I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge fan of business books. There are so many thought leaders today that we can learn from to be more effective professionally and personally. One of my favorite authors is Simon Sinek, the bestselling author of titles such as Start with Why. Recently, Sinek has been studying and discussing game theory and how it applies to the way that organizations operate. This is especially relevant as we look forward to the coming year and what we plan to accomplish.
In his talk titled “The Finite and Infinite Games of Leadership,” Sinek introduces the concept by explaining that in game theory there are two types of games:
Finite Games: Known players, fixed rules, an agreed-upon objective (e.g. baseball).
Infinite Games: Known and unknown players, changeable rules and the objective to keep the game in play (e.g. the cold war).
In a finite game, there is a clearly defined end point and there are winners and losers. In an infinite game, all parties are working to keep the game in play. There are no winners or losers, but rather those that drop out of the game due to a lack of will or resources to continue playing.
Sinek outlines the following scenarios that take place when both types of players play:
- Finite player vs. Finite player: system is stable.
- Infinite player vs. Infinite player: system is stable.
- Finite player vs. Infinite player: this is where, according to Sinek, the problems arise. One player is playing to win and the other is playing to keep playing. Therefore, the finite player will always find themselves in quagmire. Sinek offers the example of the US and Vietnam, where the US was fighting to win and the North Vietnamese were fighting to survive.
So, what difference does it make whether someone is playing an infinite game or presenting as a finite player? Sinek asks us to consider the game of business, which is an infinite game. In business, the rules are changeable, there is no true “winning” and as he points out, the “game of business” has outlasted every company on the planet today. That said, Sinek points out that the language that we use in everyday conversations suggest that we don’t know which game we’re in.
We say things like:
“We’re number one.”
“We’re going to beat out the competition.”
On what criteria? On what time frame? Who has agreed to these rules? It’s arbitrary, according to Sinek. Therefore, when companies playing the infinite game are playing against those playing the finite game, finite game players find themselves in quagmire. In fact, bankruptcies can be attributed to other players “winning,” but in actuality, the bankrupt company has simply run out of the will and resources to play the game of business.
Playing the infinite and finite game is the difference between being obsessed with your journey and vision versus your competition. Sinek also described that the key difference between finite and infinite players, is that one is playing to win and one is playing to continue the game. While infinite players act according to their vision, finite players act in favor of their interests.
So, is your firm a finite player or a participant in the infinite game? We’ve learned from Sinek that most companies are playing the finite game. Here are a few signs that your firm is one of them:
- You are driven by the need to “beat out” other competitor firms in the industry.
- You view attorneys and industry players as “winners” or “losers.”
- You focus on day-to-day short-term wins, rather than the “long game.”
- You aren’t sure or don’t have a clear sense of what game you are in.
- Your firm or individuals within the firm cannot articulate a higher purpose for the work that you do.
- Decisions are made by considering interests first, values second.
How can you play the infinite game?
Playing the game as an infinite player means making value-based decisions before evaluating interests. In order to play the infinite game, vulnerability and empathy have to take center stage and you must be ok with the fact that in the long game, some players will perform better than you at certain points in time.
How can you and your firm play the infinite game:
- Focus on your mission and values and develop a strategy that is consistent with that.
- Foster a culture that employees, clients and vendors want to be a part of.
- Execute on your planning and keep on fine tuning.
- Understand change and work to adapt.
- Embrace innovation and continue learning each and every day.
What have you experienced watching infinite and finite players? Share your experience below.