Beating the competition to become Number One is a losing business strategy. This was just one of the head-turning insights I heard from Simon Sinek, bestselling author and renowned optimist, during his inspiring talk that capped off last week’s SAP Ariba Live conference in Austin, Texas.
In Sinek’s world view, there are two types of games: finite and infinite. Finite games have known players, fixed rules and agreed upon objectives. In contrast, rules are changeable in the infinite game, with unknown and unknown players who are in it to keep playing. Problems arise when finite players are up against infinite players. All too often, the former end up mired in a quagmire of lost trust and declining innovation.
“The vast majority of our leaders talk about being Number One, being the best, beating competition. The trouble is, business is an infinite game,” said Sinek. “The infinite-minded player understands that sometimes you have a better product and sometimes they do…There’s no such thing as being the best…because in the infinite game there’s no such thing as winning business. The goal is to outlast…outdo yourself.”
Sinek outlined five ways companies can lead with an infinite mindset.
One: Advance a bigger just cause
Organizations equipped to play in the infinite game advance a cause that people will sacrifice themselves to achieve. Using the United States as an example, Sinek explained that winning the revolutionary war wasn’t enough. The country’s founders committed to an ideal vision of the future. In the infinite game, companies are always moving towards their higher vision. Here’s the rub ─ they never get there.
“A just cause is an ideal vision of the future you’ve committed your products, company and future to,” said Sinek. “America still is trying to provide that ideal that all people are created equal…We’re making steps towards that ideal vision of the future that does not yet exist. It’s the same in business. You can tell [which] companies offer something bigger than the products they sell. We make sacrifices, take frequent business trips, work long hours. Sometimes, we can make more money elsewhere, but would rather stay here because it feels worth it.”
Two: Foster trusting teams
According to Sinek, 99 percent of the time that employees don’t meet performance standards is because leadership hasn’t created a trusted environment. He cited his personal experiences talking with a barista at a hotel who genuinely loved one of his jobs because of the positive managerial support. But this worker viewed his other job at a casino as merely collecting a paycheck, because management didn’t treat him as a trusted team member.
“When they work on trusting teams, people feel like their leaders have their backs,” said Sinek. “A leader’s job is to create an environment where trust can thrive. That someone can come to work and feel safe raising their hand and saying I made a mistake…or I need training… without fear of being put on the short list for layoffs. If you don’t have trusting teams, you have groups of people…not asking for help for fear it will hurt their promotability. Eventually things break.”
Three: Admire worthy rivals
There’s nothing more motivating than a worthy competitor, provided we use our admiration of them to fuel our own continuous improvement. Sinek talked about being on stage with someone he considered a major rival. The eye-opening moment for Sinek was when he introduced his rival by saying “you make me feel insecure. All of your strengths are all of my weaknesses. He turned to me and said, funny, I feel the same about you.”
Sinek realized that his rival’s strengths revealed his own weaknesses. However, in the infinite game, trying to beat competitors is a waste of resources. Companies need to admire their worthy rivals, and constantly improve to stay in the game.
Four: Practice existential flexibility
Instead of protecting their company’s current business model, Sinek advised leaders to have existential flexibility. No matter how much they’ve invested in going down a certain path, they need to cultivate an openness towards a better future.
“If you’re not willing to blow up your own company, the market will blow it up for you,” said Sinek. “Companies think about flexibility, but it’s often defensive, not offensive. Be willing to make a profound strategic shift, and [take a] short-term loss, to stay in game. If you have a just cause and trusting teams…people will understand why you’re doing it and agree.”
Five: Courage to lead
Sinek likened the infinite mindset to going to the gym. Once people reach their goal, they can’t stop going.
“Leadership is like a lifestyle…to release the passion in the people who are in our charge,” he said. “It takes unbelievable courage to completely change the way we see the world…If we can learn to embrace infinite mindsets, not only have we increased and enhanced innovation, seen trust and cooperation thrive, but we’ll actually love our jobs…At the end of our life we’ll look back and say I was a part of something bigger than myself.”
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