My takeaways from “The Infinite Game”

I recently completed reading the book called “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek, which is a Business, Leadership and Self-help book, according to the tags mentioned in GoodReads.com. Reading this book has been an exercise for me that has changed the way I perceive decisions and actions.

This book has really given shape to my thoughts about what makes good and bad leaders — especially the example of Microsoft. Even though I had been a user of Microsoft products since the year 2000, when I was 5 years old (that is when my family bought its first computer), by the time had grown up, I had a very bad image of Microsoft in my mind. I had an opinion about why each of their products is not good. But strikingly, by the time I was completing my graduation (in 2016), with the release of MS Office on Android and the release of Bash on Ubuntu on Windows (which was the earlier name of the Linux Subsystem for Windows (LSW)), my opinions about Microsoft had changed so much that I joined Microsoft as an employee in July 2016. I loved whatever interaction I had with the CEO, Satya Nadella. And in every speech, he would keep reiterating that our objective is to empower every person and organization to “do and achieve more”. At that time, it only felt good, but I didn’t realize the importance of that until I read this book.

In this book, Simon Sinek first introduces us to the concept of Finite and Infinite Games (from the book by James P. Carse) and differentiates between them. Here are the differences:

  • Finite games are played by known players. Infinite games are played by known and unknown players
  • Finite games have fixed rules. Infinite games do not have exact or agreed-upon rules. Although infinite games may have conventions or laws that govern how players conduct themselves. But if the players choose to, they can disregard them.
  • In finite games, there is an agreed-upon objective, that when reached, ends the game. Infinite games, as the name suggests, do not have a finish line. In an infinite game, the primary objective of a player is to keep playing and to perpetuate the game.

After defining infinite games, the author has shown how most things in life are infinite games. Be it business, education, political administration, career, relationships, hobbies or physical fitness.

Will and Resources

The author then goes on to emphasize that a player keeps playing in the infinite game as long as he/she does not run out of will or resources.

In an infinite game, […] 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 will and resources to keep playing. […] 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.

Resources are tangible and easily measured. Resources generally come from outside sources, like customers or investors, and represent the sum of all the financial metrics that contribute to the health of the organisation.

Will, in contrast, is intangible and harder to measure. Will generally comes from inside sources like the quality of leadership and the clarity and strength of the Just Cause. Will represents the sum of all the human elements that contribute to the health of the organisation.

Both finite and infinite minded leaders know that both of these things are important. But for an infinite minded leader, will is more important than resources. Because when the going gets tough, and resources become scarce, willful individuals can still commit to work towards the advancement of the Just Cause. But without the will, even in an abundance of resources, there will be no progress.

Five Essential Practices to adopt an Infinite mindset

  1. Advance a Just Cause
  2. Build Trusting Teams
  3. Study your Worthy Rivals
  4. Prepare for Existential Flexibility
  5. Demonstrate the Courage to Lead

Just Cause

A Just Cause is a specific vision of a future state that does not yet exist; a future state so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help advance toward that vision.

In an organization that is only driven by the finite, we may like our jobs some days, but we will likely never love our jobs. If we work for an organization with a Just Cause, we may like our jobs some days but we will always love our jobs.

A Just Cause is not the same as our WHY. A WHY comes from the past. It is an origin story. It is a statement of who we are — the sum total of our values and beliefs. A Just Cause is about the future. It defines where we are going. It describes the world we hope to live in and will commit to help build. Everyone has their own WHY, but we do not have to have our own Just Cause, we can choose to join someone else’s. Unlike a WHY, of which there can be only one, we can work to advance more than one Just Cause.

Think of the WHY like the foundation of a house, it is the starting point. It gives whatever we build upon it strength and permanence. Our Just Cause is the ideal vision of the house we hope to build. We can work a lifetime to build it and still we will not be finished.

A Just Cause must be:

  • For something — affirmative and optimistic
  • Inclusive — open to all those who would like to contribute
  • Service-Oriented — for the primary benefit of others
  • Resilient — able to endure political, technological and cultural change
  • Idealistic — big, bold and ultimately unachievable

This means that protests do not have a Just Cause. A war against terrorism or a movement to end Poverty is against something and hence cannot serve as a Just Cause. This also means that moonshots are not Just Causes.

Though moon shots are inspiring for a time, that inspiration comes with an expiration date. Moon shots are bold, inspiring finite goals within the Infinite Game, not instead of the Infinite Game.

This also means that charity or CSR (corporate social responsibility) is not a Just Cause. The way a company makes its money and the way it gives it away must both contribute to advancing the Just Cause.

The Job of a CEO

Unlike every other CXO role, where the X tells the thing that they are responsible for, like Finance, Technology, Operations, the role of CEO does not attribute itself to any specific skill or responsibility in the company. So what exactly is a Chief EXECUTIVE Officer?

The CEO is responsible for the dream and making sure those responsible for the plans were working to advance the dream.

Leaders in the Infinite Game will be better equipped to fulfil their responsibilities if they understand that they are stepping into the role of a “Chief Vision Officer,” or CVO. That is the primary job of the person who sits at the pointy end of the spear. They are the holder, communicator and protector of the vision. Their job is to ensure that all clearly understand the Just Cause and that all other C-level executives direct their efforts to advance the Cause inside the organization.

It’s not that an infinite-minded leader is entirely unconcerned with the organization’s finite interests. Rather, as the keeper of the Cause, they take accountability for deciding when short-term finite costs are worth it to advance the infinite vision. They think beyond the bottom line.

As the ultimate infinite player, the CVO must go up and out.

The Responsibility of Business (Revised)

The responsibility of a business is to use its will and resources to advance a cause greater than itself, protect the people and places in which it operates and generate more resources so that it can continue doing all those things for as long as possible. An organization can do whatever it likes to build its business so long as it is responsible for the consequences of its actions.

  1. Advance a purpose: Offer people a sense of belonging and a feeling that their lives and their work have value beyond the physical work
  2. Protect people: Operate our companies in a way that protects the people who work for us, the people who buy from us and the environments in which we live and work.
  3. Generate profit: Money is fuel for a business to remain viable so that it may continue to advance the first two priorities.

Trusting Teams

When we work on a Trusting Team we feel safe to express vulnerability. We feel safe to raise our hands and admit we made a mistake, be honest about shortfalls in performance, take responsibility for our behaviour and ask for help. Asking for help is an example of an act that reveals vulnerability. However, when on a Trusting Team, we do so with the confidence that our boss or our colleagues will be there to support us. “Trust is the stacking and layering of small moments and reciprocal vulnerability over time,” says Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston in her book Dare to Lead. “Trust and vulnerability grow together, and to betray one is to destroy both.”

Performance vs Trust
Observe the below graph. The person in the top left of the graph — the high performer of low trust — is a toxic team member. These team members exhibit traits of narcissism, are quick to blame others, put themselves first, “talk shit about others” and can have a negative influence on their teammates, especially new or junior members of the team. One would rather have a medium performer of high trust, sometimes even a low performer of high trust (it’s a relative scale), on their team than the high performer of low trust.

Trust vs Performance

Just choosing such a team is not enough if the culture is not correctly set. The team members need a “Circle of Safety” to trust each other. The process of building trust takes risk. And it is the leader’s responsibility to take the first risk, to build a Circle of Safety.

It is also not enough for leaders to simply create an environment that is safe for telling the truth. We must model the behavior we want to see, actively incentivize the kinds of of behaviour that build trust and give people responsible freedom and the support they need to flourish in their jobs. It is the combination of what we value and how we act that sets the culture of the company.

In weak cultures, people find safety in the rules. This is where we get bureaucrats. They believe a strict adherence to the rules provides them with job security. And in the process, they do damage to the trust inside and outside the organization.

In strong cultures, people find safety in relationships. Strong relationships are the foundation of high-performing teams. And all high-performing teams start with trust.

How to train a leader

The ability of any organization to build new leaders is very important, because no leader can last forever. So for the survival of the organization in the infinite game, one of the primary jobs of any leader is to make new leaders.

I know many people who sit at the highest levels of organizations who are not leaders. They may hold rank, and we may do as they tell us because they have authority over us, but that does not mean we trust them or that we would follow them. There are others who may hold no formal rank or authority, but they have taken the risk to care for their people. They are able to create a space in which we can be ourselves and feel safe sharing what’s on our mind. We trust those people, we would follow them anywhere and we willingly go the extra mile for them, not because we have to, but because we want to.

Leaders are not responsible for the results, leaders are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results.

Ethical Fading

Ethical Fading is a condition in a culture that allows people to act in unethical ways in order to advance their own interests, often at the expense of others, while falsely believing that they have not compromised their own moral principles.
Ethical fading often starts with small, seemingly innocuous transgressions that, when left unchecked, continue to grow and compound. Ethical fading is not an event, it is more like an infection that festers over time.

According to social scientists who study the phenomenon of ethical fading, those who commit such violations of trust aren’t evil, but they do suffer from self-deception.

Euphemisms

One of the ways we are able to deceive ourselves comes from the words we use. Euphemisms allow us to disassociate ourselves from the impact of decisions or actions we might otherwise find distateful or hard to live with. For example, politicians were aware that Americans find torture to be inhumane and inconsistent with our values. So “enhanced interrogation” became the way for them to protect our homeland after September 11 without feeling bad about it.

The words we choose can help us distance ourselves from any sense of responsibility. They can, however, help us act more ethically too. Imagine if we actually started calling things what they are within our organizations. If we did, perhaps we would take the time to find more creative, and indeed more ethical, ways of achieving our goals. And in doing so, actually strengthen our cultures in the process.

Blame the System

Another kind of self-deception that contributes to ethical fading is when we remove ourselves from the chain of causation or blame “the system” for our own transgressions. Just because something is legal, or everyone else is doing it, does not make it ethically correct.

Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope is another enabler of the kind of self-deception that leads to ethical fading. With each ethical transgression that is tolerated, we pave the road for more and bigger ethical transgressions. Little by little, we change the norms inside a culture of what is acceptable behaviour. “If everyone else is doing it, then it must be okay.”

When problems arise, performance lags, mistakes are made or unethical decisions are uncovered, Lazy Leadership chooses to put their efforts into building processes to fix the problems rather than building support for their people. After all, process is objective and reliable. It is easier to trust a process than to trust people. Or so we think. In reality, process will always tell us what we want to hear. Process gives us a green light but it may not be telling us the truth. When leaders use process to replace judgement, the conditions for ethical fading persist.

Building processes to tackle ethical fading is a finite-minded step. When we apply finite-minded solutions to address an ethical fading problem that finite-minded thinking created, we get more thical fading. We we use process and structure to fix cultural problems what we often get is more lying and cheating. Little lies become bigger lies. And the behaviour becomes normalized.

In contrast, when people are motivated towards a Just Cause, and are part of a Trusting Team, it is natural to course-correct and act in the ethical manner. We act ethically because we don’t want to do anything that would do damage to the advancement of the Just Cause. When we feel a part of a Trusting Team, we don’t wan tot let down our teammates.

If ethical fading is powered by self-deception, maintaining ethical behaviour demands complete honesty and constant self-assessment. Ethical lapses happen and are part of being human. Ethical fading, however, is not a part of being human. Ethical fading is a failure of leadership and is a controllable element in a corporate culture. Which means, cultures that are ethically strong are also a result of the culture the leaders build.

Worthy Rival

A Worthy Rival is another player in the game worthy of comparison. Regardless of who they are or where we find them, the main point is that they do something (or many things) as well as or better than us. We don’t need to admire everything about them, agree with them or even life them. We simply acknowledge that they have strengths and abilities from which we could learn a thing or two.

Traditional competition forces us to take on an attitude of winning. A Worthy Rival inspires us to take on an attitude of improvement. The former focuses our attention on the outcome, the latter focuses our attention on process.

  • Worthy Rivals can help us get better at What We Do
  • Worthy Rivals can help us get clearer on Why We Do It

Don’t confuse losing your Worthy Rival with Winning the Game

When our most important Worthy Rival, the one who pushes us more than any other, drops out of the game, it does not mean that there are others on the bench waiting to immediately rush in to play either. It can take years for a new or different Rival or Rivals to replace them. The advanced player in the Infinite Game understands this and works to remain humble at the loss of a major Rival. Cautious not to let hubris or a finite mindset take hold, they play knowing that it is just a matter of time before new players emerge. Patience is a virtue in infinite play.

Without a Worthy Rival we risk losing our humility and our agility. Failure to have a Worthy Rival increases the risk that a once-mightly infinite player, with a strong sense of Cause, will gently slide into becoming just another finite player looking to rack up wins. Where once the organization fought primarily for the good of others, for the good of the Cause, without that Worthy Rival, they are more likely to fight primarily for the good of themselves. And when that happens, when the hubris sets in, the organization will quickly find its weaknesses exposed and too rigid for the kind of flexibility they need to stay in the game.

Existential Flexibility

There is no better way to explain Existential Flex than the example of Walt Disney, who at the prime of Walt Disney Productions, he left everything that they had built to create Disneyland from scratch.

Once he realized that the company was on a path that could no longer advance his Cause, he was wiling to put everything on the line to start over again. He didn’t leave because he saw an opportunity to make more money. He didn’t leave a failing business. He found a better way to advance his Just Cause and he leapt at it.

Existential Flexibility is the capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause. It is an infinite-minded player’s appreciation for the unpredictable that allows them to make these kinds of changes.

When an infinite minded leader with a clear sense of Cause looks to the future and sees that the path they are on will significantly restrict their ability to advance their Just Cause, they flex. Or, if that leader discovers a new technology that is more likely to help them advance their Cause going forward than the technology they are currently using, they flex.

If you don’t blow it up, someone else will

When you look at businesses who file for bankruptcy protection, which is so often an act of suicide, it’s not the “market conditions” or the “new technology” or any of the other stock reasons usually offered as explanation that are responsible for their company’s demise. It was the leaders’ inability to make the necessary Existential Flex that was the problem. If they had abandoned their Cause, they also abandoned the capacity to Flex.

At some point, every organization will need to make a Flex. Though that need might not happen during one particular leader’s tenure, part of any leader’s responsibility is to build their organization with the capacity to exercise Existential Flexibilty should they or their successors need to do so.

Courage to Lead

The Courage to Lead is a willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future. And the risks are real. For it is much easier to tinker with the month, the quarter or the year, but to make decisions with an eye to the distant future is much more difficult.

Such decisions may indeed cost us in the short term. It may cost us money or our jobs. It takes the Courage to Lead to operate to a standard that is higher than the law — to a standard of ethics. And when we are pressured to do things that violate that ethical code, it takes the Courage to Lead to speak up, to make those who would pressure us to do otherwise aware of the situation they are creating. And it takes courage to offer our help so they may fix it. It takes Courage to Lead to make decisions counter to the current standards of business and it takes the Courage to Lead to ignore the pressure of outside parties who are not invested in or believers in our Just Cause.

When we have the courage to change our mindset from a finite view to a more infinite view, many of the decisions we make, seem bold to those with a more traditional view of the world. To those who now see the world through an infinite lens, however, such a decision is obvious.

If you are still reading, thanks a lot for your time. Please leave a few claps on this article so that I know that someone values such articles and it will encourage me to write more of these as I read more inspirational books.

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Avikalp Gupta

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I'm a 'Tech Generalist', working on building tech-startups for UN's SDGs 2030 in India. I mentor CS students at Alokit.in. I did my B.Tech from CSE, IIT Kanpur.