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Infinite Games

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Infinite Games
Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

We live in a world of unprecedented change and are surrounded by unpredictability and complexity. The trendy managerial acronym VUCA sums it up:

Volatility, rapid sudden, constant change
Uncertainty, unclear information and outcomes
Complexity, many variables and unknowns
Ambiguity, lack of clarity

We need the rights skills, attitudes and a mindset to help us thrive. James P. Carse in his book: Finite and Infinite Games said there are (at least) two kinds of games: Finite and Infinite ones.

A finite game is played to win and there must be a loser, it is zero-sum.

An infinite game is played to keep the game going. it does not terminate – you play for the long term.

Finite games require rules that remain fixed whereas an infinite game keeps going whilst the rules evolve.

“…the only purpose of the (infinite) game is to prevent it from coming to an end…”

Finite versus Infinite

In my view, the modern business world is playing out an infinite game. Unlike a finite game the rules of the business game are constantly changing, often driven by supply and demand dynamics or perhaps a crisis that results in increased regulatory focus and oversight.

Problems can arise when players are playing the finite game rules in an infinite game. They play to win, to get the short-term incentive and not the longer-term game where all parties look to achieve their goals.

How different could the financial crisis have been if the global financial players had focused on the longer term, the infinite game, and not to win short-term finite games focused on short-term incentives and hence being a winner at the cost of others including their clients?

Past and Present versus The Future

Another way to think of infinite versus finite games in the business world is when an organisation stands still for too long, focusing on the past or present, and doesn’t innovate, sticking to the same old rules that leads down a rapid path to obsolescence and ultimately going out of business. We have seen this play out with the likes of Kodak, Blackberry and Yahoo, they were focused on the here and now, which is the sign of a finite game.

Continuing with this analogy and taking it from the overall corporation and business level down to the team and individual within organisations, we see finite and infinite games being played out all of the time. An old boss of mine used to approach everything as though it was a game of poker. The aim was to improve their hand of cards to win. I found it to be a powerful visual – holding a hand of cards and working hard to replace lower rank cards with better ones. My boss’s point was you cannot wish for a better set of cards and that you need a plan and a strategy to improve your chances of winning. You are dealt the cards you hold and have to work hard, strive to replace them over time and that is the only way to put yourself and your team in a better place than you started with.

This approach to business is impactful up to a point. But to win at a game of poker there must be a loser as it is a finite game. You cannot keep the game going and play the long game so that all parties have a chance to come away with all or some of what they want.

This may sound naïve as obviously, it is not always possible for all participants to walk away happy. The point is there is a right way and a wrong way to approach new situations, be it challenges, conversations with regulatory bodies, clients or even competitors.

With a leadership mindset, we should approach every new encounter to educate ourselves and the other parties. Education leads to improved possibility of a series of win/win outcomes. The starting assumption should be this is not going to be a one-off interaction but rather the start of a longer-term relationship and hopefully partnership.

Treat everyone as a potential new client and play the long game, the infinite game

Competitors as Partners

Satya Nadella (Microsoft CEO) was playing an infinite game when he strengthened and introduced partnerships with corporations which were previously viewed only as old rivals. In his book “Hitting Refresh” Satya says,

“For me, partnerships – particularly with competitors – have to be about strengthening a company’s core businesses, which ultimately centres on creating added value for the customer.”

This is consistent with avoiding zero-sum outcomes and achieving win/win for Microsoft, the competitor (now a partner) and of course their clients. Nadella is investing for the long-term, in a world of unprecedented change, where the rules of the game are constantly evolving.

the rules of the (business) game are constantly evolving.

Contrast that with people approaching everything to win and for someone else to lose. At times these players of the finite, zero-sum game, are rising stars who typically haven’t failed at anything important to date. Perhaps they have only led people in the good times, the peacetime, so they don’t realise the success isn’t just theirs and they aren’t being grounded by a strong boss, mentor or coach. When their hot run inevitably runs out (it always will in the end) they don’t have the support as they have been too busy focused on the short-term winning, their number one priority being themselves. Their lack of longer-term vision hurts them and their fall from grace is hard and often they are unable to recover.


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