In his new book, the delightfully unsubtitled The Infinite Game, Sinek points out that running a business is a journey without a final destination. The goal is not to win but to keep playing, by which he means building an organization that can survive its leaders. That requires making decisions that sometimes impede conventional entrepreneurial imperatives, such as grow at any cost. Inc. spoke with Sinek about choices made by infinite-minded leaders.
Inc.: The operational principle in your first book is the “why.” In this new work it is the “just cause.” How are they different?
Simon Sinek: The difference between the “why” and the “just cause,” which is the first practice of the infinite game, is that the why comes from the past. It is the sum total of who we are. It is objective and it never changes and we have only one of them. The just cause is a vision of the future. It is subjective and changeable, and you can have more than one. The infinite game is less about where we come from and more about where we are going, and understanding the world in which we operate.
For a business, is a just cause the same as a vision statement?
The problem I kept running into is everybody had a different definition of a vision statement, and they were all written in completely different ways. Some were good and some were junk.
What’s the difference between good and junky vision statements?
Many vision statements sound more like long-term goals. And they are pretty egocentric. To be the biggest, most respected X kind of company in the industry by X date. To offer the greatest value with the highest-quality products. That is not a description of the world we want to live in. That is a description of the company you want to build. That kind of stuff is fine and good. But it is not visionary. A good vision statement would be to create a world in which the vast majority of people wake up inspired, feel safe at work, and return home fulfilled at the end of the day.
If you’re an entrepreneur playing an infinite game, can you work only with investors playing the same game? I would imagine that decreases your chances of funding.
I’ve had this question so many times from CEOs. My investors are putting pressure on me to do what I know is the wrong thing. Well, we get to choose whom we take money from. And if that means there are fewer options because there are fewer infinite-minded investors out there, then so be it. We can also take less money from these people, so that their clout is diminished. Nothing comes for free.
What role do metrics play in an infinite game company?
There is nothing wrong with traditional metrics. But they are a measure of speed and distance. How fast we are growing and how far we have gone. Too many companies–especially smaller companies–get obsessed with hypergrowth. Who said that growing fast was a good thing? Is that healthy? Growth should be a dial, not an absolute.
Here’s an example: There is a retail operation with the ambition of opening 2,000 stores in a year. They want to prove that they are hypergrowth. The problem is they are not hiring good people and taking time to train them. So, in all the stores they open, people have a terrible experience, and those stores will eventually start closing. Versus slowing down and opening 200 stores that are absolutely fantastic. Hypergrowth can actually weaken a company.
If you are trying to create an infinite-minded culture, how do you reward finite wins, which you still need?
An infinite game is not the absence of a finite game: It is the context in which the finite game exists. And the traditional metrics still have value. But they can’t be unbalanced. I am a big believer in team incentives. And also include behaviors other than performance. Things like trust, cooperation, and teamwork should also be considered in people’s compensation.
Sales, presumably, is the toughest place to embed an infinite mindset.
Of course. We should create an environment in which making the sale alone is not what guarantees the bonus. I met a company that does something they call 50-50 bonuses. Your contribution to revenue is 50 percent, and your contribution to culture is 50 percent. So, if all you are doing is driving sales, you will get 50 percent of your bonus. If all you are doing is walking around checking on people, you will get 50 percent. It takes an infinite-minded leader to want to do that.
Infinite-minded CEOs make true partners of their COOs and CFOs. If the three of you are founding a business together, how would you structure that relationship for optimal results?
It is one of the biggest and most frequent mistakes I see. The person who wants to run the company, who wants the big job and the responsibility, is usually given the CEO job. Visionaries who are not that ambitious take the secondary role. You then have an operator sitting in the visionary position. That’s why I suggested this new title of Chief Vision Officer, which doesn’t have the baggage that the CEO title has. The CVO should be the true visionary of the company. The person who is going to run the day-to-day should be the COO.
How does playing an infinite game affect how leaders deal with failure?
It allows them to take everything more in stride. There is a wonderful Chinese story of a young man who is born with an amazing talent for horse riding. Everyone in the village says you are so lucky. The monk says, we’ll see. The young man falls off his horse and breaks his leg, and his career is over. And everyone in the village says, you are so unlucky. The monk says, we’ll see. And then war breaks out, and all the young men go off to battle. But this young man can’t go because of his busted leg. And everyone in the village says you are so lucky. The monk says, we’ll see.
This is a journey. If we look back at our lives and some of the trials and tribulations we have been through, rarely will we say we want to go through them again. But we learned something from them. And we became better versions of ourselves because of them.
So should all entrepreneurs aspire to infinite-minded leadership?
It’s not a question of right or wrong. It’s about what kind of company we want to build. We do not get to choose the rules of the game of business. The only choice we get is how we want to play. The choice to play with a finite mindset comes with a cost. The cost of trust. The cost of cooperation. The cost of innovation. The cost of longevity. The choice to play with an infinite mindset may mean the growth numbers are a little slower than your friend’s down the street. But the goal is not to beat your competition. The goal is to outlast them.