The Infinite Game

Simon Sinek first burst into the limelight with his Ted Talk “Start with Why”, before continuing to spread his idea of Leading an Infinite Game vs mistakenly Playing the Finite Game.

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To briefly summarise, a finite game is when there is a known set of rules, a known goal and known players – Company A wants to become number one in the industry by year 20xx; Company 7 wants to reach 1 billion dollar market cap within x years; Country U wants to win a war against Country V by year 19xx; or a basketball game. At the end of the fixed time, within the fixed rules, playing against known players, there will be winners and losers.

An infinite game, on the other hand, is where there are unknown players, undefined rules, and a goals that keep the game going – the founding constitution of a country that propel its people forward regardless of changing circumstances; a country’s fight for their lives against any hostile invader; a vision to change the world regardless of how business circumstances change.

These are ongoing missions.

The classic case of Microsoft’s desire, under Steve Ballmer’s lead, to win the fight against Apple (a finite game), vs Apple’s mission to empower teachers and students in the education field, regardless of how new peers pop out, or how other companies were temporarily leading them sometimes, speaks a lot about how each company may end up years down the path – Microsoft was spending time and resources trying to beat Apple, while Apple was predominantly devoted to their cause, thereby igniting a sense of fire and higher purpose within its ranks and customers.

Awesome sharing by Mr Karthik Siva whose management insights are highly sought after by world government leaders.

During the Global Leadership Summit in Putrajaya this week, which we are privileged and honoured to be invited by a notable industry leader, Dato CC Ngei, we’ve had the privilege to learn from Simon Sinek, among 5 other great leaders and speakers, and would like to share with you his completed framework to play an infinite game, so leaders in businesses can learn how to transit their current game to an infinite one:

1) Just Cause – To play an infinite game, we first need a just cause, the big why. It is this just cause that calls out to the souls of people to want to be a part of this mission, the very people who are willing to even sacrifice for it, if need be.

A) To be a worthy just cause, it needs to be Resilient and transcend political and technology disruptions. A mission to create the best smartphone in the world is not a just cause – when a new gadget supplants a “phone”, the company’s purpose cease to exist.

B) Inclusive – it needs to include anybody willing to answer the call. An arbitrary country’s political agenda to protect a certain group of people first and foremost does not qualify.

C) It needs to be Service-Oriented – there must be a sense of contribution to the betterment of others other than the company’s interest or the management’s pockets.

When there is a just cause but the leaders breach their integrity by not following it, then their whole story is just plain BS, and the just cause is obliterated.

Critically, the idea of making money is important for it is the fuel for the car, but the idea of moving towards the just cause is the primary motivation for decision-making; money is merely a result of moving towards the just cause.

2) Trusting Team – the leaders have to create a safe environment where team members dare to be themselves and reveal their vulnerability and ask for help without fear of impeachment.

3) Worthy Rival – there has got to be an entity existing to make the company better. Not a competitor to compete against (finite game), but a peer to compete with, and in the process we become better. Think of the role of pacers within the context of a marathon, someone exist to push us to become better.

4) Existential Flexibility – Decisions empowered by the just cause – are we willing to blow ourselves up to achieve our just cause? Are we willing to make short term changes to our business so we can achieve our just cause?  (this is the last point that Simon could not finish in his speech at the New York Times Conference in 2018.)

He shared about the crossroads that Apple was at, just after the successful launches of Apple I and II, when Steve Jobs witnessed Xerox’s GUI system and was blown away by how it would advance Apple’s just cause – to make “a computer for the rest of us”, the everyday folks who need an easier interface to use their computers instead of typing codes (rudimentary at the time).

Steve Jobs went back to Apple and demanded all R&D efforts to go solely into developing their own GUI. Apple’s engineers told him something to the tune of “that will destroy our company financially,” to which Steve Jobs replied “better we destroy our company than others.” That was how the Mackintosh was born in 1984.

Intriguingly, Simon Sinek actually shared his view about the current Apple management team in this second presentation

5) Courage to Lead – the very idea of doing something different, especially in industries where there are “norms to follow”, requires courage; it requires courage to stick to the just cause and make sacrifices to attain it, to blow the plans up so as to advance the cause.

What investors can learn from this:
Interestingly, what Simon Sinek shared resonates with our style of investing very closely, as we covered in our classes, the difference between management who are concerned about their personal paychecks, which is typically tied to their company’s finite goal to reach certain results by certain time, and those led by a higher purpose to contribute to fellow mankind; this difference can be huge:

Jarring results of management playing finite games, motivated to “create value” for shareholders and themselves, sometimes by hook or by crook.
Humble results of management playing infinite games, motivated to add value to consumers, even if they have to blow themselves up to advance their just cause.

Q) Are you invested in management playing finite or infinite games?