Perhaps the business world has the wrong outlook toward the competition. At least, that’s what Simon Sinek argues in his highly successful book The Infinite Game, which discusses how organizations need to stop looking with a finite mind and adopt an infinite perspective. Sinek states, “The reality of an infinite game is you’re actually only competing against yourself. That the objective every single day is how do we become a better version of our own institution this year than we were last year.”
As Sinek argues, business is most definitely not a finite game, yet too many businesses operate in this way. They focus on short-term gains and think their main goal is to defeat their primary competitors. To adopt an infinite games mindset is to create a shift in your thinking that benefits your business long term and establishes a multi-generational legacy. Without an infinite mindset, you’re just playing against the clock and putting limitations on yourself and your organization.
The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek promotes an optimistic view of what the business world can become. When businesses adopt an infinite mindset, no goal is too high. This is because a company that plays the infinite game isn’t playing to win or lose—they’re playing to transform the world and help others. This leads to innovative strategies, business success, and beneficial outcomes for customers and employees. The infinite mindset also eliminates the very idea of competition and focuses on what you can do to serve the world. It also creates strong team cultures where everyone supports each other while inspiring, motivating, and driving change.
To drive impact in your company, start by:
- Learning more about the differences between finite and infinite games
- Receiving five tips that help you shift to playing an infinite game
- Discovering actionable strategies for making the transition
Finite Games vs. Infinite Games
The basic definition of a finite game is one where the players in it are there to win. Competitors follow agreed-upon rules, know the boundaries that they play within, and recognize the game only has winners and losers. On the other hand, infinite games don’t have set rules, have limitless possibilities for how to play, and don’t define people or businesses by winning or losing. The point of a finite game is to reach a conclusion. The point of an infinite game, however, is to keep playing as long as possible.
The idea behind an infinite mentality isn’t exactly new. James P. Carse came up with the concept in his book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. In it, he explains that a “finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” Simon Sinek drew upon this idea and made further strides in applying it in the business world.
As can be seen, the differences between a finite mindset and an infinite mindset can lead to vastly different views of the world.
How finite players see the world:
- There are only winners and losers.
- You exist to defeat your competitors.
- Short-term wins matter, not any long-term plans.
- Values come second to interests.
- You do your job because it’s your job.
How infinite players see the world:
- You hold true to your values at all times.
- Learning every day is a necessary part of life.
- Planning for the future matters more than short-term gains.
- You work to improve yourself and don’t focus on competitors.
- Your strategies hold true to your mission in life.
Many people who have a finite mindset may have trouble switching to an infinite point of view. Doing so, however, leads to greater focus in one’s life. You think less about beating others and more about how you can improve yourself. In addition to this, your happiness comes from becoming better and helping others. You also no longer suffer from constantly comparing yourself. In a sense, you take joy in the journey in a way a finite mindset can never offer.
How to Play the Infinite Game
In his book on the infinite game, Simon Sinek provides five essential practices one must adopt in order to have an infinite mindset. The following are what you can do starting now to play the infinite game.
1. Fight a Problem the World Needs to Solve
Here’s a question Sinek loves to ask business leaders: “Why does your organization exist?” Is it to make money? Do you want to develop the best product ever? Or does your company have a higher purpose, what Sinek calls a “just cause”?
A just cause is a higher mission or values you are willing to fight for. As Sinek explains, “Organizations need to offer their people a cause so just that they would be willing to sacrifice, and it has nothing to do with the products you make or the services you sell.” This just cause is the item that inspires people to act.
Sinek provides the example of the Founding Fathers fighting for a just cause with the Declaration of Independence. They believed in something greater than themselves and were willing to sacrifice all they had to achieve it. They identified a problem and did all they could to solve it.
Steve Jobs likewise saw a problem in the business world, where Big Brother was crushing individuals. He imagined a world where a single person could stand up to big corporations. The personal computer became his solution.
How to find your just cause and inspire those around you to work on it:
- Identify a problem plaguing the world.
- See how the problem goes against your core values and principles.
- Be willing to give your all to fighting the problem.
- Help others see the problem as well. Indicate how it affects their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
- Show what steps they can take to help solve it.
- Encourage others by showing it is within their power to make the world a better place.
2. Grow a Trusting Team
One key to playing the infinite game is to have a team where each member trusts and supports each other. Simon Sinek details what happens when organizations don’t have an environment that encourages trust. He explains, “If you do not have trusting teams, what you do have is a group of people who show up to work every single day lying, hiding, and faking.” Such an environment leads people to keep their heads down and stay off the radar as long as possible. They don’t feel comfortable at work and worry their job could be next on the chopping block.
Companies that promote trust feature an atmosphere where everyone feels safe no matter what is happening. Employees feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions and be themselves. This is how you know you’re getting the best that someone can offer. Otherwise, all you’re getting is a shadow of a person who never feels safe enough to stretch outside their comfort zone.
One team that trusted each other is the group that developed Java for Sun Microsystems. This team consisted of Patrick Naughton, James Gosling, Mike Sheridan, Bill Joy, and Arthur Van Hoff. They recognized the need for the company to innovate and banded together to do something about it. Luckily, Sun trusted them enough to let them do their own thing free of interference. The team members also trusted one another to work hard and carry out the vision they had. The result was a new programming language that revolutionized how to interact with the internet.
How to build a trusting team:
- Support and encourage communication between team members.
- Let team members get to know each other outside of the work environment.
- Listen to concerns they have and address them promptly.
- Show each member that you value their contributions.
- Encourage team members to speak up without fear of judgment or retribution.
3. Learn from Your Greatest Rivals
Those who play a finite game only see their rival as something they must defeat. After all, you need to be the winner in this game. That doesn’t hold true for the infinite game. In the infinite game, you need to get out of the headspace that this is a competition. Instead, you must look at your rivals and see what they’re doing right. That way, you can replicate and improve upon their success.
Sinek explains this concept further:
“A worthy rival is another player in the game that is worthy of comparison, that in some way, shape, or form reveals to you weaknesses that you have that are opportunities for you to work to improve yourself.”
You see rivals not as competitors but as teachers. They’re a way to examine your own work and find ways to get better.
One of the best parts of this mindset is picking your own worthy rivals. These can be companies that make some of the same types of products as you. But they can also exist outside of your industry. Your organization may be in the financial industry, but you can look at Apple as a rival for the way they conduct business and follow their ambitious vision.
You only need to look at the new space race to see how companies are learning from their rivals. It seems like everyone these days is trying to follow Elon Musk and SpaceX in building their own rockets for private space travel. Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson continue to make strides with their own space efforts. Rarely do you see the three entities acting as direct competitors, though. Instead, they learn from each other and improve in the process.
How you can learn from your rivals:
- Pick rivals you admire and want to emulate.
- Identify their core values and missions.
- Note where they are strongest and how you compare.
- Record where they may fall short and why that is the case.
- Determine how these lessons can apply to you and your organization.
4. Keep a Flexible Attitude Toward Massive Change
Sinek refers to this trait as having existential flexibility. As he describes it, “Existential flexibility is the capacity to make profound strategic shifts—180-degree strategic shifts—in order to better advance your cause.” This is different from the type of flexibility people often need to have in their day-to-day jobs. Existential flexibility refers to something much more dramatic and game-changing.
It can be a frightening prospect to change course in your company suddenly. However, you can know it’s the right move if it aligns with the just cause you’re fighting for. With that cause and trusting teams, a dramatic change is possible.
Failing to have a flexible attitude can often lead to problems. In fact, it is usually the main factor in some of the top business mistakes ever made. Sinek mentions that Kodak once developed the technology for the digital camera but actively suppressed it for fear it would hurt their film business. By failing to recognize the value of the strategic shift, and also failing to live up to their just cause, Kodak would end up hurting themselves years later. The same can be said for a company like Blockbuster, who stubbornly kept to their tried-and-true video rental model instead of seeing the potential in what Netflix was doing.
How to remain flexible:
- Study your rivals for any strategic changes.
- Hold true to your mission and just cause.
- Don’t get bogged down by looking at factors unimportant to your cause, such as sales figures or profit margins.
- Have a long-term vision unaffected by short-term losses.
- Build up teams that believe in your company’s cause.
5. Demonstrate the Courage to Lead
It’s not always easy to make these changes. If anything, it can be incredibly difficult and requires trusting in a vision of a future full of promise and fulfillment. Too often, businesses are willing to abandon their core values to meet KPIs, revenue goals, and more. Those metrics can certainly be helpful, but not when they’re your sole focus.
Businesses constantly feel the pressure of staying in a finite mindset, so it takes real courage to step up and lead the way to an infinite mindset. Leaders must take charge and point out the right way to go.
So how does one develop the leadership qualities necessary to start playing the infinite game? One key is to adopt a servant leadership philosophy, where leaders serve those around them instead of bossing them around. A leader with a servant mentality won’t feel bothered by outside pressures and will only concern themselves with the needs of others through the patience passion connection. They will also stay true to their vision and reject the temptation to return to a finite mindset.
Simon Sinek describes just such a situation with CVS Pharmacy. As the story goes, CVS Pharmacy’s just cause was to help their customers become healthier, yet they still sold cigarettes. Outside pressures told them not to stop selling cigarettes because the product brought in billions of dollars in revenue. However, CVS decided to follow their just cause and got rid of cigarettes, taking a short-term hit. Rather than face financial disaster, CVS saw their revenue grow over time, to the point where the company made more money than they did when they sold cigarettes. People recognized the courage it took to risk so much, and they rewarded CVS for staying true to their just cause.
How to lead with courage:
- Know your core values and stick to them at every turn.
- Seek to persuade people through positive means.
- Gain a vision for the future that you can show to others.
- Shrug off outside forces pressuring you to compromise your values.
- Understand your identity and why God put you on Earth.
Play the Infinite Game to Make a Difference
Some companies have rejected the finite mindset and are playing the infinite game. Think of companies like Amazon, which invests in all sorts of technologies and entertainment ventures which don’t bring a profit right away. Or take Tesla as another example. Most people may know Tesla for its cars, but those are really a byproduct of the mission to bring clean energy products to the masses. As a result of this just cause, Tesla also offers solar panels and has plans for more through the Tesla Gigafactory.
You can play the infinite game as well. Start by identifying the companies and leaders you admire and following the tips listed above. As you do so, you’ll transform your business for the better and begin to change the world.
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