When Playing the Long Game of Business: Together is Better

When Playing the Long Game of Business: Together is Better

Table of Contents

Get Your Game Suit On

What is the long game of business? Simon Sinek is an unshakable optimist who believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. He discovered remarkable patterns about how the greatest leaders and organizations think, act and communicate. Simon may be best known for popularizing the concept of WHY in his first TED Talk in 2009. It rose to become the third most watched on TED.com, with over 40 million views and subtitles in 47 languages. He is also the author of multiple best-selling books including Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last. His latest book, The Infinite Game, is due to be released in October 2019.

This past June WorkTango’s Rob Catalano, along with Stephen Shedletzky who leads Sinek’s Brand Experience team, gave a few hundred webinar participants a glimpse at the visionary author’s imaginings of “a world in which the vast majority of us wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled by the work we do.”

Simon’s book, The Infinite Game, asks the question: How do you win a game that has no end? According to game theory, there are two types of games:

Finite games have known players with agreed-upon rules that are fixed, and an objective which is to win the game. There are clear winners and losers. There’s a clear beginning, middle and end. Think chess, football, monopoly or, the 500-yard dash.

With the Infinite Game, there are known and unknown players. The rules can change. You can make up your own. There are no winners and losers; there’s only ahead and behind. The objective is to stay in the game.  Life is an infinite game. Government is an infinite game. Business is an infinite game.

How to Play to Stay in the Game

Just because we have a fiscal year, we don’t end business if we have a good outcome. We keep going. But if you look at the way most business leaders speak about the game they’re in, they’re actually playing in the infinite game with a finite mindset. “Beat the competition. Be number one. Win the quarter.” That short-sighted focus leads to problems like decline of trust, decline of cooperation and decline of innovation, amongst others. They’re playing the wrong game.

As part of a radical reorganization, in early July of this year, Deutsche Bank began trimming its global workforce by 18,000, a move that will cost the company $8.3bn over the next three years. Deutsche Bank chief executive Christian Sewing told journalists that the aim was to create “a bank that competes to win,” adding “if we can’t compete with the best, we won’t be in the game.”  But in infinite games, there are known and unknown players. The notion of beating your competition is actually frivolous because the one that’s going to disrupt your business may not even exist yet.  Just ask Blockbuster.

Conversely, Barry Wehmiller is a corporation based out of St Louis, Missouri that buys struggling manufacturing companies and revives them using their financial tools, but mostly by using their ability to create truly human cultures. When the 2008 recession hit and they lost 40 percent of their business overnight, they didn’t let go of a single person. They found inventive ways to keep everyone. The biggest was a six-week furlough; everyone in the organization had to take six weeks off without pay, everyone, regardless of rank and title. The chairman, Bob Chapman told his teams “It is better that we should all suffer a little than any one of us should suffer a lot.” People rallied. Those who could afford it less had help from people who could afford it more. This approach was about saying we don’t do mass layoffs because they hurt fellow human beings. It was a heart count. Not a head count. It was a move that exemplifies the five key concepts behind The Infinite Game and Simon’s desire for idealists to be able to flourish in a realist’s world. A world where there are tons of pressures internally and externally on our organizations that are making us focus on the short term even though it’s in the best interest of our organizations to be around for the long haul.

1. Advance a Just Cause

Stand for something so worthwhile, so compelling that people on the team, even stakeholders outside of the team, are willing to sacrifice to see that cause being advanced. Sacrifice can mean showing up to work early and staying late even though you’re not getting paid more. It could mean staying in the job at a lower pay because you believe in it (think not-for-profit). While an organizational Mission is a finite pursuit or goal, a Just Cause is an ongoing work in progress, something that we can continually breathe new life into.

As Stephen explained in the webinar, his team’s Just Cause originates from the past. “Our why is our origin story; who we are. And who we are is where we come from. As an organization, it’s the origin or the founder’s individual why. Simon’s why is to inspire people to do the things that inspire them so that together each of us can change our world for the better. For us as individuals, it’s those moments in our life that have been super meaningful and the golden thread connects them all. That’s where our why and our values live.

Our Just Cause is our why projected into the future. My why is to engage with people in meaningful ways so that we connect with depth and live in a more fulfilled world. So inspired, safe and fulfilled is the world that we’re attempting to advance. It’s visceral. It’s forward-looking. It’s our Just Cause. It builds something in our mind’s eye that we can see. And when we’re making progress it’s actually easier to measure momentum. We can look at engagement scores. We can look at productivity. We can look at sick leave in sick days. We can do a WorkTango survey to find out if our employees feel inspired, safe and fulfilled in any given moment.”

2. Build trusting teams

Create environments where people feel comfortable to say “I need help”, “I don’t have the answer”, “I’m struggling at work”, “I’m struggling at home” and know that on the other side of this admission there’s not reprimand, but support.

There’s a lot of talk today around psychological safety, about feeling safe to speak up. In Adam Grant’s book Give and Take he cited a study of different populations of emergency room hospital environments. In one subset there was low psychological safety and in another subset, there was high psychological safety. One of the results of the study was that there were more medical errors reported in the hospital environments where there was higher psychological safety. What? More medical errors? The key is “reported.” In hospitals with no trusting teams, there is no psychological safety. Instead, people spend inordinate amounts of time and energy hiding mistakes from each other for fear of reprisal.

We say there’s a decline in innovation but there’s not. There’s a decline in trust. In order to innovate, we have to experiment. And in order to experiment we have to fail. If we’re afraid that if we fail we’ll get fired – guess what? No trust. No innovation. Building trusting teams is absolutely essential.

3. Study worthy rivals

There are individuals inside and outside of your organization, other teams and organizations that are inside or outside of your industry – and they do things that either make you intensely insecure or that you admire. In the infinite game, we’re our own best competition. But we can look at other players to see how we can improve our play in the game. The goal is to actually study our competitors, to improve and to make progress towards our Just Cause.


4. Prepare for existential flexibility

This sounds more complicated than it is. Existential flexibility means that if you find a better business or operating model that will help you make progress towards your Just Cause, you will implode your own business to do that. Your very existence depends upon you being flexible. This isn’t something like shifting the plan because something changed. This is responding to a disruptive threat.

In the infinite game you have a taxi company and then all of a sudden a company that claims to be a communications company totally messes with your business model and the rules shift.

This is Kodak, who actually invented digital photography but chose not to pursue it for fear of cannibalizing their sales.

And this is Apple. When Steve Jobs toured Xerox Park in 1979, he saw a graphic user interface and convinced his executive team to abandon thousands of hours and the millions of dollars invested in their Lisa technology. If Apple didn’t implode their own business, somebody else would do it for them. With a Just Cause focused on empowering people (a great Apple commercial says “you’re more powerful than you think”) and a trusting team environment, Apple willingly made that profound shift and voila, the Macintosh was born.

Conceptually a lot of companies talk about agility and the agile process. While agility is important, existential flexibility is more about resilience. This is how you can play on the offensive when disruption is coming. How you can ride the tidal wave instead of the tidal wave crushing you. For example, if Blockbuster realized that their very existence was about entertaining people and not about DVDs they would have (could have, should have) made a shift into streaming. But they made 16 percent of their revenues on late fees and were just happy to play that game.


5. Demonstrate the courage to lead

It seems like every organization has a purpose on their website. But how many of them are true and how many of them – when it counts, when dollars and people’s livelihoods are on the line – how many of them will actually do the right thing to live their purpose?

A number of years ago CVS Pharmacy a subsidiary of U.S. retail and healthcare giant CVS Health, decided their Just Cause was about creating more healthy lifestyles. They looked at the 1.5 billion dollars of cigarettes sold through their outlets every year and, to live what they preach, took tobacco products off their shelves. Wall Street and analysts went ballistic. But that single decision shrunk cigarette sales across the U.S. by a full percent and CVS stock values increased over time. Then you look at Walgreens and Rite Aid who also say on their websites that their purpose is to create a healthier lifestyle for their employees and customers yet they still sell cigarettes because it makes them money. Their purpose is inauthentic; simply something they post on their walls and websites. That’s not demonstrating the courage to lead.


There’s an African Proverb: to Go Fast Go Alone – to Go Far Go Together

Playing in the infinite game of business is about the value of reflection. It’s the value of continuous learning.  It’s the value of speaking to people inside and outside of your industry around what’s coming and how to stay relevant.  It’s easy to slip up in the infinite game. It’s easy to become finite – minded. It’s easy to focus on the expedient, especially when there’s pressure from people inside and outside of our organizations. Together is better. Get suited up and play the infinite game in good company.