Business is a game

Are you playing to win, or playing to play?

Growing up through high school back in 2003 I was the overweight, dorky computer game nerd. I had a growing Warhammer 40k army of Space Orcs, a proud Pokemon card collection and was an obsessive competitive computer gamer. ‘Shoot em ups’ or RPGs were never my thing — it was always the strategy games that I enjoyed the most. Titles like Age of Empires, Command and Conquer, Warcraft…I could go on.

Fast forward 14 years, I still adore games — mostly of the board game variety. I’ve been a recent convert of Settlers of Catan. I love the combination of strategy and ability to trade with your competitors. It’s quite a unique combination.

Best game ever

The connotations of games are typically of leisure, fun, enjoyment. A form of salvation from life’s stresses.

The truth is that games are so much more than this.

Life can be seen as a game.

The difference, however is these life games can be played in two very different ways.

These two games can be finite or infinite — as explored by philosopher James Carse.

Finite games have specific boundaries. They have a clear beginning, a playing field and a certain number of players. In addition to these restrictions, they are dictated by a set of rules — rules that are pre-established and mutually agreed upon by the players. Once the rules are established, the objective is to win.

When there’s a winner, the game is over. It is zero sum.

If this doesn’t sound like the real world to you, consider an election. The election rules are set by a constitution, the winner is decided by a vote, and there are practices that are or not permitted (eg rigging/fraudulent votes).

Infinite games, on the other hand are the polar opposite to finite games.

Where a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play. Infinite games are not bound by any external or internal restrictions. Anyone can participate in this game, anytime, anywhere.

Consider music composition. There will never be ‘the world’s best artist’, because there will always be new composers writing new and inspiring music. No artist makes art to win or be the best. Rather, the compositions are open invitations for more people to join the game.

Finite players strive for domination, infinite players strive to coexist through playing

The desire to dominate accompanies finite players everywhere. Finite players aim to win in order to gain control over others. They flaunt their titles and exhibit their power and superiority. They are in the business to conquer, disrupt and crush their competitors.

The infinite player on the other hand is not concerned with beating others, because to them, only the game matters. As a result, infinite players aren’t fixated on a particular outcome or result. They seek to coexist and offer their partners their perspective. They are accepting to new knowledge and are open to have their minds changed. Their objective is to continue play, and are therefore malleable to new approaches.

The game of business

Business is an infinite game. Anyone can participate. The goals are not fixed. The rules are unknown and shifting.

Although the game of business is infinite, most organisations play finite ones. The leaders think in finite terms, bound by time, ego and expectations of their shareholders. The focus is on profit, market share, share price.

The greatest organisations play an infinite game. Tesla is an example of this. Elon Musk is not playing to win — to disrupt competitors, to kill the automotive industry as we know it. Their goal is to create sustainable transport.

to create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.

A finite player would never share their secrets to their competitors. Unlike Tesla, who in 2014 open sourced their patents to the world.

People saw this absurd. Musk, however, knew it was necessary.

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal.”

Musk is not distracted by competition. His focus is to rally everyone towards his vision.

How to play an infinite game

Everyone can choose to play a finite or infinite game. Here are some guiding principles.

See boundaries as horizons

Where finite players play within boundaries, infinite players play with boundaries. Play with boxes rather than thinking outside of them.

Rules are set by finite players

In order for the infinite game to continue, it must constantly be changing. The worst thing that can happen is for the rules to become rigid or dogmatic. Infinite players bend and change rules for the purposes of continuous play.

Question all games where the rules are set by finite players.

Play with jest

“Remember rule number 6” — Benjamin Zander

Where finite players play in all seriousness, the infinite player plays with sincere jest. The infinite player laughs at her ‘failures’, imperfections and personal foibles. Knowing these traits, infinite players capitalise on their uniqueness. They know the past is history, and it does not determine the future.

The future of an infinite game is open-ended and complete with possibility.

Be concerned with vision, not power

Finite players focus on titles, test scores, position and hierarchy. These titles are simply recognition for having won a past finite game.

Titles are irrelevant to infinite players.

They are more concerned with offering a vision that encourage others to participate and work to develop that vision.

You can choose what kind of game you want to play, and what kind of player you want to be. As long as you don’t hide behind masks or let yourself be duped by others, you can play as you wish.

So which game are you playing?

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Jason Andrew

Jason Andrew

Chartered Accountant | CoFounder @sbo.financial and assurety.co | Traveller