Perspective and the Infinite Game

Co-Written by Heather Marasse & Elisa Maselli

In our work with hundreds of leaders in Fortune 500 organizations, we have seen an interesting people phenomenon – how quickly and easily we lose perspective.

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As defined by Merriam-Webster, perspective is the capacity to view things in their true relations or relative importance. 

This phenomenon shows up in the work world in many small but significant ways: 

  • We set unrealistic due dates for things that aren’t urgent. 
  • We debate over points-of-view instead of looking for common ground. 
  • We take on tasks even when the resources are fully-utilized without re-setting priorities. 

The ultimate result is organizational exhaustion. People feel as if they cannot possibly get everything done in the time required, with limited resources in a ‘do more with less’ culture. 

But we still go through the motions and try to keep our heads above water because we want to make a difference. The deeper, basic meaning behind our efforts and what we contribute has vanished. To quote Henry David Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

One resource we use to guide leaders back to a more holistic and grounded perspective is a book by James P. Carse, called Finite and Infinite Games. The author takes a deep view of what it means to ‘play’ – in life and at work – by comparing Finite and Infinite games. To explore the two types of games helps leaders maintain an open perspective. This is particularly important when leading in times of adversity and/or during large-scale change initiatives.

The concept of infinite games – games that have no end in their design – to keep the ‘game in play’ is at odds with the more traditional view of our world. This view sees life as a series of discrete encounters, each to be won, lost, or drawn. The final scoreboard at the end of the mega-game (life itself) tells us whether we have won or lost. This view plays out in organizational life in predictable, disheartening ways. 

We lose perspective. Our horizon disappears.

A more expansive view sees organizations as creative ecosystems. The goal is to enhance and foster creativity, diversity and innovation. Within that larger context, as in life, there are finite games to be won, lost, or drawn, but these finite endeavors work to keep the bigger game – the infinite one – in play.

Distinction s between the two types of games: 

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Our infinite game can easily slip away, and we don’t notice its departure. It disappears quietly amid the noise of our day-to-day demands.

If you catch yourself feeling that sense of ’quiet desperation’, it is usually a sign that you have lost sight of your own, personal horizon. With a few moments of reflection to explore the questions below, you can bring it back into sight. The result will be a return to your personal sense of purpose. You will recover your perspective.

  • What is the infinite game you are playing (in life, your career, your organization), inside of which are many finite games? 
  • What is the game you are playing simply for the joy of play?
  • What reminders or practices can you put in place to ensure you reconnect to your ‘infinite game’ when you notice that it has fallen away?

Authors' note: this article draws on the authors' experience of more than 20 years of application of concepts and tools from Generative Leadership Group, LLC.