In January 1968, the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns in the Vietnam War. In every single battle, the American-led forces and the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam defeated their enemies, leading to heavy casualties for the North. In the ensuing months there were several “Mini Tet” offensives launched, and each one ended the same way—defeat. The North lost over 100,000 soldiers during the January to August time-frame.
In the Vietnam War, the United States won every single battle but lost the war. Why?
North Vietnam was playing the infinite game. Their goal was to outlast the enemy, not defeat them.
Finite games have winners and losers. The rules of the game are known to both sides, the boundaries of the playing field are well-defined, the scoreboard keeps track of the game’s activity, and at the end of a prescribed period of time, a winner is declared. It’s neat. It’s clean. Someone wins, someone loses.
Infinite games have no winners or losers. Rules often don’t exist, and if they do, they are fuzzy and open to interpretation. The playing field is undefined and progress is hard to measure. Opponents change frequently, as does the game itself. There are no clear winners or losers in the infinite game. Competitors drop out of the infinite game when they lose the will or resources to stop playing. The goal is to outlast your competition.
Simon Sinek introduced this concept in his keynote address at our recent Blanchard Summit. In the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world in which we live, the most successful leaders and organization are learning to play the infinite game, not the finite one. The “game” of leadership and business is an infinite game where the rules change frequently, competitors come and go, and there is no end point to the game. You are either ahead or behind. There is no ultimate winner or loser. The infinite game continues indefinitely until someone loses the will or resources to keep playing.
Resources are well understood. Money, intellectual property, people, technology, etc. We have to have the capital we need to run a business. But what about will? Sinek shared five must-have components of will if we are to succeed in the infinite game:
1. Just cause—More than your “why” or purpose, a just cause is what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning. It’s the passion or hunger that burns inside that compels you to do what you do. Your just cause is what powers you to outlast your competitors. It propels you forward in the face of adversity and empowers you to persevere when you feel like giving up.
2. Courageous leadership—Playing the infinite game requires leaders to prioritize the just cause above anything else. They are willing to stand up to the pressures of the Board, Wall Street, or popular sentiment, and stay true to their cause. This struggle is often too great for a single person to tackle alone, so it requires all the leaders of the organization to band together and act in alignment.
3. Vulnerable team—Sinek says being a vulnerable team doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for everyone to walk around crying. It means you’ve invested the time and energy to build a culture in your organization where people feel safe to be themselves. They can admit they don’t know something or that they made a mistake. They can take appropriate risks without fear of retribution or retaliation. If you’re people don’t feel safe, that is your fault, not theirs.
4. Worthy adversary—In the infinite game, adversaries are acknowledged and treated with respect, but our success or failure isn’t measured against them. Ultimately we are competing against ourselves, and our success or failure should be measured against our just cause. Our adversaries may push us to improve our products, services, marketing, etc., but in the infinite game we are constantly striving to become a better version of ourselves in order to fulfill our just cause.
5. Open playbook—Too many organizations pursue a variable cause with a fixed strategy, Sinek theorizes, rather than pursuing a fixed cause with a variable strategy. Having an open playbook means leaders and organizations are willing to have flexible strategies and plans that change as needed to pursue their just cause. An open playbook also means you are transparent with your strategies, so all members of the team can literally be on the same page. Leaders resist being too transparent with information because they fear losing control. They distrust how people will use that information so they hold it close to the vest. That only results in people making sub-optimal decisions because they don’t know all the plays in the playbook.
You can win every battle but still lose the war. The goal is not to beat your competition; the goal is to outlast them.
So what does it mean to play the infinite game as a leader? It means you leave something behind that outlasts your finite presence or contributions. An infinite leader builds a culture so strong, that when the leader is no longer there, the culture lives on. Infinite leaders commit to their just cause. The work produced by striving for that just cause has the indelible fingerprints of the leader, and lasts far beyond the time of the leader’s tenure.
So ask yourself: Are you playing the finite or infinite game?