Nine years ago Simon Sinek shot to fame with his incredibly popular Ted Talk which has now had more than 10m views on YouTube. His books Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last have been an inspiration yet a guide for those looking to build businesses with purpose and with people who trust in you and help chart the course. In his latest book, The Infinite Game, he extends those principles for those who want to build businesses that outlast them. This blog is an excerpt from Workday’s Greg Thomas’ interview with Sinek which succinctly captures the key takeaways from the book. To set the context, Sinek cites the example of the Vietnamese war which the Americans lost despite winning all the battles. Sinek says ‘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. America didn’t lose, they ran out of the will or the resources to stay in the game and dropped out of it.’ For all of us at Marcellus as much as anyone else hoping to build a lasting business, it is important to distinguish the battles from the war – play the infinite game.
How does the concept of the infinite game mindset apply in business?
There is no such thing as winning business—it doesn’t exist. We can have wins inside a business like you can have battles, but there’s no such thing as “winning” business. The problem is too many business owners, too many leaders don’t know the game they’re playing. They talk about being number one, being the best, beating their competition. Based upon what agreed-upon metrics? Based upon what agreed upon timeframes? There’s no such thing.
When we play with a finite mindset in the infinite game, there are a few very consistent and predictable things that happen. Over the course of time, you will see a decline in trust, cooperation, and innovation. Eventually, your organization will run out of the will or the resources to stay in the game. We call it bankruptcy; we call it a merger and acquisition.
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.
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.
Regarding existential flexibility—how can companies structure their organization in a way that promotes this agile mindset?
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.
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.”
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