Infinite games are now a mainstream game theory framework, expounded by experts and social media influencers alike. How do companies keep a long-term perspective while searching for quick wins?
What happens when you invite a professor of history and religious literature to philosophize in weekly panel discussions on game theory? In the early 1980s at New York University, James Carse seized the opportunity to skirt advanced mathematics and instead “reflect on the nature of play itself, especially play that saw no value in winning, or even play that actively avoided winning.”1 This state of play is now known as the infinite game — made famous in Carse’s 1986 book, Finite and Infinite Games.
Although the concept of infinite games has been around for decades, it didn’t gain wide popularity until ethnographer Simon Sinek reintroduced the idea in 2017 in a business context. In his oft-quoted example, Sinek describes two education summits he had attended, one organized by Microsoft and one hosted by Apple. At the Microsoft summit, company executives spent most of their presentations talking about how to beat Apple. By contrast, executives at the Apple summit spent their presentations talking about how to help teachers teach and students learn — staying true to the company’s core values. “One was obsessed with their vision and where they were going; the other was obsessed with beating their competition,” explains Sinek, author of the 2019 bestseller The Infinite Game. “Guess which one is frustrated in this competition? The finite player is playing against its competitors; the infinite player is playing against themselves.”2
Using a series of anecdotes, Simon proposes that the shift from a finite- to an infinite-game mindset requires an ethical realignment. Focusing on vision, culture and values will help build organizations that last generations and survive their leaders, he argues. Finite competitions, like the game of Monopoly or the IPO race between Uber and Lyft, have known players, fixed rules and an agreed-upon objective, such as to be the richest company at the end. Infinite games, like the world of business, have both known and unknown players that follow variable rules, with the simple objective of prolonging the game.
Balancing the finite and the infinite is not easy, but companies that succeed have seen innumerable benefits, such as longevity, outperformance, customer satisfaction and employee loyalty. Examples of infinite games emerge from unexpected places — business, history, geopolitics, climate change and even social empowerment. At the core of each is a simple assumption: The pursuit of excellence is a positive-sum game, with no finish line and no losers.
Infinite games in business and geopolitics
The biggest and boldest experiments in infinite games originated in Asia. This can be attributed to the stronger emphasis on longevity, preservation and homeostasis in Asian-Pacific cultures.3 In 2008, a Bank of Korea report noted that, of 5,586 companies older than 200 years in 41 countries, 56 percent were in Japan. In 2019, there were more than 33,000 Japanese businesses over a century old, according to research firm Teikoku Databank.4 In 1932, Konosuke Matsushita announced a 50-year plan for his electric housewares manufacturing company (now known as Panasonic Corp.) to fulfill its new mission: “overcome poverty by producing an abundant supply of goods . . . as plentiful and inexpensive as tap water.” Interestingly, Matsushita had spent the previous day drawing parallels between religion and business, observing people at work in a temple.5
In 2012, Wakatu, a Maori corporation, laid out a 500-year plan outlining the New Zealand real estate company’s purpose, values and objectives as a sustainable business. The plan focused on preserving and growing three cornerstones that the Maori people had maintained for generations: their values (tikanga), land and water (taonga), and people (manaakitanga). The success of this ambition depends on local and world governments prioritizing long-term issues like sustainability, as parts of Wakatu’s home country may be underwater in just 30 years as a result of climate change.6
Clearly, there is a co-dependency of companies and governments in the infinite game. For companies to play, it is essential that their elected leaders think like them. This completes a symbiotic feedback loop: In 2000, when all 191 countries and 20-plus international organizations adopted a 15-year timeline to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), several businesses sprouted up to tap the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid. These companies aimed to achieve profitability through scale by helping the 4 billion individuals living on less than $2 a day. The result: The MDGs are the most successful antipoverty movement in history, helping to lift more than 1 billion people out of extreme poverty.7
The infinite mindset is not just about long-term, assumption-laden financial projections. An infinite game is played not to win but to continue to play and sometimes to bring more players into the game. In 2014, Tesla made its patents freely available with the intent of expanding the electric vehicle market and encouraging rival carmakers. The company’s CEO and founder, Elon Musk, rightly recognized that “our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced, but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”8
Would you consider this move cannibalistic and likely to weaken Tesla’s market position? “Strength is paradoxical,” Carse writes. “I am strong not because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” Six years after making its patents free for anyone to use, Tesla saw its market cap cross $200 billion, making it larger than General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Honda Motor Co. combined.9
Salman Khan, founder of online education platform Khan Academy, articulated an even longer-term vision: empowering “millions or billions of students for the next 500 years.” Why 500 years? “As soon as you start thinking on those scales, you go after a bigger problem and you phrase things differently,” Khan says. “Frankly, you inspire more people.” When Khan followed up his initial simpler idea with his “big, bold vision,” he found he was “able to attract some of the very best talent around the planet for this mission.”10
Making Successful Pivots
In today’s world, any enterprise is constantly tweaking its strategy to adapt to the latest trends and challenges. Flickr, which started as an online role-playing game app, discovered people loved its photo-sharing feature, so it pivoted. YouTube, which began as a video dating site, discovered people were not looking for dates but to share content, so it pivoted. Slack Technologies began as a multiplayer online game developer; when its game business stalled, the company decided to commercialize its internal communications platform. Nintendo was a century-old company manufacturing playing cards before it revolutionized gaming with its electronic console in 1985.
These companies failed in the finite game but succeeded in their pivots by reinterpreting their core competencies — the raison d’être of a firm, which helps it survive and thrive even as the world changes. Nintendo’s core competency was and continues to be “how to create fun,” although the medium evolved from playing cards to gaming consoles. YouTube’s mission statement is “to give everyone a voice and show them the world.”
Conventional business logic and a finite mindset might consider the pivots made by these companies a waste of time and money. After all, such strategic shifts are difficult, lengthy and risky to execute. Investors might simply end up backing a team that has failed — maybe even failed several times.
Nevertheless, these pivots are now seen as essential examples for young growth firms.11 According to the Lean Startup movement, the companies that can make the most mistakes in the least amount of time with the least money are the ones that scale.12
These novel growth companies are often market makers — that is, they create markets where none previously existed. They focus on increasing the size of the pie (infinite mindset) rather than maximizing their share of the pie (finite mindset). In 2015, analysts were concerned that Apple accounted for a measly 14.5 percent of smartphone shipments, but this was a nonissue for Apple, whose small, loyal base of customers helped the iPhone maker grab 94 percent of the industry’s total profits.13 Apple had its eyes set on maximizing the pie, introducing the Apple Watch and a music-streaming service the same year.
Acclaimed angel investor Naval Ravikant contends that most long-term successes result from the principle of compounding. Unfortunately, compounding takes time to show results; a company with a 6 percent compound annual growth rate would take 12 years to double in size. To survive in an industry for such a duration, a business needs to cultivate trust, signaling that it is dependable for the long haul — that it is not in the game just to make money for itself but will also benefit those who partner with it for the journey. Game theorists call this a positive-sum game. Ethical actions are one way to signal this infinite mindset.14
Leaving a Legacy
It may not be easy to balance finite and infinite games simultaneously, but many successful players of the finite game eventually transcend toward the infinite. Several business leaders, after winning their finite games, have turned to such infinite issues as legacy, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and succession — issues without finish lines, rules or stakeholders.
Microsoft’s Bill Gates co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after a decade topping the Forbes World’s Billionaires List. Swedish inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel funded the Nobel Prize after reading a premature obituary that condemned him for profiting from the sales of arms. Within a decade of his retirement in 1901, Andrew Carnegie, then the world’s richest man, donated 90 percent of his wealth through philanthropic organizations including Carnegie Corp., the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
These icons were No. 1 in their finite domains before they prioritized the infinite game. However, a business can prosper even if it is not No. 1. For such a company, business is no longer just a race to the top but a marathon to provide value to customers and adapt to changing scenarios. James Carse compared businesses to gardens and harvests to quarterly results:
“Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a gardener’s existence, but only a phase of it. As any gardener knows, the vitality of a garden does not end with a harvest. It simply takes another form. Gardens do not ‘die’ in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.”
There is no single winner in abstract pursuits like gardening, health, parenting and business. The objective is simply to keep the game in play.
The Pull of the Finite
Multiple forces pull companies toward finite issues; a CEO has limited time to show results. The median tenure of a CEO at companies in the S&P 500 index shrank from six years in 2013 to five years at the start of 2018, according to data provider Equilar.15 Finance professors Dirk Jenter and Katharina Lewellen found that 38 to 55 percent of all CEO turnover is performance related, with even higher percentages during the first two years in the job.16 Add to this our evolutionary instincts and behavioral biases that have hardwired us to prioritize the short term, and it’s no great surprise that CEOs feel pressure to deliver quick wins.17
CEOs typically kick off their tenure announcing big, bold, long-term targets, with the intent of looking at the “infinite” picture. This optimism is often unfazed by reality: Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that 70 percent of transformation programs fail.18 Ambitions are further exaggerated by people’s inherent illusory superiority bias, wherein we are inclined to overestimate our own abilities — like the 87 percent of Stanford University MBA students who rated their performance above average.19
It usually doesn’t take long for employees to follow in the footsteps of the CEO. In many companies, the annual strategy exercise essentially witnesses multiple project proposals competing for finite funds. If some employees vying for a share of the budget pie put forth finite-minded and overambitious “hockey stick” forecasts, others could be tempted or coerced to play along. Such forecasts typically involve revenue projections that sail skyward in the shape of a hockey stick after a brief early dip to account for up-front investment. However, these forecasts are seldom reliable and usually end up as regular linear growth,20 resulting in what McKinsey calls “hairy back”-shaped plot lines. Because few companies check to see if their longer-range forecasts come true, the hockey-stick forecasts continue.21
Surprises Par for the Course
Forecasting is an inexact science at best and an impossible quest at worst. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the 2001 bestseller Fooled by Randomness, has argued that it is impossible to calculate the risk or likelihood of black swan events — large, improbable and highly consequential events like World War I or the rise of the internet.22 So why would corporations and their leaders even bother trying? And even if a leader manages to craft a resilient, long-term infinite strategy, he or she is almost certainly going to fail at articulating it. On average, 95 percent of a company’s employees are unaware of or do not understand its strategy, according to research by Harvard Business School professor emeritus Robert Kaplan and Palladium Group co-founder David Norton.23
It is the nature of a finite player to avoid surprises and strive for predictability. Finite players thus train themselves to prevent surprises. Infinite players educate themselves to prepare for surprises — to adapt to unknowns. The contrast across these mindsets has been evident in the COVID-19 pandemic, which was widely touted as a black swan event, having caught many government and business leaders by surprise. Taleb, who popularized this label, actually termed the pandemic a white swan event: consequential, probable and widely predicted by himself, Gates and others.24
The Custodian Mindset
Even in privately held young growth companies, which do not need to manage quarterly earnings expectations, the C-suite attrition rate can be high, as these enterprises need different types of leaders for different stages of their business. The CEO who methodically bootstraps a startup to break-even may not be the right leader for the growth phase, when, for example, the company may want to go on an acquisition spree. During that period, a CEO with M&A experience may be a better fit.
In a way, business leaders are custodians in an infinite game, managing the wealth and continuation of play for the next generation. Herein lies the key difference between approaching business as a game with a finish line versus one that goes on forever. The former resists the impermanence of a leader; the latter celebrates it.
So how can CEOs balance finite and infinite games? The first step is to know which one they are playing. Competing for an infinite outcome in a finite setting is akin to playing test-match cricket, which can take up to five days, in a T20 match, which typically lasts about three hours. The game may be over before the strategy has even had a chance to be implemented.
The far more common fallacy is playing a finite game in an infinite setting. This happens when players feel that they are stuck in the game and cannot quit. As an infinite player, you can always withdraw and come back to play at your time of choosing; the game will always be there. In 1969, Warren Buffett liquidated his investment partnership after delivering 30 percent annual returns for 13 years. “I didn’t know how to be a hero anymore,” he said at the time.25 Having earned the trust of his investors, Buffett soon became CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, which his partnership had acquired control of a few years earlier, and built the onetime textile company into the successful conglomerate it is today. He realized the game was infinite. He could walk away and come back to play another day.
Lessons from Japan
No country has been better at playing the infinite game than Japan, with its many century-old businesses. These companies, called shinise (“old shops”), display strong bonds with their communities. They embrace and protect local traditions and values through their products and services, keeping the businesses in high social standing in a society that values traditions and longevity.5
Like other infinite players, successful shinise pivot around their core competencies when the going gets tough. One Kyoto-based kimono maker, whose business dates to 1688, recently expanded into carbon fiber production because of the decrease in popularity of traditional clothing among Japanese women. Its core competency continues to be 3D weaving.
Some shinise, such as Panasonic, have been willing to take extraordinary measures, such as adopting meritorious heirs to ensure business continuity. Research by the National University of Singapore indicates that nonblood heirs outperform blood heirs and professional executives by 6 to 10 percentage points.26
Small Failures and Big Ideas
How does a company focus on the long term when it is already No. 1 in its industry? Market leaders often look to adopt best practices from other industries. For example, Exxon Mobil Corp. collaborated with Microsoft to install artificial intelligence programs to draw actionable insights from refinery sensors and optimize operations.27 Angel investor Ravikant frames it pithily: “When you combine things you are not supposed to combine, people get interested.”28
Applying the Pareto principle to original thinking, 20 percent of the thought leaders in any field should account for 80 percent of the innovation. For CEOs, the challenge remains to identify the 20 percent of original thinkers and surround themselves with those individuals. Broadening horizons in this manner helps companies be what Taleb calls “antifragile” — able not only to withstand hardships but also to benefit from them.29
One way to be antifragile is to fail in small doses and use that failure to gain strength over time. This is similar to the concept of progressive overload in strength-training fitness exercises: The muscles grow in size as the fibers rebuild after strenuous exercise. This implies that CEOs shouldn’t be afraid of short-term volatility, because it creates opportunities to make mistakes, tweak operations and eventually exploit strengths when a rare black swan event occurs.
Although black swan events are too rare to be modeled, it is possible to forecast some risks and factor them into long-term planning. Such risks can also be identified through bottom-up idea-generation exercises, in which the front-line staff actively seed ideas that eventually evolve into strategic goals.
Contingency functions like business continuity planning (BCP) and crisis management are par for the course in today’s world. Consulting firm Deloitte finds that more than 50 percent of businesses will ultimately fail following a major disruption if they do not have an effective BCP.30 Such functions help companies respond to disruptive events like natural disasters, cyberattacks, geopolitical turmoil and terrorism.
With CEOs increasingly focused on short-term priorities, the relatively new C-suite role of chief strategy officer is often entrusted with the responsibility of thinking longer-term. The CSO supports the CEO in creating and executing the firm’s strategy. Almost 50 percent of S&P 500 companies have embraced this role in their organizations.31 However, the job description can vary significantly from organization to organization. There are broadly four categories of CSO, each differently placed on the spectrum of balancing long-term priorities and quick wins:32
Internal consultant CSOs focus exclusively on strategy formulation, which is then owned and implemented by business units. Typically hailing from a management consulting background, these CSOs provide flexible, analytical support and offer a more neutral perspective than the concerned business units. This CSO archetype is closest to the infinite mindset, with a sweeping mandate to address issues across a company and look at best practices from its industry and beyond. However, internal consultant CSOs typically have the shortest tenures, as they often leverage their role to eventually transition into operational management positions.
Specialist CSOs have specialized skills that are not otherwise present within an organization — for example, M&A or public policy. Their contributions are narrow, oriented toward quick wins and known only to the top echelons of their companies.
Coach CSOs do not create strategies themselves. Instead, they work as facilitators for the board, CEO and business units. One CSO described this archetype as “providing information to help people create strategy” and “to make sure people are talking to each other.” Though they may have limited decision-making powers, these CSOs have the influence to nudge business units toward framing problems in an infinite milieu. They tend to be well-entrenched company veterans who have the ears of the key people in the organization.
Change agent CSOs are focused on execution, quick wins and impact — akin to a chief operating officer. The CEO would look for this kind of CSO to affect a turnaround within the organization. Change agents help the company have an impact while adapting to external scenarios. As such, they play the finite game within an infinite game.
At the end of the day, the CEO remains the strategic compass for any company, defining its values, vision and mission. Sinek believes it is the chief executive’s prerogative and duty to articulate a company’s “just cause” to ensure that workers feel part of something bigger than themselves. In The Infinite Game, he defines just cause as “a forward looking statement that is so inspiring and compelling that people are willing to sacrifice to see that vision advanced.” A just cause is an ideal that inspires people for the long run. It serves as a constant reminder to prioritize the infinite over the finite. According to Sinek, companies must have a just cause to play in the infinite game.
Sinek likes to use the example of Steve Jobs. The Apple co-founder and CEO, he says, had an ideal vision of the future — a just cause. Jobs imagined a world in which an individual could compete with a corporation; the personal computer turned out to be the perfect product to help advance that cause. “It wasn’t just that Apple’s product was better; that was debatable,” Sinek explains. “It was that they saw themselves as champions for this cause. That cause became their own.”
Infinite games are full of paradoxes, contradictions and exceptions to the rule. Still, when companies put too much focus on finite goals, they should keep in mind that the finite victory is no guarantee of longevity or sustained outperformance. But when finite games are played within the context of the larger, infinite game, leaders are more likely to leave organizations in better shape than when they joined them.
Aviral Srivastava is a Vice President, Strategy, at WorldQuant and has a bachelor of technology in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Varanasi, and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow.