Infinite Verses Finite Thinking…

Rail tracks leading into the distance


“How do you win every major battle, but lose the war?!” asks motivational speaker Simon Sinek. That is what happened to the USA in Vietnam. Despite losing 3 million people, compared to 58,000 Americans, it was the Vietnamese that ultimately prevailed after over a decade of full on war.

To explain it, he argues that there are two types of games. Finite games have known players, fixed rules and an agreed upon objective. With Infinite games there are known and unknown players, the rules are changeable and the objective is to perpetuate, or stay in, the game as long as possible.

When a finite player is pitted against an infinite player they are making profoundly different strategic decisions. The finite player is looking to win, the infinite player is looking to still be in the game tomorrow. In Vietnam the Americans were looking to win whilst the Vietnamese were fighting for their lives. Ultimately the US didn’t lose, they lost the will to keep playing.

This whole concept has applications across all aspects of life, including business. Looking back over my career to date, pretty much all I have seen have been finite players. Companies wanting to be the best, companies wanting to maximise sales today, this week, this month, this year etc. Beating the competition was the Holy Grail.

I have always believed that there are three reasons why a person starts a company – because they have a product or service they can perform and need a job, they think they can build it up and sell it for a profit, or to leave the business for their families to carry on as a legacy and to provide for them into the future.

Long before the eloquent Mr Sinek appeared, I always asked clients which goal they were aiming for and to be very clear up front, because their choice would lead to me advising very different strategies. The timescales, urgency and priorities of each are wholly incompatible with each other.

In the current fast pace of change, being relevant tomorrow requires a real dedication to infinite thinking, unless the game is a quick profit and leave. The big question every day needs to be how do we become a better version of ourselves than we were yesterday? How do we improve our culture, how do we improve ourselves and the quality of what we provide to our customers? Some days we will be leaders and some days we will need to catch up.

Sinek says that there are five things that allow you to be an infinite player. You have to have a just cause, courageous leadership, trusting teams, a worthy rival and a flexible playbook. What do you stand for, do your leaders create an environment where their teams can maximise their potential, without fear of failure? Rivals expose your weaknesses to work on. You need to be flexible to learn from your weaknesses and failures so you stay in the game.

Infinite companies know their why, their purpose and they have values that they will never compromise and that inform all they do. What they do is never at odds with their values.

Ironically, COVID-19 has provided shining examples of the infinite approach. Back when the lockdown started I got a text from O2. It said that they wanted to help me keep in touch with friends and family during the isolation and that I could make as many calls to friends as I wanted in the next month at no extra charge to my contract. They then sent me a further email extending it for another month.

As it happens I didn’t need to take advantage of their kind offer, but it left me with a very positive feeling towards them, that I never expected to have for a mobile phone company. Compare that to my feelings toward the companies that have sort to rip us off for face masks when we urgently needed them.

Does your company exist in a constant loop to be number 1 or are you working towards an amazing future? I know which one works for me.


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