Simon Sinek on winning in an infinite game

Best selling author and Ted Talk star Simon Sinek was a keynote speaker at PCMA Convening Leaders 2020 in San Francisco. CIM was there to hear what he had to say about the nature of leadership in an environment where the rules keep changing.

How has the notion of winning changed? It turns out there are multiple definitions of what winning and losing means. If you have at least one competitor you have a game, and there are two types of game. But there are finite game and infinite games.

Finite games are defined as known players, fixed rules, and an agreed-upon objective. An infinite game is defined as known and unknown players, the rules are changeable, and the objective is to keep playing, keep perpetuating the game.

So how does that change the paradigm? When you pit a finite player against a finite player, the system is stable. When you pit an infinite player versus an infinite player, the system is also stable. Problems arise when you pit a finite player against an infinite player because one is playing to win, and one is playing to keep playing. As a result, they will make very different strategic choices.

What ends up happening is that the finite player will always find themselves in a quagmire, racing through the will and resources they need to stay in the game. This is what happened to the United States in Vietnam. It’s not so much that America lost the war, it’s that America was fighting to win and the North Vietnamese were fighting for their lives. And a very different set of strategic decisions were made.

America didn’t lose, they ran out of the will or the resources to stay in the game and dropped out of it.

How do we define success in this new world? There is no such thing as winning in business, or global politics or education. But if we listen to the language of too many organisations they don’t know the game they are in. They talk about being the best, being number one, beating their competition. The problem is there is no such thing.

Based upon what agreed-upon metrics? Based upon what agreed upon timeframes? There’s no such thing.

The reality is you are only ever competing against yourself. The objective everyday is asking how do we become a better version of our own institution.

How do you play an infinite game? There are five pieces. First, you have to have a just cause. A cause so just that you would willingly sacrifice your interest to advance that cause.

You have to have a courageous leadership. That means the courage to say, “That’s bad for business, and I’m going to do it differently.”

You have to have trusting teams, where we can raise our hands and say, “I made a mistake or I’m scared or I have troubles at home and they’re affecting my work,” without any fear of humiliation and retribution.

You have to have a worthy rival. They reveal to us our weaknesses.

Finally you have to have a flexible playbook.

The infinite game is a context within which finite games exist, and it’s understanding that context. The whole point is not to be against something, it’s to stand for something.