The Infinite & Finite Game – In Life and Politics



“Are you playing an infinite game using finite rules and techniques?”

This was the question posed by thought-leader Simon Sinek when he spoke recently at a well-attended leadership conference in my home town. His talk, coupled with his new book, “The Infinite Game”, ignited my thoughts with past and present personal examples of how this ‘game’ plays out.  Simon emphasized the difficulty in focusing on the long-term infinite game as described in his book.

“For all its benefits, acting with an infinite long-term view is not easy. It takes real effort. As human beings we are naturally inclined to seek out immediate solutions to uncomfortable problems and prioritize quick wins to advance our ambitions. We tend to see the world in terms of successes and failures, winners and losers. This default win-lose mode can sometimes work for the short-term; however, as a strategy for how companies or organizations operate, it can have grave consequences over the longer term.”

Suddenly my thoughts drifted back to the words spoken to me in my first civil engineering job over forty years ago by an experienced construction manager in our large engineering and construction organization.   He slowly and emphatically recited this ‘mantra’ to me: “The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of early completion.” So solidly did the organization promote this, the phrase was printed as a footnote on their stationary and on every project sign. I confess I did not fully grasp the gravity and truth in this statement until I myself had fallen prey to management or client pressure to cut corners and finish a job to meet a desired arbitrary date. Some of those reduced long-term quality results still haunt me.

Later as I became more involved in project management, I realized this truth is contained in the traditional three components of project management…Quality, Schedule, and Cost. The traditional thinking is that only two of the three can be achieved at the same time, but rarely (if ever) all three.

good fast cheap

Over the span of my career I repeatedly saw upper management impose arbitrary metrics on internal organizations to provide the illusion of efficiency within the organization. An often-used example was a dictated overhead rate that your organization must meet. To meet these arbitrary low rates, damaging cuts were often made to employee training and benefits to meet short-term goals, but they also produced long-term bitterness within the workforce. Of course, the component most often attacked is ‘Schedule’. Not surprisingly, almost every customer wants their project done ‘faster’, and the pressure can be enormous to meet their deadlines. Quality of the product often suffers as a result.

I was surprised to see this dynamic play out recently in the battle between the Democrats and Republican Congressional Representatives over the impeachment issue. You may recall hearing this phrase repeatedly and emphatically stated by Republican Representative Doug Collins“The clock and the calendar are terrible masters.”  Of course, his argument was that the Democrats were rushing the process (schedule) to meet an arbitrary calendar date of completion they had promised to their constituents. As a result, the ‘quality’ of their product would be deficient and questioned by the American people. In other words, the Democrats were playing by ‘finite’ rules in an ‘infinite’ game hoping to gain a quick short-term win.

Sineks’ words from his book seemed to predict just what we saw play out in Congress.

“When we lead with a finite mindset in an infinite game, it leads to all kinds of problems, the most common of which include the decline of trust, cooperation and innovation. Leading with an infinite mindset in an infinite game, in contrast, really does move us in a better direction. Groups that adopt an infinite mindset enjoy vastly higher levels of trust, cooperation and innovation and all the subsequent benefits. If we are all, at various times, players in infinite games, then it is in our interest to learn how to recognize the game we are in and what it takes to lead with an infinite mindset. It is equally important for us to learn to recognize the clues when finite thinking exists so that we can make adjustments before real damage is done.”

In my opinion, “real damage” has been done. The public’s trust in Congress is at a low level.

When observing the methodology Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff employed, this Sinek quote seems to describe Schiff’s game:

“A finite-minded leader plays to end the game – to win. And if they want to be a winner, then there has to be a loser. They play for themselves and want to defeat the other players. They make every plan and every move with winning in mind. They almost always believe they must act that way, even though, in fact, they don’t have to at all. There is no rule that says they have to act that way. It is their mindset that directs them.”

Regardless of any political persuasion you may have, I would submit that the Democrats have greatly damaged their party in the ‘infinite game’ by forcing their win at any cost through actions to meet their arbitrary Christmas deadline. This short term win came at the expense of fairness and justice (quality) in the process by circumventing established and honored procedures and rules that would have insured fairness to both the majority and the minority.

The Democrats seemed to have missed this important realization put forward by Sinek.

“Infinite games have infinite time horizons. And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game, there is no such thing as ‘winning’ an infinite game. In an infinite game, the primary objective is to keep playing, to perpetuate the game.”

Our Congress is an organization that should be working on behalf of the people. I would urge Congress to seek the long-term good in the ultimate ‘infinite game’ that perpetuates the successful continuance of our country, one so ably established by our forefathers through the Constitution. Each Congress must remember that the result of their decisions and actions will affect not only our present generation, but also the generations to come.

“In the Infinite Game, the true value of an organization cannot be measured by the success it has achieved based on a set of arbitrary time frames. The true value of an organization is measured by the desire others have to contribute to that organization’s ability to keep succeeding, not just during the time they are there, but well beyond their own tenure.” Simon Sinek (“The Infinite Game”)

As I think about what I witnessed in the recent impeachment process, these ancient but familiar words may forecast the true outcome of the Democrats’ choice to cut corners in time and process.

“The bitterness of poor quality

lingers long after the sweetness of early completion.”