Despite the fact that companies are playing in a game that cannot be won, too many business leaders keep playing as if they can. They continue to make claims that they are the "best" or that they are “number one.” Such claims have become so commonplace that we rarely, if ever, stop to actually think about how ridiculous some of them are. Whenever I see a company claim that it is number one or the best, I always like to look at the fine print to see how they cherry-picked the metrics. For years, British Airways, for example, claimed in their advertising that they were the world's favourite airline." Richard Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic, filed a dispute with Britain's Advertising Standards Authority that such a claim could not be true based on recent passenger surveys. The ASA allowed the claim to stand, however, on the basis that British Airways carried more international passengers than any other airline. "Favourite," as they used the word, meant that their operation was expansive, not necessarily preferred.
To one company, being number one may be based on the number of customers they serve. To another, it could be about revenues, stock performance, the number of employees or the number of offices they have around the globe. The companies making the claims even get to decide the time frames in which they are making their calculations. Sometimes it's a quarter. Or eight months. Sometimes a year. Or five years. Or a dozen. But did everyone else in their industry agree to those same time frames for comparison? In finite games, there's a single, agreed-upon metric that separates the winner from the loser, things like goals scored, speed or strength. In infinite games, there are multiple metrics, which is why we can never declare a winner.
In a finite game, the game ends when its time is up and the players live on to play another day (unless it was a duel, of course). In an infinite game, it's the opposite. It is the game that lives on and it is the players whose time runs out. Because there is no such thing as winning or losing in an infinite game, the players simply drop out of the game when they run out of the will and resources to keep playing. In business we call this bankruptcy or sometimes merger or acquisition. Which means, to succeed in the Infinite Game of business, we have to stop thinking about who wins or who's the best and start thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to stay in the game for many generations to come. The benefits of which, ironically, often make companies stronger in the near term also.
A Tale of Two Players
Some years ago, I spoke at an education summit for Microsoft. A few months later, I spoke at an education summit for Apple. At the Microsoft event, the majority of the presenters devoted a good portion of their presentations to talking about how they were going to beat Apple. At the Apple event, 100 percent of the presenters spent 100 percent of their time talking about how Apple was trying to help teachers teach and help students learn. One group seemed obsessed with beating their competition. The other group seemed obsessed with advancing a cause.
After my talk at Microsoft, they gave me a gift-the new Zune (when it was still a thing). This was Microsoft's answer to Apple's iPod, the dominant player in the MP3-player market at the time. Not to be outdone, Microsoft introduced the Zune to try to steal market share from their archrival. Though he knew it wouldn't be easy, in 2006, then CEO of Microsoft Steve Ballmer was confident that Microsoft could eventually "beat” Apple. And if the quality of the product was the only factor, Ballmer was right to be optimistic. The version Microsoft gave me, the Zune HD-was, I have to admit, quite exceptional. It was elegantly designed. The user interface was simple, intuitive and userfriendly. I really, really liked it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I gave it away to a friend for the simple reason that unlike my iPod, which was compatible with Microsoft Windows, the Zune was not compatible with iTunes. So as much as I wanted to use it, I couldn't.)
After my talk at the Apple event, I shared a taxi back to the hotel with a senior Apple executive, employee number 54 to be exact, meaning he'd been at the company since the early days and was completely immersed in Apple's culture and belief set. Sitting there with him, a captive audience, I couldn't help myself. I had to stir the pot a little. So I turned to him and said, "You know ... I spoke at Microsoft and they gave me their new Zune, and I have to tell you, it is SO MUCH BETTER than your iPod touch.” The executive looked at me, smiled, and replied, “I have no doubt." And that was it. The conversation was over.
The Apple exec was unfazed by the fact that Microsoft had a better product. Perhaps he was just displaying the arrogance of a dominant market leader. Perhaps he was putting on an act (a very good one). Or perhaps there was something else at play. Although I didn't know it at the time, his response was consistent with that of a leader with an infinite mindset