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People Playing an Infinite Game Resist Change Less
Published on: December 5, 2023
Published By: Timothy Grayson

     Perspective is everything. At least as much as context.

     This piece began as another view on the “myth” of projects having a 70% failure rate (the root cause for change management discipline by the way). But since the rate hardly matters, as I’ve said elsewhere, so it evolved into a more complex contemplation of resistance to change and change management.

     This issue of project success is quite specifically tied to the implicit ideas that (a) project “success” is intrinsically valuable, and (b) people not changing their behaviour to properly implement project changes must be remedied.

     This is hardly the place to generalize on project value. We accept that any project’s purpose and change it brings are required for the organization to persist—stronger, more profitably, etc. The why’s and how’s of achieving that are for another time. Except that for people to change, particularly if they resist, we have to help them see and understand why the change is in theirs and the organization’s interest and how to implement it. Let’s focus on groundwork for that.

”Nothing lasts forever”

     Whether you first heard this as solace when a child or are hearing it first now, it’s true. Especially if we’re talking about things staying EXACTLY the same. The Roman Empire? Gone. The iPhone 15 is a barely recognizable relative of the first iPhone, let alone iPod. Apple itself is hardly the same company that Jobs and Wozniak founded. Nokia, IBM, Walmart, and most—if not all—companies are only loosely “the same” as they were at the time half-way back to their origin.[1]

     The Hudson’s Bay Company (500 years old) notwithstanding, businesses and regimes and political entities change or cease. The question, then, is not whether they will change but whether a change (or not changing) will end them. To live forever demands change. That’s the foundational argument with which to oppose resisters.[2]

     Let’s add some perspective from a religious man named James Carse. He wrote a slim but influential book of philosophy called Finite and Infinite Games.[3]

Finite and Infinite Games

     The core concepts of Carse’s book are, naturally, “finite games” and “infinite games.” They are not comparisons; one is not better than the other. But the structure, conditions, and player/playing strategies are different for each type. Here’s a cook’s tour of the two games.

Finite and Infinite Games help make change and resistance understandable

Finite Games

     Finite games are… finite. They have a definitive beginning, middle, and end. Once the game achieves its objective or if the rules are broken, the game ends. Those rules are fixed, and all players agree to them before the game starts. If someone breaks the rules, they are penalized or removed from the game. Players are seen and known, and choose to participate. Roles within the game are typically well-defined. A finite game has clear outcomes at its end. Typically there is/are winner(s) and loser(s). The primary if not the ONLY purpose of finite games is to win.

Infinite Games:

     Converse to finite games, infinite games have no definitive end. The game evolves and the objective is to keep the game going. To do so, rules are flexible, often modified to prevent the game from ending or to adapt to new circumstances. Infinite games will likely have revolving participants as players join or leave at any time. Player roles and even their number may not be fixed. Winning cannot logically be the ultimate goal; so perpetuation of the game is. The primary purpose of infinite games is (and has to be) to continue play.

(Finite and) Infinite Confusion

     By conditioning, our default expectation is the finite game. We grow up on board games, sports, and so forth, all of which are marked by clocks, buzzers, final moves, and scorekeeping. Business competition is inherently win-lose and we perceive market share, stock valuation, quarterlies, and so on within a fixed frame. Even in our personal lives, we reduce long-term situations to short-term win-lose. (e.g., Who had succeeded by your class’s 10-year reunion?)

     This infinite game concept is largely foreign to us. It doesn’t really compute. “The purpose is to keep going? Huh?” We don’t typically think in terms of making something not end—except maybe improvisationalists. Maybe we wish it from time to time (e.g., “I don’t want this vacation to end.”), but that is only because our default expectation is finite finality.

     We all do this: it’s how we roll. Except, of course that not all those business and career “games” are finite—at least not in the short term. Most people do, in fact, think of their career and employer organization as being (part of) an infinite game. Institutions are expected to persist. It lasts decades, not years, after all. Investment and wealth-building is about the same.

     Organizations expect to continue into “eternity.”[4] People go to their jobs and, if they stay in the same job or with the same employer, they expect/want it to go on forever. The only conceivable “change” is promotion and/or pay rises (i.e., a career trajectory). Our self-conceptions tend toward: “I’m an <insert role here>.” The implicit goal is infinite employment and a full career with an “institution.”

The Subconscious Confusion of Resistance to Change

     There are a vast number of reasons why people resist change. And there are even more approaches to addressing such resistance. This is not meant to add to those techniques, only to provide perspective and a line of reasoning to discussions about change that inevitably happen in trying to resolve resistance.

     Resistance is the essence of why change management is required. Some people don’t want to and refuse in some way to change.[5] If those people believe this game to be finite, they are not changing because they implicitly believe rules don’t change and, besides, maybe they are “winning.”

     If resisters consciously perceived and understood the game as infinite and that “nothing lasts forever,” it would be much clearer that change is fundamental to (their/our) succeeding. To simplify:

  1. I don’t want my employment/career to end and am comfortable with this employer (infinite games: both career and employer).
  2. But nothing lasts forever—not my employer’s status nor its ability to compete and continue in the form and manner of “yesterday’s” rules.
  3. Mental assessment:
    • My employer has to change to keep its infinite game going. The project is to achieve that.
    • I have to change to keep my infinite career game going.
    • I must change along with or leave my employer. If I stay and don’t, my employer will not succeed in its infinite game, which will end its run and end my own career—at least temporarily.[6]

Change Leaders Must Clearly Communicate the Infiniteness of the Game

     If you think about it a little bit, the corporate world is or definitely should be perceived and understood as an attempt to play an infinite game as successfully as possible.[7] After all, the entire point is to keep the business operating successfully as long and profitably as possible. (Competitive, finite games are just short-term episodes in that quest.) The way that happens within the pressures of innovation, market change, and so forth, is to change and evolve. Therefore, a core requirement of a business winning is for it to change and evolve—to pivot, if you will. That is infinite.

     This is not philosophic; it is pragmatic. Particularly at the project level. Assume project intent is appropriate and for good cause: it will only achieve its objective if/when executed. Because the business’s (government’s) game doesn’t end with that project, all the project can accomplish is a single step along an infinite journey. It is not necessarily something “better” replacing something “worse.” It is an appropriate adjustment in the circumstance to ensure the organization continues.

     The way an organization persists is for it to be/do/evolve to something appropriate for prevailing conditions. Not in every way; not at its essence; not all the time. But in some way, somewhere, somehow. Whatever behavioural change is demanded of impacted employees, it must be the current action needed for the organization’s infinite game to continue.

     The alternative is certainly harsher. As alluded to earlier, what’s not infinite is necessarily finite. If (some aspect) of an organization is finite then the answer is clear. It doesn’t change; so it must end. For people who take the position that they do not want to change as the organization needs, they should recognize the organization could—perhaps should—declare a win (or loss as the case may be) and wrap up the finite game for those people.

Summary

     Whether participating in a finite or infinite game should deeply influence strategy, goals, and actions. It should deeply influence awareness of and willingness to change as well. In finite games, strategies are focused on achieving the end goal; while in infinite games, the emphasis is on sustainability, adaptability, and long-term vision. The argument for change is considerably more acceptable for infinite play than for finite game players. The change leader should start (early) with this premise and foundation.

     Institute X is a transformation leadership consultancy and transformation/change leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook. Be sure to check out the abundance of practical and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Subscribe to be notified of new, fresh content.


[1]   This is loosely “business half-life.” For this particular point, it’s a good way of making varying organizational lifespans and histories relatively comparable.

[2]   That is, all things being equal insofar as opposition to the project and change not being for reasons of value or not being well-conceived and considered.

[3]   Carse, James P. Finite and Infinite Games. New York: Free Press, 1986.

[4]   Name one corporation or (government) institution that even once created a plan for its own end—ideally after having won. It doesn’t happen. Though maybe it should. Hayak would approve.

[5]   I will not get into the causes or merits of resistance. Whether resisters have not had the change explained adequately, don’t buy into it, or simply disagree is neither here nor there. At the end of the day, they are not changing.

[6]   Granted, a single employee not changing may have only marginal impact. But we’re all just straws on this camel’s back.

[7]   Among others, Simon Sinek has thought about it. Don’t believe me. Check out his ideas.

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If resisters consciously perceived and understood the game as infinite AND that "nothing lasts forever," it would be much clearer that change is fundamental to (their/our) succeeding.
Published By: Timothy Grayson
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