The Infinite Game: How Great Businesses Achieve Long-lasting Success Kindle Edition
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About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Finite and Infinite Games
If there are at least two players, a game exists. And there are two kinds of games: finite games and infinite games.
Finite games are played by known players. They have fixed rules. And there is an agreed-upon objective that, when reached, ends the game. Football, for example, is a finite game. The players all wear uniforms and are easily identifiable. There is a set of rules, and referees are there to enforce those rules. All the players have agreed to play by those rules and they accept penalties when they break the rules. Everyone agrees that whichever team has scored more points by the end of the set time period will be declared the winner, the game will end and everyone will go home. In finite games, there is always a beginning, a middle and an end.
Infinite games, in contrast, are played by known and unknown players. There are no exact or agreed-upon rules. Though there may be conventions or laws that govern how the players conduct themselves, within those broad boundaries, the players can operate however they want. And if they choose to break with convention, they can. The manner in which each player chooses to play is entirely up to them. And they can change how they play the game at any time, for any reason.
Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no 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.
My understanding of these two types of games comes from the master himself, Professor James P. Carse, who penned a little treatise called Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility in 1986. It was Carse's book that first got me thinking beyond winning and losing, beyond ties and stalemates. The more I looked at our world through Carse's lens of finite and infinite games, the more I started to see infinite games all around us, games with no finish lines and no winners. There is no such thing as coming in first in marriage or friendship, for example. Though school may be finite, there is no such thing as winning education. We can beat out other candidates for a job or promotion, but no one is ever crowned the winner of careers. Though nations may compete on a global scale with other nations for land, influence or economic advantage, there is no such thing as winning global politics. No matter how successful we are in life, when we die, none of us will be declared the winner of life. And there is certainly no such thing as winning business. All these things are journeys, not events.
However, if we listen to the language of so many of our leaders today, it's as if they don't know the game in which they are playing. They talk constantly about "winning." They obsess about "beating their competition." They announce to the world that they are "the best." They state that their vision is to "be number one." Except that in games without finish lines, all of these things are impossible.
When we lead with a finite mindset in an infinite game, it leads to all kinds of problems, the most common of which include the decline of trust, cooperation and innovation. Leading with an infinite mindset in an infinite game, in contrast, really does move us in a better direction. Groups that adopt an infinite mindset enjoy vastly higher levels of trust, cooperation and innovation and all the subsequent benefits. If we are all, at various times, players in infinite games, then it is in our interest to learn how to recognize the game we are in and what it takes to lead with an infinite mindset. It is equally important for us to learn to recognize the clues when finite thinking exists so that we can make adjustments before real damage is done.
The Infinite Game of Business
The game of business fits the very definition of an infinite game. We may not know all of the other players and new ones can join the game at any time. All the players determine their own strategies and tactics and there is no set of fixed rules to which everyone has agreed, other than the law (and even that can vary from country to country). Unlike a finite game, there is no predetermined beginning, middle or end to business. Although many of us agree to certain time frames for evaluating our own performance relative to that of other players-the financial year, for example-those time frames represent markers within the course of the game; none marks the end of the game itself. The game of business has no finish line.
Despite the fact that companies are playing in a game that cannot be won, too many business leaders keep playing as if they can. They continue to make claims that they are the "best" or that they are "number one." Such claims have become so commonplace that we rarely, if ever, stop to actually think about how ridiculous some of them are. Whenever I see a company claim that it is number one or the best, I always like to look at the fine print to see how they cherry-picked the metrics. For years, British Airways, for example, claimed in their advertising that they were "the world's favourite airline." Richard Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic, filed a dispute with Britain's Advertising Standards Authority that such a claim could not be true based on recent passenger surveys. The ASA allowed the claim to stand, however, on the basis that British Airways carried more international passengers than any other airline. "Favourite," as they used the word, meant that their operation was expansive, not necessarily preferred.
To one company, being number one may be based on the number of customers they serve. To another, it could be about revenues, stock performance, the number of employees or the number of offices they have around the globe. The companies making the claims even get to decide the time frames in which they are making their calculations. Sometimes it's a quarter. Or eight months. Sometimes a year. Or five years. Or a dozen. But did everyone else in their industry agree to those same time frames for comparison? In finite games, there's a single, agreed-upon metric that separates the winner from the loser, things like goals scored, speed or strength. In infinite games, there are multiple metrics, which is why we can never declare a winner.
In a finite game, the game ends when its time is up and the players live on to play another day (unless it was a duel, of course). In an infinite game, it's the opposite. It is the game that lives on and it is the players whose time runs out. Because there is no such thing as winning or losing in an infinite game, the players simply drop out of the game when they run out of the will and resources to keep playing. In business we call this bankruptcy or sometimes merger or acquisition. Which means, to succeed in the Infinite Game of business, we have to stop thinking about who wins or who's the best and start thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to stay in the game for many generations to come. The benefits of which, ironically, often make companies stronger in the near term also.
A Tale of Two Players
Some years ago, I spoke at an education summit for Microsoft. A few months later, I spoke at an education summit for Apple. At the Microsoft event, the majority of the presenters devoted a good portion of their presentations to talking about how they were going to beat Apple. At the Apple event, 100 percent of the presenters spent 100 percent of their time talking about how Apple was trying to help teachers teach and help students learn. One group seemed obsessed with beating their competition. The other group seemed obsessed with advancing a cause.
After my talk at Microsoft, they gave me a gift-the new Zune (when it was still a thing). This was Microsoft's answer to Apple's iPod, the dominant player in the MP3-player market at the time. Not to be outdone, Microsoft introduced the Zune to try to steal market share from their archrival. Though he knew it wouldn't be easy, in 2006, then CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer was confident that Microsoft could eventually "beat" Apple. And if the quality of the product was the only factor, Ballmer was right to be optimistic. The version Microsoft gave me-the Zune HD-was, I have to admit, quite exceptional. It was elegantly designed. The user interface was simple, intuitive and user-friendly. I really, really liked it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I gave it away to a friend for the simple reason that unlike my iPod, which was compatible with Microsoft Windows, the Zune was not compatible with iTunes. So as much as I wanted to use it, I couldn't.)
After my talk at the Apple event, I shared a taxi back to the hotel with a senior Apple executive, employee number 54 to be exact, meaning he'd been at the company since the early days and was completely immersed in Apple's culture and belief set. Sitting there with him, a captive audience, I couldn't help myself. I had to stir the pot a little. So I turned to him and said, "You know . . . I spoke at Microsoft and they gave me their new Zune, and I have to tell you, it is SO MUCH BETTER than your iPod touch." The executive looked at me, smiled, and replied, "I have no doubt." And that was it. The conversation was over.
The Apple exec was unfazed by the fact that Microsoft had a better product. Perhaps he was just displaying the arrogance of a dominant market leader. Perhaps he was putting on an act (a very good one). Or perhaps there was something else at play. Although I didn't know it at the time, his response was consistent with that of a leader with an infinite mindset.
The Benefits of an Infinite Mindset
In the Infinite Game, the true value of an organization cannot be measured by the success it has achieved based on a set of arbitrary metrics over arbitrary time frames. The true value of an organization is measured by the desire others have to contribute to that organization's ability to keep succeeding, not just during the time they are there, but well beyond their own tenure. While a finite-minded leader works to get something from their employees, customers and shareholders in order to meet arbitrary metrics, the infinite-minded leader works to ensure that their employees, customers and shareholders remain inspired to continue contributing with their effort, their wallets and their investments. Players with an infinite mindset want to leave their organizations in better shape than they found them. Lego invented a toy that has stood the test of time not because it was lucky, but because nearly everyone who works there wants to do things to ensure that the company will survive them. Their drive is not to beat the quarter, their drive is to "continue to create innovative play experiences and reach more children every year."
According to Carse, a finite-minded leader plays to end the game-to win. And if they want to be the winner, then there has to be a loser. They play for themselves and want to defeat the other players. They make every plan and every move with winning in mind. They almost always believe they must act that way, even though, in fact, they don't have to at all. There is no rule that says they have to act that way. It is their mindset that directs them.
Carse's infinite player plays to keep playing. In business, that means building an organization that can survive its leaders. Carse also expects the infinite player to play for the good of the game. In business, that means seeing beyond the bottom line. Where a finite-minded player makes products they think they can sell to people, the infinite-minded player makes products that people want to buy. The former is primarily focused on how the sale of those products benefits the company; the latter is primarily focused on how the products benefit those who buy them.
Finite-minded players tend to follow standards that help them achieve their personal goals with less regard to the effects of the ripples that may cause. To ask, "What's best for me" is finite thinking. To ask, "What's best for us" is infinite thinking. A company built for the Infinite Game doesn't think of itself alone. It considers the impact of its decisions on its people, its community, the economy, the country and the world. It does these things for the good of the game. George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, was devoted to his vision of making photography easy and accessible to everyone. He also recognized that advancing his vision was intimately tied to the well-being of his people and the community in which they lived. In 1912, Kodak was the first company to pay employees a dividend based on company performance and several years later issued what we now know as stock options. They also provided their employees with a generous benefits package, gave paid time off for sick leave (it was a new idea then) and subsidized tuitions for employees who took classes at local colleges. (All things that have been adopted by many other companies. In other words, it was not only good for Kodak, it was good for the game of business.) In addition to the tens of thousands of jobs Kodak provided, Eastman built a hospital, founded a music school, and gave generously to institutions of higher learning, including the Mechanics Institute of Rochester (which was later renamed Rochester Institute of Technology) and the University of Rochester.
Because they are playing with an end point in mind, Carse tells us, finite-minded players do not like surprises and fear any kind of disruption. Things they cannot predict or cannot control could upset their plans and increase their chances of losing. The infinite-minded player, in contrast, expects surprises, even revels in them, and is prepared to be transformed by them. They embrace the freedom of play and are open to any possibility that keeps them in the game. Instead of looking for ways to react to what has already happened, they look for ways to do something new. An infinite perspective frees us from fixating on what other companies are doing, which allows us to focus on a larger vision. Instead of reacting to how new technology will challenge our business model, for example, those with infinite mindsets are better able to foresee the applications of new technology.--This text refers to the audioCD edition.
- File Size : 1293 KB
- Publication Date : October 15, 2019
- Print Length : 253 pages
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Publisher : Penguin (October 15, 2019)
- Enhanced Typesetting : Enabled
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Language: : English
- ASIN : B07CV4YHWQ
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #69,515 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Here is the basic concept: There are two types of games, the finite game and the infinite game. The finite game is easy to visualize; it's what takes place when kids sit down to play a game of Monopoly. There are specific players, set rules, and (at least in theory) a definite endpoint. The infinite game is more complex. As I understand it, players can drift in and out, be known or unknown; rules are in a state of flux; and there is no clear endpoint. Most important of all, you can not “win” the infinite game. You can not “win” marriage. Or friendship. Or careers. Or even life itself.
The point of the infinite game is to look beyond the immediate finite game that can be won (who has the better product or higher sales this quarter) and instead focus on a long-term cause that can make the world a better place.
Well written, smooth read.
BOTTOM LINE: While it's largely a business book, it should be mandatory reading for leaders of every ilk. Readjusting focus would make the world a better place.
Rather than use an “either/or” choice, as in either you are infinite or you are not, the reality today is that generally businesses today are an “and” as in infinite and finite.
Jeff Bezos provides a good example. Other companies I work with use an “and” approach in serving all stakeholders interests.
Starting from this premise, Simon Sinek's main contribution is to setup a framework to help you keep playing (remember you cannot win an infinite game) at the infinite game of life, supported with very illuminating examples from both past and present companies and entrepreneurs.
The book is likely to resonate more with people like me who always understood life intuitively this way, but struggled to articulate this understanding in clear and concise terms. Those addicted to winning and scoring -people like Steve Ballmer- probably won't find the book as appealing.
Personally, I really enjoyed this book because it helped me understand why some of the pieces of my life weren't fitting together properly and some of the hard choices I will have to make on the path to changing my mindset. I enjoyed that the writer gave many real examples of how not having an infinite mindset can cause companies to fail which made it easy for the reader to relate. Working in the financial industry where the focus is very much on sales, deadlines and the bottomline, I'm hoping I can build the courage to recommend this book to my CEO lol.
While briefly, it also showed how an infinite mindset can be applied to parenting and the sometimes very high expectations we have for our kids; I appreciated hearing this being a new mom.
Only thing left to say is buy the book and be open minded when reading it and hopefully you enjoy it as much as I did.
Thanks Simon Sinek for having the courage and mindset to write this book and I'm expecting sequels as you continue to play the infinite game :).
I enjoyed Simon's previous books, but addressing the leadership impact of a short vs. a long term vision, made me question what I want for my life, and is why I enjoyed this book a lot.
I am a big supporter of coaching and focusing on the employees first as a mean of making the customers happy and of course, the company successful. Still, sometimes, with the busy lives we have, we forget about what is important vs. what is not. Investing in the people we manage is always a winning strategy.
I enjoyed the examples of companies that applied an infinite mindset vs. the ones that did not. If I were to suggest an improvement, it will be that I would have loved to see more examples, specifically in companies related to technology.
With this book, Simon pushed me back on track, and I am looking forward to applying what I learned in this book on a daily basis; hence, I thoroughly recommend this book.
It will be useful to have a list of the companies that follow an infinite mindset to know where to look for new opportunities :-).
Top reviews from other countries
The whole book is full of stories explaining the finite vs infinite mind. I got the gist, Simon, i think after 2 stories i can tell what that means. Sadly it's disappointment. I don't know what i was hoping to read but repetitive stories without much substance in them is not what i was expecting from him.
The book describes the difference between Finite and Infinite mindsets (different from growth and fixed mindsets) and provides a framework for companies to recognise which mindset they have and how to implement an Infinite Mindset.
In Finite games, the rules are fixed and the end point is clear. “We are going to be a market leader or we are going to change the world”.
In Infinite games, the players come and go, the rules are changeable and there is no defined end point. People with an infinite mindset build stronger, more inventive, more inspiring organisations.
If you are in any role in leadership, culture creation, vision creating or marketing in either the start-up or in fact a business of any size, you should read this book.
However, if you've read both Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last you will see that this book is an incremental step forward instead of a massive leap of focus. His returns to similar anecdotes that have occurred in previous works, most notably the Microsoft vs. Apple Executive story in relation to the iPod vs the Zune.
Although the chapter on existential flexibility and his writing around Walt Disney's life is fascinating and some of his best work to date.
TLDR: If you've read Start with Why and Leaders Eat Last it's good but not essential reading. If you haven't it's great book and definitely worth reading.
For business as well as for life, there is no bigger vision than the one provided, we are just here for a certain period of time, but what you leave on Earth for others and the example you give is something bigger than anything else.
I highly recommend this book, and if you are looking for meaning in life, this may give you that starting push.