May 15, 2019 by Speakers' Spotlight
Simon Sinek: Applying the Infinite Game Mindset to Business
The bestselling author of Start With Why, Simon Sinek has devoted his life to studying the greatest people and organizations who have made a lasting, positive impact. He’s discovered some remarkable patterns about how they think, act, and communicate and uses them to help other leaders and organizations inspire action.
Simon is currently working on his third book The Infinite Game, to be published in October 2019, and recently spoke about the concept at a Workday conference.
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 not to win — the objective is to keep playing, keep perpetuating the game.
Simon believes that you can’t “win” business. Business as it exists is an infinite game, and the purpose shouldn’t be about winning but about survival. If organizations play to win, they will burn through their resources and see a decline in trust, cooperation, and innovation. But, playing the infinite game, and leading with an infinite mindset, will keep businesses nimble and flexible so they can adapt to whatever is thrown their way.
Forbes shared highlights from Simon’s talk and spoke with him afterwards to learn more.
What factors shape an infinite mindset?
First, you have to have a just cause. A cause so just that you would willingly sacrifice your interest to advance that cause.
Second, you have to have trusting teams. It means that we work with and for people such that 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.
Third, you have to have a worthy rival. They reveal to us our weaknesses; that’s what makes us so uncomfortable in their presence or when their names come up. Instead of getting angry about them, try to learn what it is about them that people admire and love so much, and maybe focus that energy into working on ourselves. Self-improvement. Every day. Constantly.
Fourth, you have to have the capacity for existential flexibility. This is much bigger than the daily flexibility that we need to have in our jobs. An existential flex is the capacity to make a dramatically huge strategic shift in an entirely new direction to advance our cause.
And finally, you have to have the courage to lead. That means the courage to say, “That’s bad for business, and I’m going to do it differently.” People may call you naïve and say you don’t understand the business. You may say they don’t understand the game they’re playing. That takes tremendous courage.
Regarding existential flexibility—how can companies structure their organization in a way that promotes this agile mindset?
When I talk about existential flexibility, I’m talking about the ability to massively shift an entire business model because it’s the right thing to do to advance the movement. Why is it that the technology industry invented the electronic book, and not the publishing industry? Because publishing thought they were in the book business, not the reading business. Why is it that the movie industry and the television industry didn’t invent Netflix? It’s because companies can be so preoccupied with protecting the status quo they don’t make these existential flexes until they’re forced to, and then they’re playing defense the entire time.
In order for you to have the capacity for existential flexibility you better have a crystal clear just cause, because that’s what will direct the decisions. Also, you better work with people who love you and trust you because there’s going to be short-term pain, and you’re going to have to have people who are going to go along with you because they believe that it’s worth it.
Must a company make a choice whether they’re leading with a finite game or an infinite strategy when it comes to business operations? Or is there a way where short-term goals can interplay with long-term vision?
They’re not competing ideas. The infinite game is a context within which finite games exist, and it’s understanding that context. For example, if we want our people only to be finite-driven, then our frontline employees will enforce the rules unscrupulously because that’s what protects the bottom line. But of course, we want them to be a little more concerned with the long game, which is why we ask them to offer good judgment and good customer service, and sometimes do something that may cost the company a small amount of money, because it protects customer relationships.
So, we have an inherent sense that there’s something bigger than the finite game. But if we can make that thing specific, and have a sense of where the company’s actually going in the infinite game, that empowers every level of employee to use their judgment to do the right thing, for now and for the future. It’s an incredibly empowering idea.
Of course, the finite game still matters—making your end-of-the-year goal is important as a metric of speed and distance. But it’s not the end all, be all; we don’t have to beat ourselves up or fire people because they miss a number. That’s where we lose the concept of the infinite game. It’s one mile within a marathon, and this marathon never ends.
And that kind of brings it back to the notion of leadership, right? If what we’re trying to do today, this quarter, this year, didn’t happen, leaders need to make sure people understand we still have this longer game we’re playing.
Correct. And we expect that our most senior leaders are the ones most preoccupied with that infinite game, because the frontline employees have to be preoccupied with the short game with a little bit of acknowledgment to the long game. But the minute you have senior executives obsessing about the short game, the game is lost.
What’s your advice for folks to shift towards more of the infinite game mindset?
Most of us are playing with a finite mindset and haven’t given our people any reason to build a company without us. That’s what it means to lead with an infinite mindset: That we will leave our organizations in better shape than we found them, and that we will build organizations that inspire other people to want to continue to build them without us.
Described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect,” Simon Sinek teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people. With a bold goal to help build a world in which the vast majority of people go home every day feeling fulfilled by their work, Simon is leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.
Interested in learning more about Simon and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.