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Do We Know What Game We Are Playing?

March 12, 2019
By Fr. David

Many of you have heard me speak of Simon Sinek's book, Start With Why  I used Sinek's materials when I work with school boards to get to the key of what it means to be an Episcopal school.  With so many school choices, our survival is dependent on our abilty to explain the "why" of Episcopal education. 

I was able to hear Sinek speak at the recent NAIS Annual Conference in Long Beach and he shared his work with us.  He has been researching game theory and what that means for the business world.  His question for us now is, "Do you know the game that you are playing?"

Game theory speaks of two types of games: finite and infinite. Fininte games are fixed.  The players are known.  The objective is clear. The object is to play the game in order to win.  Think of baseball.  Everyone knows which team you are on and at the end of nine innings, the winner is the team with the most runs, right?

Contrast that with an infinite game.  Infinte games involve both known and unknown players. The rules tend to change. There is no winning, per se.  Rather, the goal is to keep playing.  

When fininte game players engage in an infinite game, chaos ensues.

Sinek's example of this is the Vietnam conflict.  The US was playing a finite game in which "winning" was the goal.  The North Vietnamese were playing an infinite game where survival was the goal.  Chaos ensued. 

What does this mean for us? Do we know what game we are playing?  Education is an infinte game.  No school is going to "win" education. Rather, the goal is to keep playing and advancing in a way that offers improvement and forward motion.

As educational leaders, it is critical to recognize that playing in an infinite game is different from playing in a finiate game.  Sinek suggests that five things are necessary to be successful in an inifinte game:

  1. A just cause: there has to be a reason to come to work each day that goes beyond "winning"
  2. Trusting teams: infinite game players need to be on teams where they feel safe enough to be themselves fully
  3. Worthy rival: an infinte team needs a worthyrival--not to beat--but to encoourage constant improvement and self-reflection
  4. Capacity for existential flexibility: the rules of the game constntly change--do we have the capaity to move beyond simply defending our current market share?
  5. Courage to lead: this shift in approach is disrputive and requires leaders that are brave and can encourage team members to be brave, too

Sinek's new book, The Infinite Game, will be available this summer. I hope you will add it to your summer reading list!