The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek
Under the “Read & Grow” series, MMA organised a discussion on the theme of the book ‘The Infinite Game’ authored by Simon Sinek on 19 January 2023 at MMA Management Center. Mr Sreenivasan Ramaprasad, Director, CADD Centre Training Services led the conversation with Ms Viji Hari, Founder, CecureUs and Mr Babu KS, Head – Global Regulatory Affairs, Pfizer Healthcare India Pvt Ltd.
Ramaprasad: People play two kinds of games. One is the finite game where players and rules are well defined. The basic objective of the game is to win. When you win, the game ends there. People who play the finite game like soccer or cricket know exactly who their opponents are and who their players are; they play to win. That is what the author calls as a finite mindset. Infinite game is a game played without any boundaries and rules. You don’t know who your opponents are. The game is played not for winning but to perpetuate the game. People continue to play the game till they get out of the game. The game continues.
The author Simon Sinek takes us through several examples, starting from the Vietnam War. The Americans lost the war despite winning lots of battles. He says that the Americans played with the finite mindset of winning whereas Vietnamese fought for their lives, which is an infinite game. One of his favorite examples is Microsoft and Apple. Microsoft started with a very good vision of enabling people to work better with devices. Over a period of time, that shifted to a number game. When the former CEO, Steve Ballmer, took over the company, he drove the company for winning. ‘When a finite mindset leader plays an infinite game, it’s not good for the company,’ he says. At the same time, Apple was very clear about their vision. They were not fighting with the competition; rather, they were working for betterment of the community.
Simon Sinek talks about five levers of infinite mindset, which are:
- Just cause: Advance the just cause. It differentiates an organization. The cause must belong to the future, be useful for the community and be for the betterment of the world; it must be one for which people will be willing to make personal sacrifices. That’s the kind of just cause you need to have.
- Building trust and trusting teams.
- Competitors: They are very much essential because if you have worthy competitors, you can learn from them and improve yourself.
- Existential flexibility: For a company to survive, be flexible enough to exist. Victorinox, the Swiss knife company, was holding 95% of the market share in the Swiss knife till 9/11. After 9/11, Swiss knife was banned and the market share dropped to almost nothing. They diversified into other products and grew the business.
- Demonstrate the courage to lead.
Viji Hari: You have to create a vision for the long term and not do something just for the short term. There are many lessons for investors, politicians, leaders, CEOs, managers and supervisors. My organization works with a just cause of creating secure and harmonious workplaces. I deal with handling sexual harassment cases. I get fulfillment every time I go and handle a case of sexual harassment; I work for the cause of diversity and inclusion and create happy workplaces.
Simon Sinek talks of an example in the chapter on trusting teams, where he quotes that he once visited Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas and there in a coffee shop, he met an employee called Noah. He ordered a coffee and started having a conversation with Noah. He asked Noah, “How do you like this job?” Noah answered, “I love this job. The managers here just drop in, visit us and they keep asking us, ‘Hey, is there anything that I can do to help you to make you better over here?’” Noah also says that he works for another company in the night shift, just for his paycheck. We know how our very own Mumbai Taj hotel staff were willing to give their lives to protect the guests in the hotel when the bomb blast happened.
Babu: The purpose of our actions has to be much bigger. I come from Pfizer, the pharma industry. We have registered our products across the world. Our vision is to provide breakthrough medicines to treat patients that change their lives. In Chennai, we have a big setup. During the 2015 Chennai floods, we were all struck in our Chennai homes. We had some critical regulatory submissions to be made in some of the geographies in the world. If we didn’t do the submissions, the approvals and the launch of the products would get delayed in the market and patients were going to suffer. We never asked our colleagues to go to office but some of them went to office, in the floods, on their own risk and made sure that the submissions were made, of course, in digital.
Simon also has another book, “‘Start with Why.’ The ‘why’ is very important. He compares parents who push their children to get first rank with parents who make sure that their children become lifelong students. I was a topper in my district from Andhra when I went to BITS but there I realised that I was one among several toppers. The ranks and the positions, the turnover, the top line, bottom line and profit are all very relative terms. They don’t make any sense in a way. Your actions have to be driven by the love for what you do. Why I get up every day and do what I want to do is very important.
Ramaprasad: Existential flexibility is one thing which resonates with me. When CAD center started 35 years ago, our original intention was to provide CAD services. We realized that we were probably 10 years early to the market. One month down the line, our revenue was a big issue and we didn’t know how to continue the business. That’s when we decided to start training in CAD as it had a bigger demand at the time. We quickly put together a training program and started offering it. There was no turning back after that.
Babu: Courageous leadership is the lever that appeals to me. I think the organization is always driven by leaders. The quality of the leadership and the courage they display is very important, especially when things become very competitive and it becomes very tough to stay in the game. Sometimes leaders may have temptations to take shortcuts. The courage to stick to the cause and the clear direction from the leaders at the top are vital to the organisation.
In Chennai, iD idly/dosa batter is very popular. P C Mustafa, the founder shared his story at the Harvard Kennedy School. When they started, they really struggled; making money for survival became a big question. They also had a product called ‘diamond cuts’ which is a tasty snack. They got a huge order from one of the star hotels for 1000 kgs of diamond cuts and they were very excited, as it would change the future of the company. When he discussed further with the hotel about where they wanted to use the diamond cuts, they said they were going to use it as a snack in their bar. Mustafa was very clear. They didn’t want to promote drinking. He declined the offer. With iD batter, they were committed to help household cooking and wanted to give a pleasant experience for cooking to homemakers. He did not deviate from his vision.
Ramaprasad: We also had this temptation of selling PCs which were booming during the late 80s and early 90s. But our promoters clearly said that we must stay focused on CAD which would give us the longevity.
Viji Hari: Simon Sinek talks about CVS Pharma whose CEO took a decision not to sell cigarettes, because Pharma is something that promotes health and cigarettes would go against that cause. Everyone advised him against it because the shareholders were worried about profits. In the next three years, the profit share increased and their investors made a lot more money. In the place of cigarettes, they started selling nicotine free chewing gums and other substitutes, which boosted their sales and encouraged the brand.
Simon Sinek gives tips on how to form your vision statement, in writing which, he says, we must ask questions such as: Is it really inclusive? Is it designed only for particular customers or is it open to everyone? Is it flexible? He clearly states that we must write down our mission statement, record it and make it public. That will help us to stick to our cause, even during tough times.
Ramaprasad: What is your view on current leadership of organizations that you’ve been dealing with? Do leaders operate with finite mindset or infinite mindset?
Babu: We have examples of both. When I started my career in the 90s, there were some great pharma companies. They were started by founders who had great passion for serving humanity and bringing affordable, safe medicines to the world. In some cases, when the next generation takes over, probably the focus and the priorities get changed. They couldn’t stay in the game. Eventually, some of the star companies in my early years, now don’t even exist. There are also some companies like Pfizer who are more than 100 years old in India.
Viji Hari: The CEOs who have to perform under intense investor pressure probably succumb to the pressure and forget the long term vision. Leaders and CEOs must ensure that they have an infinite mindset. Simon Sinek suggests that a CEO must be renamed as CVO–Chief Vision Officer. He points out that the average life span of companies figuring in S&P 500 index in 1970s used to be close to 61 years; it is 18 years now. He also points out the huge gap between a CEO’s salary today as compared to that of the lowest paid worker in his/her firm. This will make the CEO focus on making short term money, rather than developing an infinite mindset.
Ramaprasad: How easy or difficult it is for you to build a trusting team today?
Viji Hari: It is not easy but very important. One of the simple exercises that I do with my team spread across India, is that we meet once every year in Chennai, in a resort, so we can bond well. Instead of discussing the company goals and the vision for the big things, we talk about each other’s backgrounds and what’s happening in their personal life. This has really helped me in the long run. The stories that some people share are very heart moving. People end up in tears. We open up and share more than the numbers. Simon Sinek talks about how in Shell, they built trusting teams that must work in hazardous conditions in oil rigs and it’s a powerful story.
Babu: Leaders have to be very choosy in getting the talent who are passionate and aligned with the vision of the organization. Generally, we tend to buy talent from market who have the skills. For example, in pharma, I may get the temptation of hiring people who know the science of medicines or pharmaceutics or drug safety. They’re very important, no doubt. But in addition to that, they should be passionate about what the organization does. Technical skills can always be trained. What we learn today is going to become obsolete tomorrow. We all have to be students lifelong. Also, the leader must create a safe environment where people are able to open up, speak freely, share their ideas and mistakes and accept that they don’t know. Communication, alignment with the vision and a safe environment are three things that make a lasting theme.
Ramaprasad: How relevant is infinite mindset to the current generation?
Babu: Absolutely important. The present generation get distracted a lot with multiple things and technology. They are keen on immediate results and instant gratification that reduce your patience. I loved Test matches but today’s generation want only T20 matches. The attention span and our patience are all coming down. If the younger generation stick to what they love, I think, the future will be in smart hands and they will lead the world into something that is very different.
Viji Hari: Organisations now gear up to change the policies to accommodate the thought process of the younger generation. They are very clear on what they want. They don’t look at the long term. But, we saw during the Chennai floods the younger generation coming up and helping out a lot. I’m sure the future is in safe hands.