Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game begins with Sinek defining the difference between the finite game that has become commonplace among lives and businesses, and the infinite game, which can transform the way our businesses and communities grow into an uncertain future.
A finite game, by Sinek’s definition, is a game with known players, fixed rules, an agreed upon endpoint, and a clear winner.
Sinek describes how many leaders in business and government view their responsibilities within a false reality of a finite game. In life and in business, he claims, the lens we operate within needs to expand to recognize the infinite and uncertain future.
He continues on to describe The Infinite Game as having four characteristics.
Players Come and Go: In business, new players enter the market all the time. Competitors develop, businesses fail, and the characteristics of the players within the game are constantly evolving as the world changes around them.
Rules Change: As new technology, trends, and human patterns enter the playing field, the rules will inevitably have to change. Some firms operate with a “win at all costs” mentality, while some operate within a narrower framework built around their ethical beliefs and desires. The rules will never be the same for everyone, and even when they are, those rules often change over time.
No end point: There is no clock on developing a organization or business. The hope for everyone beginning a business venture is that their company will do business into an infinite future. That their product or service will survive to serve people long into future generations.
No winner: Unlike finite games, the infinite game of life and business has no winner. It’s possible for two competing businesses to have everything their leaders want. At no point, does a referee blow a whistle and award the trophy for the “champion of humanity” or the “winner of business.”
Sinek claims when the objective shifts from a finite to an infinite, the goal becomes different. The goal shifts from “winning” to “keep playing.”
In order to fully embrace and thrive in the infinite game, Sinek proposes five components. A just cause, trusting teams, a worthy rival, existential flexibility, and the courage to lead.
“A specific vision for the future that does not yet exist.”
Sinek describes a just cause as a company’s reason to exist when you remove all financial components from the equation.
He tells the story of CVS Pharmacy and their decision to stop selling cigarettes. The leadership at CVS realized that they could not realistically sell cigarettes at their stores, despite their incredible profit potential, if the just cause of the company was to provide products and services to help people achieve better health.
CVS made the difficult choice to stop selling cigarettes in their stores, and immediately realized that they could become a great place for people to go when they were looking for products to help them quit smoking.
CVS quickly earned contracts with other health-conscious companies to sell their products in stores and quickly dulled the effects of pulling cigarettes from their shelves.
A just cause can guide a business in times of success and difficulty, and act as a guide to moving forward into an indefinite, infinite future.
“Weak cultures rely on rules, strong culture rely on relationships”
Sinek tells the story of a barista names Noah. Noah served Sinek coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas. He describes how enamored he was with Noah throughout their interaction. Sinek describes how funny, engaging, and joyful Noah was in the few short minutes they spent together.
Before Sinek left with his coffee, he asked Noah if he liked his job. Noah said “I love my job.” Sinek dug in a little bit more and asked Noah why.
Noah responded by describing the company culture at the Four Seasons. He described how periodically, throughout the day, different managers within the hotel would come up to Noah, and would ask him if he needed anything, how he was doing, and what they could do to help.
Noah described how comfortable it made him feel to know that leaders at his workplace wanted to give him all the tools he needed to be his authentic self at work.
They continued to chat, and Noah revealed that he works at another hotel as well.
He talked about how, at his other job, managers weren’t looking to help, they were only looking to catch people doing something wrong. So Noah explained his desire to stay under-the-radar, communicating with customers in a different, less engaging way.
Every employee has the potential to be both versions of Noah The warm, engaging, dynamic personality that Sinek met at the Four Seasons, and the mechanical, robotic, fearful one that existed at his other job.
Playing the infinite game means giving everyone on your teams the safety to be their authentic, real selves at work. When you create that environment, your people can become more than the sum of their parts.
“Elevate our game, focus our process, clarify our cause, rally our people”
Sinek describes the worthy rival in the context of the handheld digital music player industry in the mid 2000s.
As Microsoft created its Zune to compete with Apple’s ipod, tech enthusiasts began to clamor about how much better of a product the Zune was compared to the ipod.
When presented this information, an Apple executive recognized that Microsoft was creating a better product and responded “I’m sure they are.”
But in the back of his mind, the Apple executive had to have been content with the knowledge that Apple had shifted from creating the best music player, to combining a music player, phone, and web browser into one of the most innovative, successful devices in human history, the iPhone.
Dismissing competitors is not a way to continue playing the infinite game. An organization must allow their competition to push them and to focus them, to help the pivot and drive them forward.
“The capacity to initiate and extreme disruption in order to more effectively advance a just cause.”
Walt Disney’s just cause was to make as many people happy as possible. The process by which he achieved this just cause for many years was through film.
If Walt Disney was existentially inflexible, he would have only thought about this just cause in the context of film making.
But Disney was so hyper-focused on his just cause, that he didn’t care about the means by which he achieved it.
So he disrupted his entire business model, took a team of some elite creative minds, and created Disneyland, a physical place he could create to further advance his just cause of making people happy.
It takes bravery, thoughtfulness, and courage to maintain the flexibility to hold the just cause of your organization above your systems and processes. But by working tirelessly to achieve your just cause, you give yourself room to make magic in places and spaces where it otherwise wouldn’t exist.
“The willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future”
Sinek’s example of courageous leadership came from a newly hired CEO at American Airlines. One of his first actions as CEO was to begin the process of giving pay raises to every employee across the company with the hopes of proving to every team member that he cared deeply about the company’s people.
When it came time for the first round of mid-contract raises according to the new CEO’s plan, he had two choices: appease the financial analysts of Wall Street by withholding raises and decreasing expenses, or fulfill the promise he made when he took control of the company.
He chose the raises. Despite some initial backlash from Wall Street Analysts, American Airlines quickly became a favorite of investing legend Warren Buffett based on the integrity shown by leadership during a difficult situation.
There are so many decisions in life and business that pit the finite against the infinite game. By thinking through leadership, integrity, and competition with the infinite game in mind, organizations can set themselves up to avoid some of the perpetual problems that finite-minded businesses encounter every day.