Are You Playing a Finite or an Infinite Game?

In these COVID times, some people think they need to play zero-sum games. Those games are the ones where “I win, you lose.” While we might win short-term, we often all lose with zero-sum games. That’s because the game ends.

However, there is another kind of game: infinite games. The point of infinite games is to keep playing—all of us to keep playing.

Sometimes, people play zero-sum games because they have a scarcity mindset. And, because our supply chains are still sort-of broken, there is a bit of scarcity for certain goods and services. In certain areas of the US, the hospitals are dangerously close to capacity. In those areas, people might well have a scarcity mindset.

We can expose this kind of thinking and create learning opportunities with games and simulations.

Learn with Games and Simulations

Some zero-sum games help us learn concepts and principles. For example, the penny game helps people learn about too much work in progress. It’s a closed game.

Simulations are open “games.” If you create a good simulation, you can’t tell what will happen. I happen to prefer—when possible—simulations over closed games.

Many years ago, I created an estimation simulation that I brought to conferences. I used brown bags and put two decks of cards into each bag. Each “team” of people at a table would estimate the answer to this question: How long would it take them to sort two decks of cards, according to the instructions I handed out. Every team had the same instructions.

If I had used all the same cards for every team, it would have been a closed game. However, I had many kinds of cards: oversize and undersize cards. I had invisible cards mixed with other invisible cards or with regular cards. I had cards where the font made it difficult to see the difference between the Jack and the four.

Each team had the same problem: How long to sort and stack two decks of cards. And, because it was a simulation, not a closed game, everyone gained many aha moments—regardless of the team they were on.

The simulation where the “project manager” held onto the brown bag the entire time because the team couldn’t decide how to estimate? Oh my, we all learned from that experience.

Consider the Learning

We always have the choice to learn or not. (See What Can You Learn from the Experience?) For me, the question is where do we learn? Often (not always) closed or zero-sum games direct our learning. We learn in our team.

When we use infinite games, we can learn from each other, assuming we choose to learn.

I do learn from my mistakes. That might be a finite game. And, I try to incorporate what other people have learned. That’s how I use other people’s experiences to continue my infinite game.

I’m not expecting to live forever. I’m smart enough to know that’s not going to happen. However, when I take other people’s experiences and incorporate those learnings, I can keep playing longer.

When we, as a society, play the infinite game, we work together to continue the society. When we play zero-sum games, we look for one winner. The rest of us are losers.

That’s why I asked this question this week: Are you playing a finite or an infinite game?

2 thoughts on “Are You Playing a Finite or an Infinite Game?

  1. Marsha

    Johanna, we live in a society that roots itself squarely in a finite game mindset, based in scarcity and the fear of not having enough of what we need when it is necessary. The scarcity mindset runs like a wide river through capitalist nations, pushing toward the inevitable gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” We even teach our children to think this way. If you don’t believe me, just watch a group of second or third graders playing Monopoly. They play the game with the growing awareness that only one player is going to end up owning everything, and everybody else is going to end up either dead broke or in Jail. Some of them even find ways to cheat, or bully other players. By the time the game ends, feelings are hurt, there are cries of “not fair!” and a few children begin to understand that ending up with something is better than ending up with nothing.

    I really believe that the bigger issue is that we “score” ourselves based on how many pieces of colored paper we can amass, and how many numbers, zeroes and place settings follow the dollar sign in our bank and savings accounts. We think we are competing against others for those pieces of paper, a fallacy that is unfortunately fostered by many management types who think that people perform better when they are struggling to outdo one another, rather than simply achieve some identified goal.

    What we need to start thinking about is how to change the incentive system, so that it becomes more meaningful than simply a number on a financial statement or a pay stub, and not a function of defeating or outdistancing our co-workers.

    It’s truly disheartening to let my mind rest on the numbers of homeless, hungry, needy people in our country — arguably the richest on earth — while billionaires and multi-billionaires insist that there isn’t enough to go around for everyone.

    1. Johanna Post author

      Marsha, right now, this is true. Do you know about the experiment in universal basic income in Stockton, CA? The quick answer is the experiment is working. People spend the money on necessities, not on frivolous expenses. (Although, I’m not sure how any of us knows what is frivolous anymore.)

      I started to address the management incentives in Why Minimize Management Decision Time. We have perverse incentives.

      I wrote a little about this for consultants in “What’s Enough for You?” However, I think we need a larger conversation.

      I’m not a billionaire. I wonder why billionaires give money to universities when they could do much more good (IMO) if they helped people go to school or subsidized the public schools or funded more UBI experiments like the one in Stockton.

      I am sure I don’t have the answers, but I find it tragic that so many children live in poverty and are homeless. That’s a shame on us, the richest country on earth. If we started with guaranteeing children food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, and schooling, maybe they would be smart enough to show us the way out of this mess.

      (And for people who say, “Some people will cheat.” Of course, they will. Is the cheating of the small amounts worse than the way billionaires pay less in taxes? IME, people cheat when they see the system as rigged. If we gave people a hand up, would that help or hurt? I think it helps.)

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