Writer: Tim Q. M. Martina
In January 2006, Kongō Gumi, a Japanese construction company, went into liquidation. Although regrettable, this is not inherently remarkable. What truly was astonishing though was the fact that this mostly family-run company closed up shop after 1,428 years. How could this enterprise survive for over a millennium and other businesses file for bankruptcy within a decade? We might have no way of certainly knowing, but it seems like the 40 generations of leadership were all playing an Infinite Game. Let’s explore this.
Finite and Infinite Games.
“What will undo any boundary is the awareness that it is our vision, and not what we are viewing, that is limited.” That is a quote from Professor James P. Carse’s 1986 book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. Albeit with a rather philosophical approach, the author compellingly conceptualises two types of games, each with their respective rules and course of play. A Finite Game, like sports, politics, and war, is bounded by fixed rules and time. This game is played by known players to be won and the winner can only truly win with the acknowledgement of the other players. Otherwise there is no validity to the title claim. In comparison, an Infinite Game has no agreed-upon rules, no boundaries, and no objectives. Known and unknown players single-purposely play this game to prevent it from coming to an end.
Three decades later, the best-selling author Simon Sinek (Start With Why, Leaders Eat Last) argues in his book The Infinite Game (2019) that the business arena fits the very definition of an Infinite Game. Sinek so eloquently puts it like this: “No matter how successful we are in life, when we die, none of us will be declared the winner of life. And there is certainly no such thing as winning business. All these things are journeys, not events.” Sinek contends further that for one to succeed in this type of game, the proper mindset for this specific type of game must be adhered. “A company built for resilience is a company that is structured to last forever. This is different from a company built for stability. Stability, by its very definition, is about remaining the same.”
In short, times change and uncertainty is inherent to change. To survive the test of time, continuous improvement is the required mindset, and thus using this mindset to build an invincible company. But how does one go about doing this?
Proper business ethos.
Although the odds are that none of us are consciously or willingly sabotaging our own enterprises, there are some lessons to be learned. How can we inspire all those involved to feel accountable for the sustainability of the business? Where are we to learn from if we are pioneering? The short answer is by adopting the proper attitude, by learning and by adapting quickly to change. Sinek translates valuable lessons directly from good practices. He also thoroughly explores a five-step practice that forms the fundament for good business:
◆ Advance a Just Cause
◆ Build Trusting Teams
◆ Study your Worthy Rivals
◆ Prepare for Existential Flexibility
◆ Demonstrate the Courage to Lead
History is full of accomplished moonshots and unfortunate mishaps. The ones that really stand out, though, are the ones where the leaders closely followed this five-step framework. Whether it was Johnson & Johnson’s global recall during the Tylenol cyanide poisoning crisis, taking a loss of more than USD 100 million in 1982. Or when CVS Caremark stopped selling tobacco-related products in 2014, losing USD 2 billion per year in revenue. They all overcame adversity by sticking to their Infinite Mindset. Enduring a significant loss in the short term but coming out as heroes in the end, ultimately putting a smile on the shareholders’ faces.
No proverbial silver bullet, is there ever really a simple solution to a complicated problem?
After 1,428 years led by 40 generations, Kongō Gumi had to succumb to a substantial debt, brought forth by change in national legislations and arguably mismanagement. The mostly family-run construction enterprise might have had a much too amicable attitude towards its suppliers, which compounded to an unfortunate financial downfall. So even the most resilient business is susceptible to modern day challenges. Uncertain times require leaders to be proactively investing in resilience and constantly adjusting to current circumstances. Leaders should courageously be:
◆ inspiring their environment to iteratively create value,
◆ cultivating the proper mindset within their organisation to support this (the Infinite Mindset of continuous improvement),
◆ tailoring an agile framework best suited for their enterprise to facilitate this never-ending continuous improvement.
This is no easy task, even in times of economic expansion. There is no one absolute solution to the complexity that is business. What we can do, though, is setting ourselves and our businesses up for the best possible outcome. Adapt to a framework for continuous improvement, keep learning proactively, and not just achieve current year goals but aspire to have your organisation last forever.