The Power of an Infinite Mindset: Are You Playing the Right Game?

I recently sat down with Stephen Shedletzky who leads Brand Experience and the team of Igniters for Simon Sinek’s organization. We discussed their work, Simon’s latest book, The Infinite Game, and more. 

So much more, in fact, that I’ll be covering the content from our conversation in two parts. In this article, we’ll focus on the differences between finite and infinite thinking, why that matters, and the power of an infinite mindset. In the next edition, we’ll break down the five practices necessary to transition from finite to infinite thinking and show you how to get started.

Stephen and I began our conversation by briefly exploring his role as head of Brand Experience and Lead Igniter for Simon’s organization, where he’s worked for close to a decade. As you might expect, Stephen started with why. He began by explaining what anyone who has read Simon’s work, seen him speak, listened to his podcast, or attended a class likely knows: Simon and his team have a bold vision for the world, imagining it differently from the one we live in today. 

“We want to live in a world where the vast majority of people feel inspired every day, feel safe wherever they are, and feel fulfilled by the work they do,” Stephen explained. “That is a message that we preach, teach, and engage with others. But it’s something we have to practice from the inside out. We aren’t immune to the challenges we speak about.” In other words, Stephen, Simon, and their entire team practice what they preach.   

Along the way, he’s learned “that the strength of an organization isn’t the absence of tension or conflict, it’s how [the team] responds when that tension and conflict emerges.”  

With that said, here’s the foundational thinking behind The Infinite Game: humans aren’t designed for scale. “If you look to the origins of our species, we lived in tribes of 100 to 150 people. We aren’t biologically wired to care for thousands, millions, or billions of people—we can’t even fathom it.” Stephen continued, citing a quote frequently attributed to Joseph Stalin that sums it up quite well: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” 

A large number is something we can’t fully fathom—for 2020, think about COVID-19, the number of cases, and the (still climbing) number of deaths. You know it’s bad, but it’s still very abstract. However when you hear one person’s story, it pulls on your heartstrings because you’ve established a human connection to feel that.

In an organization, because we aren’t hard-wired to care for each other at scale, we have to work on it to be truly effective; sharing our values and beliefs, building human connections, and collaborating to overcome inevitable tensions as they arise. These are the elements that make tribes work. There are no “winners” or “losers” in this process. Tribes survive and thrive because of the never-ending focus and energy that must be expended to maintain the viability and vitality of the tribe.

What Exactly is Infinite Thinking?

Our tribal origins and the mechanism for tribal longevity bring us to the topic of finite and infinite thinking. Dr. James Carse, one of the founding theologians on game theory, pointed out that if you have two or more players, you have a game. And, as it turns out, there are two types of games: finite and infinite. Sports, an election, a sale, an acquisition—these all fall under the finite category. They have known players, fixed rules, and an established end point, including clear “winners” and “losers.” 

Infinite games, to the contrary, have both known and unknown players. There are no fixed rules, no common criteria for success, and certainly no “winners” or “losers.” As such, they are endless. 

“If you think about it,” Stephen said, “we’re all players in multiple infinite games. One, in which we have no choice, is life—though our lives are finite. We’re all going to die. Thus, there’s no winner of life.” There are finite games within infinite games—awards, for example—but achieving a particular win doesn’t mean you win at life or even in your industry. With that in mind, it’s good to be aware of the finite games and goals within the infinite ones, but you’ve got to pay attention. Simon often compares one’s vision to running a marathon of sorts, and finite goals are just mile markers along the way.

Meanwhile, organizations that have a finite mindset fail to recognize the true nature of the game they’re playing. “All you have to do is listen to the way their leaders speak,” Stephen says. “They say ‘be number one or beat the competition.’” Sometimes, too, ethics are skirted for the sake of simply achieving results. People are seen as expendable tools (ever thought deeply about the term “Human Resources?”) to achieve an end result, regardless of the cost. The result: an unstable culture that runs on continual competition—prioritizing numbers, metrics, and outcomes above all else. 

“Like a snowmobile operating on sand, the organization can run. But it will need to be repaired—or even replaced—a lot quicker than if it were running on snow, as it was designed to do,” he said.

Markers of an Infinite Mindset

On the other hand, infinite-minded organizations understand that goals, metrics, and timelines are arbitrary. The company itself is viewed as a vehicle to help advance an ideal or solve a human need, which Simon labels a Just Cause. Ego is put aside to address the cause and, rather than competing, teams display high trust. They constantly look for ways to improve. They’re never satisfied with the status quo, and they’re always seeking other players—worthy rivals, as Simon, Stephen, and the Igniters like to call them—to help them learn and grow. 

They also demonstrate a willingness to innovate. Those with an infinite mindset know that their business model may work now, but not in five years—and they have the courage to move toward an unknown future. 

Ironically, the kind of stability infinite thinking creates is often predictable and, well, pretty boring. Just as we aren’t wired to scale, we’re not primed to appreciate infinite thinking for the same reasons we’re compelled to slow down and look at a car crash, but don’t ever pause to admire good driving. 

However, a lack of drama is a sign that you’re on the right track. Stephen said, “Tim Galloway, the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, has a beautiful equation for performance: 

Performance = Potential – Interference

“In organizations that are infinite-minded, there’s less interference.” He added that when interference does happen, the team can spot it. They recognize that there is too much bureaucracy, that someone’s ego is getting in the way, that they’re making the wrong choice, and they decide to talk about it and identify the right next step.

That’s a concept that certainly resonates with me (and my coaching clients), as I believe the three primary roles of a leader are to establish a vision, get the right people, and systematically remove interference. 

With that insight in mind, Stephen shared a story about Captain David Marquet, now retired United States Navy submarine captain, leadership expert, and author of Turn the Ship Around and Leadership is Language. He had been given command of the USS Olympia, one of the best-run submarines in the fleet—a tremendous honor. To prepare for his assignment, he studied the ship for a year and learned every system on board. But two weeks before he was due to take command, he was told he would instead be commanding the USS Santa Fe, a submarine totally unfamiliar to him and with a notoriously low performing crew. Nonetheless, Marquet figured that with his leadership capabilities, he could do it. 

Once aboard the Santa Fe, everything went fine, until he issued a command that didn’t make sense; the submarine didn’t have the power setting he ordered. Though the second in command knew the ship well—and that there was no such power setting—he gave the order anyway, to the confusion of the seaman tasked with carrying it out. 

After the fact, when Captain Marquet asked his second in command why he relayed an order that didn’t make sense, the man replied, “Because you told me to, sir.” That was an eye-opening moment for Marquet, who instantly realized the danger of continuing to lead in the manner most of us learned—by being experts ourselves, which in reality creates interference, preventing others from thinking on their own and getting their jobs done. 

He became obsessed with removing interference by enabling leaders to grant authority to their teams, giving them far more autonomy and control. The result was his Ladder of Leadership, an incredibly powerful model that I frequently use with my clients.

Companies That Get It Right

I asked Stephen for some examples of organizations operating with an infinite mindset. In response, he rattled off three of them.  

Patagonia is all about sustainability and the environment, and the senior leadership team is willing to act with courage to advance that ideal—including taking measures that counter their short-term interests to support their Just Cause, like closing on Election Day to help advance humanity. Similarly, at Chobani, the product—yogurt—is just a vehicle. The company’s primary purpose is to promote equality and justice, which is reflected in their policies, hiring practices, and more. 

Stephen also shared the story of a fourth generation, privately held, family-owned company called Victorinox, better known for their signature product—Swiss Army knives. Victorinox aims for their product to be a companion for life, and that purpose is baked into what they do. But after 9/11 they had to rethink their business model, as the vast majority of their sales occurred in airports, which was no longer a viable location to sell pocket knives.

With their purpose—to be a companion for life—at the forefront of their consciousness, they pivoted to develop other high-quality products, including luggage, fragrances, and knives for home use. While business was still ramping up and demand was low, the CEO loaned workers to other companies. As a result, they didn’t have to let go of a single employee throughout their transition. When asked how he measures success, the CEO shared that he felt it was his responsibility to pass the company on to the next generation in better health than he found it. That’s infinite thinking!

The leaders of these companies made decisions to honor their Just Cause above all else, even when doing so incurred short-term losses. As Stephen explained, their overarching goals were “to advance a purpose, to protect people, and, of course, to generate profit, as profit is used to reinvest in number one and number two.” And for each of the three firms he cited, that mindset has paid off handsomely—an outcome typical of infinite-minded leadership. 

Interested in instilling an infinite mindset within your organization? Stay tuned for my next article, part two of the conversation with Stephen, which will dive into the five practices necessary to transition from finite to infinite thinking and show you how to get started.

In the meantime, for more on Simon Sinek, Stephen Shedletzky, and their work—including books, online classes, Simon’s podcast, and other resources—visit www.simonsinek.com. Stephen also invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

==============================================

Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share just two or three in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

How to Be a Visionary Leader and Still Have a Personal Life (HBR)

“‘We nearly didn’t make it.’

The CEO of a large tech company was reflecting on the past year. He was talking about his leadership role — and his marriage.

Business leaders enjoy the ‘high’ that comes from redefining the identity, essence, and capabilities of an organization and the exhilaration of achieving something few thought was possible. But given its demands, the leadership role can take over your life if you let it. By the time you realize that it’s resulted in collateral damage to you and those whom you care about, it’s often too late…”

The Strength of Being Misunderstood (Sam Altman)

“You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness. You and a small group of rebels get the space to solve an important problem that might otherwise not get solved…”

==============================================

Next Steps to Accelerate Your Leadership Success…