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Business, An Infinite Game

Ryan Frederick | June 7th, 2021

A good defense wins championships. That’s what is said about sports teams.

The same isn’t true when it comes to business, however. In business, offense wins.

Defense can win in sports and other finite games because of the specific time parameter to the game. In finite games, a good defense needs only to keep the other team from scoring more points than their own team. Just one more than your opponent to win. Finite games sometimes don’t even require an equal balance of offense and defense. We see teams that are better defensively beat teams that are better offensively all the time. The ideal is for a team to be balanced between defense and offense. The balance provides more ways to approach a game and to win. But indeed, in sports and finite games, the defense can win games and championships.

Business is an infinite game in that there is no time parameter around when the game ends. The game will go on until a business decides it doesn’t want to operate or play any longer. Infinite games, like businesses, have different dynamics and strategies than finite games, like sports. For instance, a business cannot win over a sustained period of time by being too defensively focused. As the old saying goes, “You can’t cost save your way to growth.”

Businesses have to think and operate on the offensive to play the infinite game of business well. Businesses need to be cognizant enough to not take on too much undue risk along the way, but some risk is going to be required to be offensive. Businesses also have to be mindful to structure their culture and operations to be offensive over defensive, otherwise, their team members can adapt to a finite game mentality and become defensive, preventing a business from growing. Sports teams invest training and practice time into defensive strategy and skill as much as they do offensive because a good defense can win games in sports. Businesses that focus too much on being overly protective will create a culture of defensiveness that will prevent the business from growing. Business leaders can take a lot of sports and apply it to their companies but defense winning isn’t one of them.

Business leaders need to understand the differing dynamics of the infinite game of business as compared to finite game of sports so they can set the right tone and vision for their companies. Business leaders need to have a long-term vision the team can believe and buy into since there is no finish line for a business. Coaches and the leaders of sports teams need a much more daily-oriented focus because of the immediate pressure to win this game and this season. Long-term means very different things in business (infinite games) than it does in sports (finite games) because not only are games finite in sports but so are the seasons. Sports teams also have an off-season in which to evaluate their staff, players, strategy, plays, and so on. There is no off-season for a business and its team members. The evaluations and adjustments have to happen in flight.

Business is an infinite game, and most companies are competing with numerous known and unknown competitors. In a finite game, you can prepare for and outplay or strategize a specific opponent. In business, if you focus too much on one competitor the others will pass you by. In the infinite game of business, companies compete more with themselves than they do with any outsiders. Companies that become too competitor-focused will lose their way. These companies typically end up copying and looking like their competitors, which is no advantage. At a minimum, companies like these are playing a defensive-minded game which means the competitors have already won even if it isn’t clear yet. To play an infinite game well, business leaders need to play their own game. It’s still important to be aware of what the competition is doing but more important to be aware of what their customers/clients want and what they want their company to be. In this case, offense > defense.