April 26, 2022
Finite and Infinite Games

Business is a long game, and you should always be looking for new ways to make more money, save money and enhance organisational reputation.

Business is a long game, and you should always be looking for new ways to make more money, save money and enhance organisational reputation.   This is a truth and to acquire that position in the market you must get into the game in the first place and, secondly, and more importantly I would contend, stay in the game.   This is where Finite and Infinite Games can come to the fore.  

Let’s say there are two types of games – they are called Finite and Infinite. The Finite Game, which has a defined beginning, middle and end is played for the sole purpose of gaining a benefit.  The Infinite Game is played with the specific purpose of continuing the game and that game is building a nimble, successful business that can adapt in evolving environments.   There can and will be multiple Finite Games within an Infinite Game, but if the outcome of a Finite Game becomes the sole focus of the play, then there is a risk of the Infinite Game collapsing and bringing the entire game, negotiation or business crashing down.  Don’t automatically buy into ‘win-lose’ and remember that rivals can be allies and allies can compete with you.  The measures of your success will be many and wide-ranging and will change over time.  

From the perspective of the Hostage Negotiator, we value both games equally and there are several Finite Games within a negotiation.  These can include getting the Hostage Taker to talk to you; obtaining ‘proof of life’; and even such things as the safe delivery of food, medicine or a communication means into a strong hold.   In these examples each Finite Game often follows the rule of reciprocity – you or they do something, and something is done in return.  Both players may consider legitimately that they have secured some form of win but more importantly the players have been kept in the game.  The Infinite Game in any Hostage taking is ultimately the preservation of life – securing the safe return of the hostage!  This requires the Hostage Negotiator to stay in the game and keep the Hostage Taker in the ‘game’ too as this provides the best opportunity to actively listen, and to develop and deliver a negotiation strategy to influence the outcome.  

Human interactions will typically always involve Infinite Games and those that thrive are those adapt to the evolving game and influence the play.  This is where Hostage Negotiators excel. Successful business is also about those human interactions.  On the other hand, get rich quick schemes and other exploitative practices will often involve a single Finite Game which may ultimately implode leaving a trail of failed enterprises and a reputation in tatters.

So, how do I apply the rules of Finite and Infinite Games the business world I hear you ask.  You should want to nurture achievement in the short-term Finite Games while remembering that the Infinite Game you are playing is about cultivating a strong, flexible and financially robust business.  An enterprise that can cope with uncertainty and rapid change – namely a business which can stay in the game, be a market leader, be identified as having a trusted management model and achieve increased profitability through sustainable growth.  

By way of example, how many times have we seen participants in the tv show The Apprentice brag about carrying out a great deal for it only to be pointed out that such was their behaviour the likelihood of any repeat business has just faded?  They may have won the Finite Game but have failed to keep their prospective repeat customers in the Infinite Game.  Participants often misidentify the nature of the task and overlook the fact that the purpose of ‘playing’ is to stay in the game, perform well in each task (Finite Game) and succeed in the Infinite Game which is to become Lord Sugar’s business partner.

So next time you, why not ask yourself which game I am playing as this can shape your thinking and decisions.  Once you have correctly identified which game you are playing you can then apply that knowledge to leverage your negotiations and that is what will help you succeed.

For more information contact negotiatedresolutions.com


Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse

Stephen McNeill

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