Nearly 35 years ago, I was working in advertising on new product concepts for a major packaged goods manufacturer. Tetra Pak technology—those shelf-stable boxes—was brand new, and we had some ideas that were way ahead of our time, including still- and carbonated-water–based beverages infused with juice (I told you we were way ahead of our time!). We tested them, and the consumers loved them. We presented the results to the client, who was very happy with the results, and they proceeded to introduce a ready-to-drink version of a powdered drink that the client already sold rather than to develop our very successful ideas. Why? Because that would provide greater short-term cash and sales to the company than the several years of development and significant capital investment that our breakthrough product ideas would have required.
This is what modern-day philosopher Simon Sinek meant when he spoke about finite vs. infinite games when I heard him speak the other night. When corporate America focuses on “maximizing shareholder value,” companies use short-term vision rather than looking at the company’s long-term mission. Sure, it’s trendy for corporations to have vision statements that talk about product quality, customer service and care for the environment…but more often than not, the day-to-day decisions are governed by short-term profit.
Hence even the most customer-focused companies now require you to press 1, press 2 for several rounds before you can get a human on the phone. According to Harvard Business Review, between 70% and 90% of mergers and acquisitions fail—why? IMHO it’s because, in spite of the thousands of dollars in Ivy League MBA analysis done on the transactions, the decisions are based on profit margins and short trends rather than on the big-picture connections between the companies on both a product level and a corporate-culture level. Per Sinek, part of the demise of these transactions and businesses is the fact that employees in finite-thinking companies are constantly trying to reach the right numbers and are in fear of the next round of layoffs rather than focusing on the long-term mission and vision and how those lead to long-term success.
I was lucky to receive two tickets to see the soon-to-open Broadway show Diana: A True Musical Story—literally a musical about the tragic life of Princess Diana. I left the theater sad. Not because Diana died, which, of course, was the obvious conclusion. I was sad because the show is a simplistic attempt to exploit the commercial power of Diana’s name and memory. With the rising cost of Broadway shows, producers have recently been turning “sure thing” movies into Broadway shows—Shrek…Pretty Woman…Beetlejuice…Mean Girls…Mrs. Doubtfire. Not a single original—“infinite,” as defined by Sinek—idea in the bunch. I can imagine the meeting to present “Princess Di the musical” about the single most famous and desirable woman of the 1980s.
My friend who worked at People magazine during the Diana era often told me how every time Princess Diana was on the cover, the magazine would get an enormous jump in single-copy sales. But the Broadway show was an entirely “finite” view of her life—name…headlines…amazing wardrobe…and yet nothing interesting. Diana was an incredible mother who broke the royal rules of parent-child engagement…a deeply caring and sensitive woman who broke the rules of interaction with “the public” and those in need…and a woman with very real emotional challenges shared by millions of others. A show that delved into any of those aspects of her life and truly celebrated Diana’s magic and achievements would have brought a new awareness—an infinite perspective—to the audience. But instead, the show went nowhere beyond the headlines that we all already know and merely exploited her name for the sake of ticket sales. I am sad for the entire royal family—and for Diana’s memory—that she continues to be used as a finite pawn rather than the infinite world changer she was.
In the political arena, candidates promise short-term benefits rather than talk about the principles upon which our nation is built—tax cuts and free stuff vs. long-term infrastructure and functioning of the country.
Sinek roots this shift in the 1970s, when the baby boomers of the “me generation” grew up to be adults who were self-absorbed and focused on individual performance and reward. Prior generations had focused on the greater good of community and country. While many are now “woke” about dangerous ingredients in our foods and personal products and the need to protect the environment, they are simultaneously absorbed about the number of likes they get on their latest Insta-pic.
Fast-forward to today—technology now provides constant and immediate rewards for every individual need. Virtually every human need can be met within days if not moments. But is all that really satisfying us in the long term? Is it making us better people? Or just creating more anxiety as we are constantly worried about hitting the next goal?
Life is a balance of finite and infinite games. It’s not really an either-or game. In the throes of coronavirus, people are hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper along with as much food as they can store because they are worried about the possibility of being isolated or quarantined for a week…or two…or three. Finite. Are they eating better…sleeping more…and getting exercise in order to build their immune systems for the infinite game of health and wellness? Faced with this very real challenge, success requires addressing both strategies.
Finite is tempting. It’s rewarding. It’s immediate gratification. And we like that. But, understanding and playing the long-term game is what fills the soul.