.
Sinek states that any leader playing with an infinite mindset must follow five essential practices:
1. Advance A Just Cause
A Just Cause is our picture of the future—where we are going. A Just Cause must be for something, inclusive, service-oriented, resilient, and idealistic. A Just Cause provides the framework for a series of goals that ultimately advance the Just Cause. Goals are short term and finite; a Just Cause is long-term and infinite.
2. Build Trusting Teams
In trusting teams, team members feel free to express themselves. Groups who are motivated by a desire to get things done and go home ASAP are transactional. There is no room or time to be vulnerable. There is an element of fear—fear of missing out, looking stupid, and not fitting in.
Fear can force us to act in ways that are counter to our own and organization’s best interests. We may choose the best known, proven finite option rather than risking the unknown infinite.
3. Study Your Worthy Rivals
In a finite game, it is “us” against “them.” We see a competitor as something to beat. “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.” Think Apple and Samsung.
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.”
Being the best can also mean that you’re the only one, which is sometimes not impressive. When someone else comes along and topples you, you don’t have anything. Don’t strive to be the best. Strive to be better–better than who came before you, your rivals, and yourself.
4. 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. Walt Disney Productions had enormous success releasing Snow White and was a great place to work, until it went public. It became more finite and less infinite in its approach. So, Walt Disney founded a new company that 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.”
5. Show the Courage to Lead
Leading with an infinite mindset is not easy. Finite games are seductive; they can be fun and addictive because it feels great to win!
Often leading with a finite mindset is like putting a bandaid on a shark bite. Your solutions may work now, but you’ll be facing the same problems later.
Although our lives are finite, we play them in the infinite game of life.
When we advance a cause bigger than ourselves, we live with an infinite mindset. Those who share our vision are our partners and worthy rivals in the cause. We work together to do better and become better ourselves.