Simon Sinek: The Finite and Infinite Game in Work and Life

By Erin Miller

You know you have a professional on the stage when they walk out and just dive into a compelling story. No introduction. No good morning. Simon Sinek starts speaking, the crowd silences and you could hear a pin drop!

Simon starts to discuss the Vietnam war. He spoke about how the U.S. was out to decimate our enemy. However, they won every battle and lost the war. What happened? We don’t fully understand what it means to win or lose. The U.S. lost the will and the resources to win the war. They were playing a finite game.

Simon taught us there are finite games and infinite games. In finite games, we all agree on the rules, how the game is played, and then the game ends. An infinite game is defined as having known and unknown players. When we pit an infinite player against an infinite player, the system is stable. Problems arise when finite players play to win and infinite players, play to keep the game going.

The key to an infinite game is having the will and resources to keep the game going. What most leaders don’t realize is that business is an infinite game. There’s no such thing as “winning” in business. The language of the businesses that say they want to be number one or they want to “win,” those businesses don’t know what game they’re in.

The clear majority of businesses are making decisions in a finite game but they’re playing an infinite game. When the will and resources are gone at a company, it’s called bankruptcy, or it’s a merger or acquisition. A clear majority of companies are playing to be number one and not playing to sustain their will and resources so they can be around for a long time.

An Infinite player understands that sometimes you have a better product and sometimes your competitor does. In an infinite game, there is only ahead or behind.

Our will and resources are the fuel that make the car go. If you fail to check that you have these five things below, you will be an infinite player in a finite game.

  1. You must have a just cause
  • A just cause is what your company stands for and it’s bigger than the product or service you offer.
  • The companies we love have a just cause. Apple wasn’t founded to be a computer company. It was created to empower the average person. An example, we may never reach equality for all but we will die trying, and THAT is just cause.
  1. Courageous leadership
  • Simon expressed, “it’s embarrassing that we even have to have this on the list.” Leaders who don’t prioritize the advancement of the just cause are not leaders.
  • A powerful example is the recent stand that CVS took by removing cigarettes from its stores. Leaders chose to do away with billions of dollars in revenue, in order to stand for their just cause.
  • If companies continue to promote the people who hit the numbers, but don’t build trustworthiness, they are destroying their own companies.  Gifted, natural leaders help their teammates reach their full potential.
  1. Build trusting and vulnerable teams
  • When your employee doesn’t feel trusted or safe, the customer and the company suffer. You hire great people, let them make their own decisions. Allow them to do their jobs. The question should be, how do help our people work at their natural best?
  • HR is in a place where they should say to leadership, “do not touch the people.” HR should not be the executers of executives, they are in defense of the people, not the advancement of the executives.
  1. Worthy advisory
  • Competition reveals to us, our weakness. When our weaknesses are revealed to us, we can improve.
  • Identify the worthy advisories. People who are actually better at what you do than you. Learn from them. Understand where your weaknesses are and learn from them.
  • Partnership is way better. Find that person who has strengths where you have weaknesses.
  1. Flexible playbook
  • Great organizations have a fixed cause and a flexible strategy.
  • Why does your company exist? Why?
  • If you have no just cause and you only have a strategy, you will not know where you’re going.
  • Will comes first and then resources.
  • Short-term liabilities for the long-term gain.
  • Refusal to compete when someone better comes along. They have a closed playbook.

Final point, what does it mean to live an infinite life?  We come and go but life continues with us or without us.

Some might live their lives by the rules of the finite game. That means you wake up every single day and accumulate money and power. It’s exhausting and stressful. At the end of life, you don’t win life, you just die.

Or, we can choose to live a life on the infinite game. It’s not about the impact you can make on your life, it’s about the impact you can make on other’s lives.

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Erin Miller
Erin Miller is the VP of People at TransLoc Inc., a Ford Smart Mobility Company.