Gaming the business of Life

Venky Ramachandran
Dec 17, 2016 · 5 min read

Once upon a time, in a faraway hill down below the Vindhyas, there lived a beautiful princess. At first, it seemed like yet another uneventful day. When the princess went to sleep, she had a dream. In her dream, a real hunk of a man was looking intensely at her. and started coming towards her. Closer. Closer. Closer. He came so close that she could even feel his breath. She trembled. Not in fear.

“What will you do to me?”

“Well, lady — it’s your dream!”

It is your dream — you can make whatever you want out of it — is at the heart of the work that I hold as deeply sacred in my life. I tell stories and play games (of the consulting kind). Stories and games are two sides of the deeply mysterious, yet reassuringly familiar human impulse: The urge to play. Before we, the humans, civilized and learned enough to call ourselves Homo Sapiens, we were Homo Ludens.

In the game of life, there are at least two kinds of games.

There is Finite Game. Finite Games are defined by known players, fixed rules and the objective of the game is already agreed upon: You play the game to win.

Take the game of Cricket. Or to be more Indian, our religion of Cricket. No matter how much we desired and worshiped Sachin, when he got out in the slog overs, he couldn’t come back and save us from defeat. In a finite game, the rules are fixed. There are Winners (with a capital W) and there are losers.

And then there is Infinite Game. Infinite game is defined by known and unknown players; Rules are changeable; and the objective is to keep the game in play. To perpetuate the game.

Let us take an example to understand the difference between these two kinds of games.

Going to the gym is a classic case of a finite game. Your goals determine your behaviours.

Doing Yoga, in its truest form, is a classic case of an infinite game. Your behaviours determine your goals.

When you workout in the gym, you train your body machine according to the operating procedure handed over by your coach. The gym — the last king of the industrial age ruling the technocratic proletariat — evokes the Sisyphus myth from our painful unconscious. In its mirrored walls, we enjoy the painful sight of our abjure surrender to the machines — levers, pulleys, winches, racks and conveyor belts — that once ruled our dreadful working selves. We gratify our misery by the numbers that measure what we’ve endured through. Health turns into a game of numbers.

When you do yoga, you learn to play with your body and breadth without truly knowing what to expect. You start to acknowledge your body with all its vulnerabilities as a sentient being other than your self. You acknowledge the relationship with your body which has held you in stead in times, good and bad. As you play, you learn to observe the results of your play through the experiencing self, who emerges only through the abnegation of the measuring self.

The contrast must be obvious. You cannot but train to play the finite game. You cannot but learn to play the infinite game.

Let us now look at the game of business.

The game of business is an infinite game. The game existed long before corporations were born with limited liability. The game will exist even after the last big corporation bites the dust in the near future.

But, if you look at everything they say they do, you are going to be convinced that they’re playing a finite game after all.

Take the curious case of the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) aka Transformer-in-Chief.

A role with a hoity-toity title like that can only be played in a finite game. Try bringing the CDO to the infinite game and the absurdity reveals itself. If everything that the organization is going to breathe in the future will be digital, it won’t help to have a Chief Breathing officer.

And yet, to conclude, that finite game is only for those who came late in the game is premature. When you play in a competitive market with its natural hierarchy of winners and losers, you would be foolish to pretend that you only care about the infinite game.

So which game do we really care about ?

Early on, playing the game of life, schools train us to believe that life is a finite game. Degrees matter. Titles matter. You have no choice but to play the game by the script that sounds so inevitable to be true.

It doesn’t matter if the degree is nothing more than an upfront life insurance at its best, or an unnecessary mystification at its worst. It matters that degree lets you play your title with utmost seriousness in the eyes of others. Even if you quietly suspect that you are pretending, the power of other’s eyes is deeply alluring. Even if you subvert credentials to prove that degrees doesn’t matter, your subverted titles suddenly become the new degrees. Titles are powerful and finite games are all about power.

Let us now look at the game of business with the advent of the digital.

Scientists who study the origins and salient mysteries of life, have talked about a spectacular event that paleontologists call the Cambrian Explosion, which happened half-billion years ago, where in a relatively short span of few million years, the biological diversity that represent life on the planet today, were invented in a frenzy of evolutionary innovation.

In its “Cambrian explosion” moment, the digital favours the brave who dare to play finite games within the infinite games.

Remember this. You can play Finite games inside infinite games. You cannot play infinite games inside finite games.

Schooled enough through the growing years, if you remain a hopeless addict to zero-sum finite games, you are going to be in trouble. Playing zero-sum finite games in the digital world is as wise as taking a knife to a gun-fight.

Which game are you going to play? Are you ready?

A version of this article originally appeared in LinkedIn

Venky Ramachandran

Written by

I play with stories to design products better | I tell stories to help clients grope “Digital Transformation”

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