Browsing YouTube the other day I came across a TED talk discussing the concept of the ‘Infinite Game’.
It is an idea I have been familiar with for a while and relates to how I think about marketing’s role in not just business, but society as a whole.
What is the ‘Infinite Game’?
The Infinite Game concept poses that across all aspects of society there are two types of games being played out everyday – Finite Games and Infinite Games.
A Finite Game is one where there are known players, fixed rules and an agreed upon objective – a football cup final match for example. It has a fixed number of players, an agreed code of conduct and it must finish with a clear result. A winner and a loser.
An Infinite Game, however, is one where there are both known and unknown players entering and leaving the game at any point. The rules are changeable and the objective is simply to perpetuate the game or to stay in it as long as possible.
War is an example of an Infinite Game. It lasts indefinitely until certain sides, temporarily at least, run out of the needed resources or political will.
When you pit a Finite player against a Finite player, the system is stable – there is a clear winner and loser.
When you pit an Infinite player against an Infinite player, the system is also stable – there is no winner or loser – the game continues indefinitely, it is just players who leave the game.
Instability arrives when players aren’t aware of the game they’re playing in.
Business, Is An Infinite Game
“Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary”Don Draper, Mad Men
By its very nature, business is an Infinite Game.
The commercial world expands indefinitely with new companies, technologies and rules entering different markets all the time.
There is no such thing as permanently ‘winning’ business. You merely take temporary custody of customer loyalty or goodwill until you give it away or someone else earns it from you.
It is this misunderstanding that gets companies into trouble.
They earn market dominance and sit back to enjoy their achievement.
But history is littered with examples of companies who played the Infinite Game by finite rules.
Kodak, for example, dominated the photographic film market for most of the 20th century. They believed their dominance would never end but when the digital photography revolution came along, traditional film cameras were made redundant. The story goes that they themselves even invented the first digital camera in 1975 but did not want to imagine or accept that their cash cow – photographic film – would no longer be needed one day. They buried their heads in the sand and their own hubris got the better of them. Further reading: Why Did Kodak Fail and What Can You Learn from its Demise?
Blockbuster video is another example of game failure. At the height of the video-rental market, aside independents, they had near complete market share. It was not that they weren’t capable of change, indeed they survived the transition from VHS to DVD, but they believed that customers would always want to go to a physical location to rent movies. Netflix came along and the rest is history. Further reading: The Internet Didn’t Kill Blockbuster, The Company Did It To Itself
Both Kodak and Blockbuster suffered from what is described as ’Marketing Myopia’. They were short sighted – focusing too much on their own business and product and not the customer. They believed their business models would endure. Ironically, despite the technological disruption, the core needs of their market remained – the want to take pictures/watch movies – what changed was the means of satisfying them.
Essentially, a misunderstanding of the Infinite Game is a failure to innovate.
It is neglecting the need to continually ask questions.
Where is the market is going? What do customers want next? What do my customers value most? What is the next big disruptive technology?
Getting to the top is not the end.
Marketing’s Role In The Infinite Game
Marketing plays a central role in business’s Infinite Game because it fundamentally understands nothing is ever ‘done’.
Markets are in a constant state of flux with trends, demand and consumer needs changing all the time.
New competitors, technologies and methodologies unveil themselves at a moment’s notice.
As a marketer you have to be aware and agile, prepared to meet future challenges and manage future challengers.
You might be the market leader in supplying widget X, but what if widget Z comes out and is vastly superior? Did you see that coming, and make plans for its arrival?
You made it to number one on Google for a popular keyword? Well done you, how do you plan to stay there?
Your off-the-page advertising strategy has been a driving force for your success over the years but how do you handle the death of print and are you ready for the world of PPC and social media marketing?
You won the battle this week, but the seeds of the next battle were sewn months or even years before you reached the current field.
There is rarely time for backslapping in the Infinite Game.
Someone is always coming after you, or you are going after them.
For enduring success you must adopt a philosophy of continual improvement.
In reality you are only ever competing to be a better version of yourself this year compared to last.
Which brings me to my final point.
To last the distance, you have to really care about what you’re doing.
Why did you get into your business in the first place?
Do you love what you do, drawing great satisfaction from delighting customers day in day out?
If you don’t have that enthusiasm you’ll find it hard to stay motivated and evolve through the inevitable market cycles.
But if your intentions are right, and you embrace the infinite mindset, you stand a good chance of staying in the game long after others have dropped out.
“Because the hardest of the game
Isn’t even playing the game
It’s caring enough to care about playin’ the game”“Canter” by Gerry Cinnamon
Further reading: Simon Sinek: The Infinite Game