Wanna stay in business for the long run? Know the infinite game!

There is a simple way to stay in business in the long run.

Other than knowing the rules of your business, and doing the small things right consistently, you need to know and play by the rules of the infinite game.

The infinite game, like any game, has rules.  But they’re not the same as standard games you might play.

Standard games have a known number of players; they end at a specific time frame or when a specific event occurs; there are winners and losers; the rules are set and typically don’t change; and you agree to the rules of the game.

Games like rugby or chess are standard games.

Infinite games are different – players come and players go; there are no winners or losers – only players participating and those not; players leave when they lack the resources or will to continue; the rules in business keep changing; there is no specific end point.

Being in business is an infinite game – businesses come and go; there are no winners or losers – only businesses still trading and businesses who have gone …

Winning doesn’t mean you’re going to stay in business

Some of you might be saying – wait up a minute there Brydon – aren’t there winners and losers in business?

My response is “Are you sure about that”? 

Businesses like Hanover Finance, Enron, and Blockbuster are all businesses that were winners and later failed spectacularly:

  • Hanover Finance – largest finance company in NZ in 2008 when it failed
  • Enron – became the largest seller of natural gas in North America by 1992 but was bankrupt by 2001
  • Blockbuster Video – at its peak it had over 9,000 stores worldwide but declared bankrupt in 2010

So being a winner clearly doesn’t mean you’ll be staying in business for the long run.

If the goal of an infinite game is to play as long as you want to play (i.e. you leave when you’re ready, and not be forced to leave), then how can there be winners and losers?  Winning or losing depends on the metric you decide to measure.  Unless that measure is how long you can remain in business (which no one really knows), then it doesn’t really matter (except to your ego if you like winning).

The truth is in an infinite game someone is always ahead on some metric, and someone will be behind. 

But if the goal of an infinite game is to last as long as you want, then it doesn’t matter if someone is winning or losing on whatever metric, what really matters is you last longer than anyone else (or at least until you’re ready to leave).

Staying in business until you’re ready to leave

So how do you play to stay in the infinite game and make sure your business has a better chance of being around in the future regardless of what is happening around you?

  1. Make sure that every decision you make (no matter how big or how small), improves (and doesn’t reduce) your chances of staying in the game of business
  2. Find ways to better yourself.  Think about how you can make yourself a better version of yourself today than you were yesterday – remember small changes over a long time lead to big things
  3. Continually find ways to create new products/services that are better than the products/services you created last time – again, small changes over a long time lead to big things
  4. Never compare yourself against your competition’s goals.  Measure yourself against your goals.
  5. Understand that sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down.  Sometimes your competition will be in front of you, and sometimes they will be behind you.  Neither necessarily means you are winning or losing. 

So what does this look like in real life?

For me, it was about using this filter on every decision I make in my business.  If what I’m thinking about doing helps more customers buy from me, improves what customers will pay me, reduces my costs (and doesn’t reduce value to customer), improves my ability to meet my costs and pay my taxes, gives me what I’m worth for my effort, helps me pay off my debts, or gives me more to work with, then that improves my ability to stay in business in the long run. 

I want to stay in business until I am ready to go.  I don’t want to be forced out – either by my own doing (not playing by the rules, not doing the small things right consistently, ignoring the rules of the infinite game), or by others. My business exists as part of who I am and what I want to do with my life (that’s another rant for another time) and I’m not done yet.

What about you?  Are you making good decisions that improve your ability to stay in business … or not?  Are you making improvements to you and/or your business on a regular basis?  Do you want to?

For more information on the infinite game, refer to Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game.

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