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Last month, the Congressional Budget Office foretold of an aggressive employment rebound as the vaccine rollout improves and COVID cases continue to dip. Employers will face an extremely competitive hiring market. Top candidates will have several suitors.

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pillarsofcreationSustainable 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

As we have shared before, here is how we define finite vs. infinite games, based on the work of James P. Carse:

“Finite games have known players, set rules, a point at which they begin and end. They have winners and losers.

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.

collaborativeteamWhy Collaboration?

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.

Want to dig deeper? Let's chat!

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night day treeSustainable organizations know that all members of a team have something valuable to offer. They instill this belief in their culture, and apply it both internally and externally to clients, customers, partners, and vendors. They build their business on good relationships with people, which are based in respect.

As consultants, we often challenge our clients to differentiate between their aspirational values and beliefs and their actual values and beliefs: we instruct them to place their aspirational values in the category of vision; their actual values then remain as the things they do so naturally that they are assumed – and yet, still somehow distinct from others in the marketplace.

Believing that all members of a team have something valuable to offer is aspirational for many organizations. And those who believe it, but who don’t consistently live it out, find that they let value they already have go to waste. This waste weakens their company and is often symptomatic of other structural challenges in the organization, as well as mindsets and habits that are not sustainable in the long run.

Like an un-booked hotel room on a night when every other spot in town is sold out, missing team members’ value stands as the opportunity of a lifetime in the evening, or a foolishly missed opportunity in the morning. It certainly matters what time it is.

In the clear light of morning, we see that there are two ways we miss out on our team’s value – or, in serious cases, actually devalue our team: Structural Misses and Personal Misses.

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When we work from the assumption that people are creative, resourceful, and whole, we quickly realize that creativity often gets blocked, perhaps devalued, and even dismissed by many people. Figuring out what blocks it, what prevents it from happening, and what it takes to break through is something we have found it is important to study. 

To do that, we've invited a University of Illinois graduate student, Jeff Bogue, to work with us to help uncover what gets in the way of leaders using the best of their creativity. Jeff is completing a Master of Science in Technology Management (MSTM) through the Gies College of Business. At the end of his article here, he asks some questions - I invite you to reach out to chat with him.

Here's what he has to say, enjoy! 


BogueHeadshotCreativity: That thing that, over the course of a decade, I felt slowly slip away, has crept back up on me in what seemed the most unlikely of places. 

I believe that everyone is naturally creative and that hurdles pop up along the way that make us feel less so. Think about a time when you had to write something for a class, for work, or for fun, but as soon as you sat down, couldn’t put pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Something gets in the way, and it could be many somethings, but what are they? Despite it all though, you finished writing it. You pushed through the block. Jumped the hurdle. Maybe it was a deadline that did it, or you went for a walk to clear your head, or found inspiration form listening to your favorite album. But you did it.

No matter who you are or what you do for a living, I believe that people are naturally creative, in big and small ways. The easiest place to see this is in children. They play pretend, build pillow forts, and draw whatever comes to their imaginations. I cannot recall a time when I was little where I was in a creative rut. There was no pressure to create, it’s a kid’s natural state. As adults, it’s easy to find creativity on full display in fields typically labeled as “creative,” such as film, music, the arts, and so on. Creativity also plays a key role in scientific breakthroughs and feats of engineering. It’s even visible in more mundane ways. How many doorstops have you improvised out of a shoe or a book, or found clever ways to reach the remote because the couch was just too comfortable to get up from? That’s creativity too.

Growing up, I spent practically every waking moment playing with LEGO and drawing all over school notes, homework assignments, and really any piece of paper I could get my hands on. Art class was always my favorite, with band in close second. I took as many art classes as I could in high school and went on to pursue a degree in Industrial Design. An art degree. Something happened to my creativity along the way though. It was like a campfire slowly burning out to nothing but embers. Nearly four years after finishing my undergrad, I still haven’t worked as a designer, let alone in a “creative” field. I was back at home, living with my parents, with my seemingly useless art degree, working as a café manager, feeling like a waste of space, and even worse, feeling stuck. I tried to work on new projects to keep my design portfolio fresh, but I didn’t have any more energy. My creative drive was completely gone, and if nobody wanted to hire me as a designer, I not only didn’t feel good enough, but also felt like I wasn’t creative anymore. I’d lost a part of myself and didn’t know how to get it back. Then out of nowhere, something started to fan those flames again.

I’m now in the midst of work toward a master’s degree in business, a discipline that I’ve always seen as the antithesis to my passion for art and design. Art and design were always these free flowing, community based, egalitarian endeavors full of creativity. Business, on the other hand, looked, from my vantage point, to be a bureaucratic hierarchy of narrow-minded clones in dull suits, desperately trying to climb the corporate ladder because there was a gold watch after 30 years of sitting in a cubicle. Nothing about that sounded creative to me. Business always asked, “how much money will that make me,” while art always asked, “how will that affect us?” Artists hate corporate suits, and by extension, I wanted nothing to do with business. Then why am I, the proud recipient of an art degree, studying business? If my design education taught me one thing, it that there are multiple sides to every situation. I’m studying business to gain institutional knowledge about the subject in order to not just be an armchair expert, or a misinformed critic. The further along in the program I get, the more frustrated I become with contemporary business practices, but I’m also beginning to see striking parallels between creativity, and success. Keep in mind, this is not simply monetary success, but also individual success, and success that lasts.

Over the next couple of months, I want to discover what the hurdles are that get in the way of us meeting our creative potential. I want to find out how to overcome them, and how to harness that rekindled creativity in order that we might incorporate it into how we move through our lives. I’m going to be looking to some of the most influential minds in the arts, design, science, computing, and yes, even business, and look at the psychological, environmental, and societal aspects that influence creativity. I’m not sure what I will find, but if I know one thing about creativity, it’s that it never happens in a straight line.

What’d you think, sound interesting? Have you found yourself, like me, feeling less creative as the years go on, or are you on the other side feeling more creative than ever? What gets you out of a creative rut, and why do you think you fall into one in the first place? Are you an expert on creativity? This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., I’d love to hear your stories.

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Manager Leader


I worked with a young executive. Everything was going extremely well for his organization. But like any good leader, he would regularly do his SWOT analysis and he had identified threat looming on the horizon.


No big deal. He picked out the threat two years in advance. He had plenty of time to prepare.


Here's the kicker: he was the only person in his organization who perceived the threat. The rest of his team was content with the status quo and saw no reason to adapt.


[P]eople will rise to a challenge if it’s their challenge. They won’t necessarily rise to your challenge.
 – Wayne Smith, Former Assistant Coach of World Champion New Zealand All Blacks


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