Sustainable companies choose collaboration over competition because we know that we are in an infinite game. This means we also know that building upon relationship on common ground is more sustainable than carving out our own territory so we can overwhelm and overtake another’s territory.
The Role of the Infinite Game
Infinite games have known and unknown players, constantly changing rules, and continue forever. There are no winners in infinite games. A player’s sole objective is to stay in the game as long as possible. When a player runs out of the resources and/or will to play, they lose.”
Being in an infinite game means that we make decisions based on our values – since our goal is just to stay in the game as long as possible, rather than to stay in the game to win. Working from values means that we are always looking for ways to promote and expand our values – which means we are more open to partnering, collaboration, and developing processes and systems to increase the impact of our values.
This does not mean that we ignore success and its metrics, or its key performance indicators; to the contrary: we measure, encourage, and celebrate what truly matters, not what is merely easy to measure, encourage, or celebrate.
In an infinite game, we stay in the game because we have a cause for being – something that not only is the “why” of our origin story, but the vision that pulls us forward. Our origin sets up our vocation. Our vision draws us up into a future that is not yet. Along the way, we collaborate with this vision to shed those things that prevent us from being drawn into it, and build those processes and structures that make that vision possible.
While it might seem, at first glance, being in an infinite game sounds like a survival match, our usual survival tactics and survival perspectives typically don’t do well for us in an infinite game. If survival means to fight, flee, freeze, or shut down, we tend to move into finite thinking, into us vs. them, into winners and losers. If survival means just making sure we have enough, frankly, we humans aren’t very good at defining what “enough” really is.
In a finite game, collaboration becomes transactional: what can we get from each other to advance what we are trying to do. We end up dividing up the winnings. In an infinite game, we find that collaboration becomes work to benefit shared values, which actually multiplies the space, and therefore expands what we both had to start with.
If we are playing a finite game, we are always looking at competition, because we have a game we have to win. We have to beat the competition. We have to win; they have to lose. The problem with this approach is that the competition isn’t playing our game. There is no common referee and rulebook for the competition between us.
In an infinite game, we don’t know all the players, and the rules are constantly changing. We collaborate because we know that in that kind of environment, going it alone is unwise, or just hubris.
The infinite game means that we are in a game that is beyond us – and so working together almost becomes compulsory. Think about the “humanity against the other” kind of literature: whether aliens, zombies, natural disasters, or whatever, being up against something so much bigger than us requires us all to come together to solve the problem.
Sustainable companies and their leaders know this. They see our place in the world – our size, our real influence as humans. They refuse to other-ize other humans and human organizations and seek the common ground first.
Because of the rules of the infinite game, we see collaboration becomes the most sustainable stance. Let’s look at this from the three parts of the definition of infinite games: known and unknown players, constantly-changing rules, and going on forever.
Known and Unknown Players: we don’t know all the players. We can’t know all the players. Discovering a new player or players – or having them revealed to us – will change how we approach the game. Best to find ways to work with the known players through whatever common ground there is, since we never know what unknown players might emerge – players who might not be as amenable to working with us, or who might only work with us because we have enough common ground with others as to make a relationship possible.
Constantly-changing rules: In an infinite game, rules creation and enforcement is complex. Rarely, if ever, do we get to set the rules ourselves. In fact, most of the rules are beyond our control – things like lifespan, natural occurrences like weather and viral mutations, macroeconomic factors, “what people like”, and so on. Very few of us have anywhere near the kinds of influence to make and change the rules we make on purpose – regulations, mores and taboos, and the like.
This means that, despite our efforts, most rule-creation and enforcement in infinite games is external to us, and beyond us. And the rules change all the time. But that means that the rules are also external to the other human players in the game, too. Faced with a common challenge (although likely a diversity of solutions, goals, and desired outcomes), what makes the most sense: going it alone, taking on others facing the same challenge, or finding a way to collaborate to the degree possible? Sustainable companies choose to collaborate.
Perpetuity: Many of us mistake perpetuity – something that goes on forever – for something that doesn’t change. Others see perpetuity purely as cyclical: seasons come and go, there is a time to be born and a time to die, and so on. In an infinite game, though, perpetuity is neither unchanging nor necessarily cyclical. Remember, the rules are ever-changing.
Thus, in the perpetuity, we have shorter dramas that take place, birthed in challenge, developed to a climax, drawn down in denouement, and then brought to a conclusion. And while we are in that drama, another side plot, sub plot, or completely different story develops, often unexpectedly, which may leave the original drama to the side, unresolved, or may mask the conclusion beneath the new story that is emerging – so the conclusion occurs, but is forgotten in light of the next situation.
If perpetuity, then, is story, we are all in interim space – the space between the beginning and the end. And interim space is inherently collaborative: we are taking up what was left by the previous person and carrying it forward to the next. While we may try to outshine our predecessor and may, in reality, outshine our successors, the winning or losing isn’t about them, but rather about us – whether we connect before and after well.
Why not competition, though?
Our systems speak in terms of competition all the time, though.
Competition is good for the marketplace, we hear, because it keeps prices down and pushes quality up.
We avoid anti-competitive practices of driving others out of the marketplace since that is illegal.
In collaboration, we are not setting aside the need for competition in the tussle for the best ideas and practices, and the freedom of players to enter and leave the game. We are suggesting, though, that “beating the competition”, or, in the case of many industries, reducing to a duopoly or oligarchy of companies – this is not the end goal. Control and dominance cannot be the end goal, since the rules often change externally.
Sustainable companies know that control and dominance aren’t goals, and that often when they occur they are a double-edged sword. Being in an infinite game, these things too, shall pass. The relationship with the players, rather than winning a perpetual game, becomes the value that sustains us for the long term.
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