Frustrated? Maybe you’re playing the wrong game…

As a business owner, it’s a pretty safe bet that you feel frustrated at times – sometimes it’s because things aren’t going your way. And sometimes, ironically, it’s because things did go your way – you won – but you’re thinking ‘Now what? How can I top that?’.

Whatever the cause, that frustration can be a very dangerous thing. If it goes on long enough, it leads to burnout but even in the short term it can lead you to make bad decisions, cut corners, do things that will give you a quick win.

What if that frustration was a product of your mindset more than anything else? What if you could look at the natural ups and downs of a business with a different perspective – one that helped you to be more strategic and thoughtful… and guarded against those shortcuts and bad ideas that pull you in the wrong direction?

Simon Sinek – they guy who suggested you Start with Why‘, would tell you that your frustration is likely because you are playing a Finite Game with your business when you should be playing an Infinite Game (which is also the title of his new book).

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The Infinite Game – what’s that?

In a finite game, the rules are clear, you know who the players are and it’s easy to tell who won. (Think football, chess or even an election). However in an infinite game, there is no duration, players can come and go and the rules will change along the way. Your relationship with your spouse is an infinite game, in fact your life is really an infinite game. You can’t really ‘win’ your relationship with your spouse, you can only continually try to get better.

Once you’ve got the general idea of the mindsets you’ll start to recognize some of the challenges… such as playing an infinite game with a finite game mindset. That’s what happens with most businesses – the owner, or the board or the shareholders are primarily interested in winning in the short term. They want to win the next Quarter (profits) and they want to beat the competition (market share). They’re willing to do whatever’s necessary to make that happen.

But a business should generally be considered an infinite game – there isn’t an endpoint and there generally isn’t a clear definition of what winning might mean – revenue, customer satisfaction, profitability? The exception to this might be a start-up that’s built from day one to be sold within a certain amount of time. But even in that situation, the business continues on indefinitely, just with a new owner.

The problems come about when you combine a finite game mindset with an infinite game. When the leadership team or the owner starts making decisions to ‘win’ the next quarter, or the next year, they are likely to push for things that don’t make sense in the long run.

Blockbuster was looking at their short term performance when they passed on the opportunity to buy Netflix. They didn’t want to sponsor competition that would hurt their performance for the next quarter. Kodak did the same thing when they chose to not use the patent they developed for digital cameras because it would lead to less film sales. In both of those examples, the companies may have won in the short term but lost it all over time.

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Playing with the wrong mindset leads to frustration

Back to the original point about frustration as a business owner. When you’re playing an infinite game (like your business) but you’re trying to win in the short term, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be frustrated.

If you had a great quarter or a great year, your focus is going to be on doing even better next quarter. The goal posts are constantly moving back and it’s not really possible to ‘win’ – so it’s not surprising that the whole process is frustrating and unfulfilling.

And if you had a bad quarter, your need to win is going to drive you to make some decisions. Maybe you take on that big client who doesn’t pay on time and demands all sorts of special treatment. Or maybe you decide to drop your prices to drive in more business – only now your profits are non-existent. Do those kinds of things for very long and you’re bound to be frustrated (and possibly out of business sooner rather than later).

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How about playing with an Infinite Game mindset?

The alternative is to approach your business with an Infinite Game mindset where the overall focus (at least with the leadership team) isn’t about winning the next month or the next quarter, it’s about getting better. It’s about serving a purpose, solving your customer’s problem in better ways – and doing those things while you’re still making money.

Think about the impact that would have on the frustration that we talked about above. If you had a great quarter you can still celebrate, but your real goal is to keep getting better and to continue serving your cause. You love the overall process and you’re not just focused on winning.

If you’re having a bad quarter, you’re still not going to be excited about it, but since your real goal is to improve, to help your customers and do it in a way that will make sense 10 years from now you have some perspective. That bad quarter becomes a temporary setback that’s much easier to deal with. If you keep doing the right things, good things will happen – sometimes it just takes patience.

What do you think? Is your mindset driving your frustration? Does this idea of playing an infinite game resonate with you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Shawn Kinkade Kansas City Business Coach

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