One of the things I look for in a business book is plenty of case studies. It’s not the theories of business and marketing I love (although I know some people do!), but seeing those theories in practice. Reading case studies frames the theories in a way that helps me make connections to potential applications both immediately and in the future.
Enter The Infinite Game. Author Simon Sinek first built a name for himself with his TED talk, Start with Why—How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Sinek’s approach to business is one that resonates with me, and I was looking forward to reading his latest book, The Infinite Game.
What is an infinite game?
Before we dive into the meat of the book, let’s start with the definitions:
A finite game is one you play with known players, fixed rules, and an agreed-upon objective. Once that objective is reached, the game ends. Most board games, sports, and video games operate finitely.
An infinite game, on the other hand, includes both known and unknown players. There may be laws or conventions governing behavior, but there are no exact or agreed-upon rules everyone must abide by. The manner in which you play is entirely up to each player and can be changed at any time. Most importantly, the goal of the game is to play in a way that allows you to keep playing, rather than working toward an objective that ends the game.
In real life, the games we play—relationships, health, business, education, etc.—are infinite. There’s no winner or loser, no set number of players, and the rules change all the time. The objective is simply to keep the “game” going.
And yet, much of the language we use around business focuses on a finite mindset: beating the competition, winning, being the best, or being number one.
Through dozens of case studies, Sinek demonstrates the value of having an infinite mindset in business for profitability, longevity, and the mental health of the individuals within the company. Viewing business through an infinite mindset leads to stronger, more innovative, more inspiring organizations that are resilient in the face of an ever-changing world.
He then outlines five principles for playing the infinite game:
1. Just cause
A just cause is a purpose that’s bigger than the business goals itself. It’s a vision for the future and your company’s role in that vision. Notably, Sinek differentiates your just cause—which defines where you’re headed and what you do—from your why—which comes from your past and defines who you are.
A just cause is:
- For something rather than the opposite
- Inclusive to all who would like to contribute
- Service oriented and focused on how it benefits others
- Resilient in the face of political, technological, and cultural changes
- Idealistic—which means, yes, it’s ultimately unachievable
2. Trusting teams
Next, he talks about the importance of trust within your team. He uses the example of Navy SEALs. Although SEALs are known for their expertise and performance, they choose trust over performance when evaluating new team members.
This trust—and vulnerability within the team—is an important part of working together. Most importantly, building a trusting team starts with the leadership. Team members have to feel safe expressing their opinions as well as admitting they need help or made a mistake. Otherwise, their focus becomes more about protecting their own interests than serving customers and clients.
3. Worthy rivals
In one of my favorite stories from the book, Sinek describes a full-page ad Apple took out in 1981 to welcome IBM to the personal computer market. Apple knew having a rival like IBM in the industry would help grow the PC market. Rather than seeing IBM as a competitor to take down, Apple welcomed them to the game as a worthy rival.
Similarly, he shares the story of Alan Mulally, who became the CEO of Ford in 2006. When asked what car he personally drove, he replied, “A Lexus. It’s the finest car in the world.” Mulally valued honesty and believed acknowledging the successes of competitors would help his team strive for improvement, not to beat the competitor but to be the best they could as they worked toward their own vision for the future.
4. Existential flexibility
After living through the first half of 2020, I don’t know that anyone would argue with the value of flexibility. However, to demonstrate this point, Sinek points back to another turning point in U.S. history: the story of Victorinox, the maker of the popular Swiss Army knives, in a post-9/11 world.
After 9/11, new TSA rules banned travelers from carrying hand knives, which profoundly affected Victorinox’s sales. Rather than fighting the legislation or laying off staff, Victorinox began brainstorming ways to diversify their core product line. Today only 35% of their sales come from knives. Instead, their luggage, travel gear, and business accessories make up a large portion of their continued growth.
5. Courage to lead
Finally, as each of the above stories demonstrates, playing the infinite game requires courage to lead. The decisions an organization makes might not always make sense to those who are focused on short-term profits and beating the competition. But leaders who are playing for the long term see the larger picture.
One clear example of this is CVS’s decision to stop selling cigarettes in their stores. This decision caused shockwaves and initially cost them millions of dollars in revenue. However, they were eventually joined by partners who shared their vision of the future. Because of the courage they showed, they ended up doubling revenue in the 18 months following the announcement.
One last note: in a live interview about these principles, Sinek clarified that playing The Infinite Game isn’t just for CEOs and upper-level management. We all have the opportunity to lead and demonstrate these principles in whatever role we play.
The Infinite Game isn’t the type of book you read and then immediately implement through various tactics. Instead, it’s about evaluating your mindset: Where are you approaching business with a finite mindset, focusing on the immediate future or “beating the competition”? How can you shift your focus to a just cause that’s bigger than the balance sheet and then act accordingly?