How the Community Services Industry Plays the Infinite Game

The latest work of thought leader Simon Sinek introduces us to the concept of finite and infinite game theory as it can be applied to leadership and business. CSIA Project Officer Beth Dwine takes a deep dive into how this theory applies to the Community Services Industry.

When you look at Simon Sinek’s latest work, it is quickly evident that the Community Services Industry is playing the infinite game. We have, and always will be, here for the long haul.

We are experiencing significant change and reform, with a lot of unknowns for us. As we push into this exciting new time, we have established clear values and missions for driving our decision making. We will need to watch new trends and information evolve over time.

But as you delve into the finite game theory, it’s easy to see how we can and do slip into this type of leadership and decision making. In times of change it can feel better to focus on meeting smaller goals, reacting to what is happening with others, to make wins rather than the bigger picture.

Sinek’s theory reinforces conversations we are having to better position the Community Services Industry for a strong, outcome-driven, sustainable future.

Who is Simon Sinek and what is the Infinite Game?

Internationally renowned Simon Sinek introduced us to ‘Starting with the why’ with his 2009 TedTalk and has been sharing his research and insights into leadership since then. He is called a visionary and teaches leaders and organisations how to inspire people.

From big business to entrepreneurs to government, Sinek has worked across nearly every industry identifying patterns in the way people think, act and communicate, and about the environments in which they will work at their absolute best.

At the heart of Sinek’s work is understanding and inspiration.

‘It’s about service to others,’ says Sinek, ‘…that’s what it means to be human. Everything about our makeup, our biology and our anthropology is designed to get us to look after each other.’

A quote very much aligned to how organisations across the Community Services Industry operate every day.

In his latest work he proposes that the clear majority of organisations are making decisions in a finite game, but they should be playing the infinite game.

The Difference between a Finite and Infinite Game

Understanding this theory is much like watching your favourite sports team battle out on the field, in the pool, on the pitch or court.

For the finite game, there are known players divided into two known teams. Everyone agrees to the rules and there is a clear measure to determine the winner. The players are in a competitive mind-set, they are playing to beat others and then the game ends. They are focussed on the other players and what they are doing, and each individual makes a decision in that moment based on what is happening as a step towards winning.

‘Finite players play to beat the people around them,’ says Sinek, ‘infinite players play to be better than themselves, to wake up every single day and say, “How can we make our company a better version of itself today than it was yesterday?”’

An infinite game, like business or life itself, is played with both known and unknown players, the rules are changeable, the objective is to keep the game in play and value is not placed on measures that are absolute but on observing trends over time. Decisions are not based on the competition’s playbook but on values and a desire to improve on past performance.

‘What most leaders don’t realise is that business is an infinite game,’ says Sinek. ‘There’s no such thing as ‘winning’ in business. The language of the businesses that say they want to be number one or they want to ‘win’, don’t know what game they’re in.’  

Sinek acknowledges that smaller finite games are played within the infinite game, but they are not the driver of purpose. For example, while you adhere to the conditions required as part of contracts for specific projects your purpose is not driven by those contract conditions, they are driven by your organisation’s mission and values.

So how does Industry continue to play the infinite game in the face of change and reform?

How to Continue the Infinite Game in the Community Services Industry 

Playing the infinite game in business leads to more creativity, innovation and a team that respects you as a leader.

How? It’s because you’re not bogged down by what the competition is doing. Instead you’re focussed on your organisation’s vision.

A vision that is clear, succinct and that everyone both internally and externally grasps immediately.

While most organisation’s visions speak to the components of an infinite game, unavoidable components of a finite game may hinder clarity around vision, mission and values.

The application of Sinek’s thinking to the Community Services Industry provides an opportunity to assess and leverage ways of working that are value-driven. Are you busy watching what everyone else is doing and making decisions on that, reacting to the changes or is your first stop your organisation’s values and mission?

Now is the time to reflect on whether your organisation and leadership is playing a finite or infinite game, and how this is impacting on the people and communities you serve.

When considering the following, think about how you keep both your organisation and those you serve in the infinite game.

  • How would things change if there was no limit to who has the potential to relieve the impact of people in vulnerable circumstances?
  • How do you ensure core rules are built and enforced from a rights-based and place-based approach?
  • Does your client-centred approach meet the objective of staying in the game as opposed to winning the game?
  • Do you consistently value trends over absolutes? Trends direct the game, absolutes never do.

Simon Sinek’s forthcoming book The Infinite Game is due out in June 2019, in the meantime you can check out his work around the power of an infinite game in this inspiring talk and at Start With Why.

Image credit Startwithwhy [CC BY-SA 3.0]