What does it take to “win” at business? According to acclaimed author Simon Sinek, if you have to ask that question, then you’re not playing the right game.
To paraphrase a common idiom, there are no winners or losers in business — only players. That’s the concept behind Sinek’s 2019 book The Infinite Game, the latest in his collection of leadership and business growth books. Sinek pulls from James P. Carse’s 1887 book, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, to challenge the idea that you have to “win” to succeed in business — or that there even is a way to win. This model for approaching every strategy and every transition can elevate your business.
What Is The Infinite Game?
In his book, Carse invites readers to consider a new approach to life. He argues that we all play finite games, like football or Monopoly. They have players, set rules, an objective, and an end. There is always a winner and a loser, and you play until you reach those scenarios.
In life, when we’re off the field or game board, we see similar approaches. Some see business, politics, and relationships as defined by the winners and the losers. Those who win are rich, successful, and hold the power; those who lose must bend to the will of those who won.
But Carse argues that those who operate with this mindset close themselves off to a variety of possibilities. They only see the scenarios in which they will win or lose; their narrow guidelines limit or prevent them from recognizing other potentially successful scenarios. It’s like in checkers when you’re so focused on reaching your target that you leave your line defenseless. Soon, your opponent has most of your pieces stacked up on their side.
Conversely, when you make the game infinite, your goal isn’t to win or lose by reaching some endpoint. Instead, your goal is to keep playing. And, in order to do so, you learn to adapt.
So, What Does That Mean For Business Success?
Inspired by Carse’s ideas, Sinek argues that far too many business leaders operate with the mindset that they are playing a finite game. They believe growth is synonymous with winning rather than a byproduct of innovation. The compulsion to outpace rivals can poison the very roots of the tree they are nurturing to produce viable fruit.
Take the once-popular toy store Toys “R” Us and the movie rental business, Blockbuster. Both businesses appear to have been lost to an increasingly tech-driven world, but as entrepreneur and author Bianca Miller Cole argues in her 2019 Forbes article, Innovate or Die: How a Lack of Innovation Can Cause Business Failure, it’s vital we remember that these corporations were once big companies. Toys “R” Us was the premier spot for holiday season shopping, and no weekend was complete without a trip to Blockbuster.
They didn’t just lose.
Fatal flaws did them in. Their business models and perspectives were finite. They failed to see possibilities for their businesses in today’s world and the future. Their business model drove them to a point of “winning” in business — and they believed the game was over because they had success.
Instead, those who saw potential in technology thrived. Netflix capitalized on the consumer need for fast, easy access to movies, and they shaped streaming services as we know them today. Viewers discuss Netflix originals just as much as shows on NBC, CBS, or ABC. Likewise, Amazon and eBay lured consumers from Toys “R” Us because their websites and shipping were convenient. (Amazon now offers streaming services, too. Talk about infinite possibilities.)
For the industry giants who may appear to be “winning” today, the secret to success isn’t the right idea at the right time. It’s viewing the game as a never-ending loop of possibilities. Amazon and Netflix don’t see Blockbuster and Toys “R” Us as foes they defeated. They simply saw them as players who dropped out of a game they wanted to continue playing.
How Can You Apply This Mindset?
Reading Sinek’s book is a good start, but you should start considering the infinite game concept in your business today. Build a circle of trust and collaboration within your internal processes. Welcome leaders and ideas and don’t resist change because you’re trapped in the “this is how we’ve always done it, and it works” mindset.
Infinite leaders don’t view their work as binary. They see flaws and strengths, then focus on the ways their business can succeed through growth. They rely on their people, create new platforms, and actively seek opportunities. They’re not afraid of challenges to their business model, and they are certainly patient.
Ultimately, they don’t view business as a win-or-lose scenario. They view it as a game they want to keep playing. If the “rat race” of business feels a lot like competitive sports to you, then that’s how you know you’ve already lost.