Game theory teaches us that in the world of business, talk about ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ is just a nonsense. The important thing in an ‘infinite game’ is to focus on your vision and achieving it
I stumbled across an interesting piece the other day about the “game of business”. And I think it has some important things to teach us about how we approach each day of our working lives in the construction industry. Let me explain.
The concept of game theory is that there are two kinds of game: finite and infinite. In a finite game – a football match, for example – there are known players, fixed rules and agreed-upon objectives. After 90 minutes (plus any extra time) there is a result, achieved according to the agreed-upon rules. However, in infinite games, there are an unknown and variable number of players, the rules are changeable or unclear and the objective of the game is to keep it going for as long as possible. The game is basically eternal – players drop out when they run out of resources or the will to carry on, and new players join, but there are never any winners, because there are no agreed rules for what winning means.
What does being number one really mean anyway? What are the criteria? None of us have agreed to the rules, so the concept of ‘being the best’ is completely arbitrary
Business is an infinite game. And applying this knowledge to a business such as a property or construction firm is interesting. In business, there are many organisations that are driven by the desire to win, using language such as “we want to be number one” and “we want to beat the competition”. However, this concept can never make sense as we are actually all playing a game where the players (companies) have not agreed to any rules about how to play or how to win. What does being number one really mean anyway? What are the criteria for being number one: revenue, profit, people numbers, number of offices? Over what period: a quarter, six months, a year, five years, 10 years? None of us have agreed to the rules, so the concept of “being the best” is completely arbitrary.
However, many businesses do work as if both winning and losing are possible and promote this kind of thinking when planning their business strategy and talking to their people, because essentially they believe they are playing a finite game. So they are fixated on winning (whatever that means) and being the “best”. This is potentially dangerous behaviour and can often lead to forgetting why you are in business in the first place and what sits at your core being. How many business leaders can actually articulate their true beliefs and purpose for being in business, and how many of their management teams and people would give the same answer? It’s a good test!
The infinite player’s goal is to outlast and frustrate the competition by focusing on themselves and their purpose in life. They have a clear vision and are obsessed with achieving it
Now let’s look at the infinite players. Those playing the infinite contest are not playing to win, their goal is to outlast and frustrate the competition by focusing on themselves and their purpose in life. They have a clear vision and are obsessed with achieving it – that is their focus and reason for getting out of bed in the morning. They are not competing against the competition, they are actually competing against themselves, wanting to be better this year than they were last year, better next year than this year, and so on and so forth.
These organisations accept that sometimes they are ahead, and sometimes behind, sometimes they are better, and sometimes not. In the long run, they will be ahead more than they are behind. This doesn’t matter to them, as their driver is always the accomplishment of their vision. In contrast, organisations who are obsessed with the competition and winning can sometimes lose their way, causing a lack of focus and no sense of fulfilment.
Simon Sinek, a high-profile business advisor and the inspiration for this piece, tells a great story of when he spoke at both the Microsoft and Apple summits several years ago. At the Microsoft summit he claims that about 70% of the executives spent about 70% of their presentations talking about how they could beat Apple. At the Apple summit, he claims that 100% of the executives spent 100% of their time talking about how they can better help students learn and teachers teach. Microsoft seemed obsessed with their competition, whereas Apple were obsessed with achieving their vision and cause. In other words, Apple were playing the infinite contest. And playing it brilliantly.
Every bankruptcy, merger and acquisition is an organisation saying that they don’t have the will or resources to continue in the game, and have no choice but to drop out of the game or merge with someone else so that they can keep playing. There have been many examples of this in our industry over the years – with Carillion being the most high-profile in recent times – and it is inevitable that this will continue for as long as the game of business continues.
You will no doubt be familiar with the expression that it’s not about the battle, but rather the war – so focus on being an infinite player, your core beliefs and achieving your vision.