Author: Kevin Simpson

It’s January 30 2021, overtime in a stadium of almost 90,000 people.

The Cincinnati Bengals have overcome an 18 point first half deficit and Evan McPherson’s field goal will send the Bengals to the SuperBowl for the third time in their franchise history.

For both teams the finite game is over. For one, the Infinite Game has only begun. Restarted in the never ending cycle of analysis, rebuild, reformat and re-tool known to all successful sporting teams.

James P. Carse – whose 1986 book Finite and Infinite Games –  started the ball rolling in the concept of finite and infinite strategies with regards to business operation. 

Simon Sinek  drastically expanded on this concept in his book The Infinite Game in 2019.

Sinek’s premise is simple – businesses who refuse to focus on the Infinite game generally fade away when they run out of will and or resources to continue.

I won’t get into the details of what makes up the Infinite game, I recommend you follow the links above, but what I will say is the bridge between the two games is the key, and most importantly the bridge that is usually not crossed.

Business strategic leadership skills are often compared to skills required to play chess – a long view of the game at hand, holding back resources to protect and organize a future attack, understanding true team resources, their limits and how exactly they can be utilized. How to win the game is clear as are the rules of the game, which are fixed and do not change.

But Chess is a finite game – there is no long term strategy that transcends the game, when the game is over everything ends, and the players never change.

Football has both elements. Run and executed by the head coach and the players. Football is a game that ends when the ball crosses through the uprights, and has another game that begins when the season is finally over. Run by the general manager and ownership. The game of planning and building, swapping one piece out for another based on results and changes to next year’s strategy. Here the rules can change, resources do too, and the goal is to keep the game running as long as possible.

The great teams are masters of both games.

The Finite Game with the kick.

The Infinite Game never ends.

The bridge between the infinite and finite games could be one of the more difficult concepts in business. 

As an executive coach who has worked with hundreds of companies I find that often companies are either great at one or the other. 

Meaning that some companies are masters at the long term focus required by the Infinite Game – like Circuit City who started in the 1940’s and grew to 616 locations with over 60,000 staff. 

Clearly masters of strategic growth, but they collapsed almost overnight in 2007 when they tried to swap out 3500 of  their key players (employees they identified at the time as their ‘overpriced’ salespeople) for new, cheaper, but untrained new ones. The results were immediate.

Then there are companies with great finite game skills, but terrible at long term – infinite game skills – like Kodak – who had mastered the art of film, the camera, printing pictures quick and cheap, but forgot to answer the question “what happens if these (cell phones) can take pictures one day?”

The best companies, like Apple, are masters of both.

Meaning they have a clear vision of their future, but are focussed at winning the game every day by leveraging the tools, the team, and the products they have.

So how do you truly bridge the two games?

I find companies that excel at both have the following traits:

  • Visionary leadership who are not afraid of candour and feedback no matter how hard it is to listen to. This takes a strong and honest team open to 360 evaluations and the commitment to pivot when wrong.
  • A true 5 year plan – starting with their 5 year organizational chart that matches their 5 year product ladder. 
  • Clear knowledge of what winning means, and what it looks like – everyone in the company can identify what their company and individual Stanley cup looks like.
  • Absolute clarity on the company’s current year top 5 non-negotiable goals – meaning we will get them done no matter what
  • A dedication to OKR’s (objective and key results) and a 90 day planning cycle with employee focus, aligned calendars and tasks set to achieve the company’s 1 year goals. (I will write about OKR’s in future pieces here).

Who knows what changes the Kansas City Chiefs will make in the off season. Coach? Offensive coordinator? The only thing we know for sure is that there will be change because they are truly one of football’s great teams.

So how do you get started building this bridge and working on both games? 

Normally I suggest a one or two day workshop where not only do you define the key elements of your company’s Infinite game, but you and your team also learn how to reshape your company around OKR’s, and a 90 execution mindset.

Regardless of where you sit, this concept of playing both games at once and adopting a Strategic Thinking, Execution Planning is key and it’s not too late to start for your 2022 success.