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?
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