The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek

The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
As part of her Meet the Author Series, Holly Branson sat down with Author, ‘Optimistic Thinker’ and Leadership Guru, Simon Sinek for a look at his latest book ‘The Infinite Game’. And on 11.11, X+Why Co-working Space played host to this most recent recording of the series.

Every month, Holly Branson interviews some of the most inspiring and innovative business and social impact authors sharing their pearls of wisdom via the written and spoken word. Her line up has included Jeremy Heimans, June Sarpong, Michelle Obama and of course, Richard Branson.

Simon’s first Ted Talk in 2009 became the third most watched talk of all time on TED.com, with over 35 million views. His interview on millennials in the workplace broke the internet just two short years ago, garnering over 80 million eyeballs in a single week.

It’s evident that Simon has a knack for articulating some of the sentiments that resonate with us all, and with his latest release, he explores some of the themes around finding and implementing purpose, vision and impact via the workplace.

The centrepiece of Simon’s bold new leadership framework for today’s ever-changing climate, hones in on switching from a finite to an infinite mindset. According to Sinek, we have seen an increase in finite minded leadership across industries since the 80s and 90s, as a result of certain business theories being culturally promoted and popularised during the 70s. Such theories include shareholder supremacy and mass redundancies to balance the books, which were not common before this time.

The game of life itself is infinite: players come and go, there are no fixed rules, and no defined end point. In a game with no finish line, there are no winners or losers, only the past and the future.

So how do we play to ‘succeed’ in the game in which we find ourselves?

There are 5 key pillars to an infinite mind-set:

1.    Finding your just cause

2.    Building trusting teams

3.    Finding a worthy competitor

4.    Existential flexibility

5.    Courage continued

1. Finding Your Just Cause: Goals, Vision and Sacrifice

 ‘How do I inspire employees and customers, day after day, even beyond their appreciation of what my business does?’ – was a question posed to Sinek at a conference of company leaders. The author and motivational speaker’s response became the title of his first book, ‘start with why’. Passion and purpose are infectious, and people become motivated when they understand the fundamental reasons behind why you do what you do.

The difference between ‘why’ and the ‘just cause’, is that the why comes from the past, and the ‘just cause’ is a vision of the future. The past is the sum total of who we are, it’s objective, never changes and we have only one of them. The vision of the future is subjective, changeable, and there can be more than one.

On an individual level, each persons why is unique to them, and comes from how we were raised – it’s just who we are at our baseline. With a Just cause you get to pick whatever you like, whether that be personal, professional, or familial, and you actively choose to devote energy and effort to seeing it progress. Having a just cause means that you would willingly sacrifice your personal interests to advance this movement.

The problem with many of today’s ‘visionary’ efforts, according to Sinek, is that a solid definition is lacking and as a result, many vision statements sound more like egocentric long-term goals: ‘to be the biggest’, ‘to be the most successful’, even ‘to offer the greatest value, with the highest quality products’ – these are not descriptions of the world we want to live in, but descriptions of the companies we want to build. This is fine, but not ‘visionary’ in the sense of making the world a better place, on both an individual and societal level.

2. Building Trusting Teams: Owning up to Mistakes

Business is all about people and relationships, with companies often adopting the values and culture of their founding members.

 A common question from many CEOs, is how they can play an infinite game, with finite minded investors. Well, we get to choose who we take money from, and if that means there are fewer options because there are few infinite-minded investors out there, so be it. We can also take less money from these people, so that their clout is diminished. Unfortunately, nothing in life is free.

In an infinite game, the traditional metrics of success still have value, as the finite game exists within the infinite framework, the two are not mutually exclusive. But they can’t be unbalanced. Sinek is a big believer in team incentives that include behaviours other than performance: trust, cooperation and teamwork should be pillars of the culture that are equally weighted in people’s compensation.

The number 1 value of a trusting team is that it creates an environment where people can raise their hands and own up to their human error, their home situations or their fears, in a safe setting without retribution or humiliation.

It takes an infinite mindset to implement strategies such as a 50-50 bonus, where contribution to revenue is 50% and contribution to culture is the other 50%. In the long game, this circles back through better drive and retention. The goal is not to win, but to keep playing. Meaning building an organisation that can survive its leaders. The choice to play with a finite mindset comes at the cost of trust, innovation and cooperation. The cost to play with an infinite mindset may mean slower growth than the competition, which matters less when the goal is not to beat them, but to outlast them.  

3. Finding a Worthy Competitor: Collaboration Over Competition

Whilst introducing the third pillar, Simon shared a relatable story around constantly measuring up to the competition. ‘There’s another guy who writes books and does talks, and I had an irrational, competitive hatred towards him.’

Constantly checking and comparing the rankings of their latest releases became a fixture in Simon’s life, until the day he was asked to share a panel with his rival, and they were given the task of introducing one another. ‘I said – you make me feel really insecure, because all your strengths, are my weaknesses’, and funnily enough, his competition mirrored the introduction.

The two now collaborate on projects together and Simon no longer feels compelled to check the ranking tables every time he releases a book. Competition in the infinite game is about preventing projecting your insecurities onto the people and projects you ‘don’t like’ and turning the focus in on yourself. The only person you need to be better than in the infinite mindset, is the person or company you were a second ago.

4. Existential Flexbility: Advancing The Cause

The capacity for existential flexibility is bigger than the daily flexibility that we need to have in our jobs. It is the capacity to make a dramatically huge shift in an entirely new direction to advance our cause – even if this means blowing up your own company. It’s changing an entire business model because it’s the right thing to do to advance the movement, which takes courage.

Why is it that the Tech industry invented the e-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 and television industry didn’t invent Netflix? Because they were so preoccupied with protecting the status quo, they didn’t make these existential flexes until they were forced to.

In order for you to have existential flexibility, you need a clear just cause, because that’s what will direct the decisions, and you have to work with people you trust because there will be short term pain.

5. Courage Continued: from CEO to CVO

Simon believes that the term CEO has come to mean little, and with a poorly defined job role and title, it’s hard to define your strategy. He recommends transitioning to CVO – the chief visionary officer. Someone with idealistic, grand visions, that is able to place the foresight of their imagination into the framework of the bigger picture; working with the COO to practically implement strategies towards this new world on the ground level.

Leadership and decision-making takes courage. We expect that most of our senior leaders are the ones preoccupied with the infinite mindset, because frontline employees have to be working on the short game. As soon as you have seniors obsessing over the short-term results, the game is lost.

Mastering Our Fate

In an increasingly reductionist world, we need more people who are able to take a step back, to curiously question and re-evaluate the bigger picture and its emergent properties – what’s really going on, how did we get here, and where are we headed as a result? Critically appraising the situation is one half, and implementing innovative new ideas and strategies to consistently steer us towards a more desirable destination, against the tides of corruption and dystopian values that seep in over time, is another.

Leaders who embrace an infinite mindset build stronger, more inspiring institutions that serve to stand the test of time. They are the captains of our future as a society. As Simon puts it:

‘As for us, those who choose to embrace the infinite mind-set, our journey is to feel inspired every morning, safe when we’re at work and fulfilled at the end of each day. And when it’s our time to leave the game, we will look back at our lives and our careers and say, ‘I lived a life worth living’, but even more importantly, when imagining what the future holds, we’ll see how many people we inspired, to carry on the journey without us’.

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