The game of business fits the very definition of an infinite value game. This means that players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no such thing as the end of the game itself. Despite the fact that majority of companies are playing the game of business as if they can win it, we have to stop thinking who is the best and how to compete better than others. To stay alive in the infinite game of business, companies must forget about competing in existing crowded markets, and focus on creating their own value games and rules. Business is a perpetual evolution and changing the game is the essence of the game in itself.
The infinite game of business
There are two kinds of games in life: finite and infinitive games. A finite game is played to win, while an infinite game is played to keep the game going.
Finite games, such as football, basketball, tennis, golf, poker, chess, debates or even war, have specific boundaries. They have a clear beginning, a playing field and a certain number of known players. In addition to these restrictions, finite games are governed by a set of rules that are pre-established and mutually agreed upon by the players. Once the fixed rules are established, the objective is to win. The end point of the game is when someone wins, so the winners and losers are easily identified. When there’s a winner, the game is over. It is zero sum.
Infinite games, on the other hand, are the polar opposite to finite games. Where a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the game. Infinite games are not bound by any restriction. Anyone can participate in the game, anytime, anywhere. An infinite game can keep going only by allowing players to come and go, and by changing the rules over time. To maintain perpetual adaptations, mutations and possibilities, the infinite game must play with its own boundaries, players and rules. Therefore, there are no winners or losers in an infinite game; there is only ahead and behind.
Consider, for example, music. There will never be any such thing as ‘the best worldwide artist of all time’, because there will always be new songwriters creating amazing new music. No artist makes art to win or be the best. Actually, artistic creations are like open invitations for more people to join the game. Therefore, life itself is essentially an infinite game. When we play the game of life, we explore new ways to live life to the fullest, we take into account all possibilities, we expand what is meant by playing, and if possible, we make improbable moves to overcome everything that has come before.
Likewise, business is an ‘infinite value game’ where anyone can participate, companies come and go, rules are malleable and shifting, and there are no clear winners and losers. As technological innovations change the rules continuously, most companies are proficient in the best practices of previous versions of the game, but do not know how to master the new possibilities that fresh ideas and technological breakthroughs bring to the playing arena. Established companies may recognize some of their contestants from a past game with outdated rules, but is becoming impossible to envision the future number and variety of all players, let alone their strategy or sources of distinctiveness.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If you have any doubt about that, just think how digitization is causing a radical acceleration of these dynamics. Traditional industry boundaries are blurring. Industry incumbents have to play together with a large set of unpredictable startups and digital attackers while defending their position against a well-established group of modern giants such as Amazon, Google or Apple that have progressively extended their influence into many economic sectors. Traditional competitive rules are crumbling since Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.
Value Hackers are infinite players
The more I started to understand the difference between finite and infinite games, the more I began to realize that many of the struggles and disruptions that companies face exist simply because they are still playing the game of business with a finite mindset. Finite players strive for competition and domination, while infinite players strive to coexist through creation.
The greatest organizations of our time are Value Hackers and play an infinite game, and Amazon is a great example of this. When Amazon first launched its website, in July 1995, founder Jeff Bezos’s goal was to use the internet to sell books at low prices, but it is no longer just an online retailer. Amazon has shaped, scaled and dominated its own infinite game anchored in the beginning in the online store but seamlessly complemented with other experiential concepts such as Amazon Prime, Amazon Kindle, Alexa & Amazon Echo, Amazon Dash Buttons, Amazon Go, Amazon Studios or Amazon Services. Jeff Bezos’s firm connects numerous products and services in form of ‘singular experiences’ that improve hugely the way millions of people life and work, that eventually become part of their daily habits.
What game is Amazon playing? Nothing but its own infinite billion-dollar game where ‘it’s always day one at Amazon’. In the words of Jeff Bezos, “If we can keep our competitors focused on us while we stay focused on the customer, ultimately we’ll turn out all right”. Amazon’s success in shaping, scaling and dominating its own infinite game around consumer experience is undeniable: Since its inception, Amazon has grown at a staggering pace, with almost a 60,000 percent increase in its stock price.
The same type of game-shaping strategies to build billion-dollar businesses also applies to Airbnb, Alibaba, Apple, Didi, Facebook, Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Netflix, Nike, Salesforce, Spotify, Tesla, WeChat, WhatsApp, Xiaomi, Uber, YouTube, and Zara. These brands are also great examples of the distinctive group of successful companies that have developed their own infinite games and have changed the rules of business over the last few decades.
Obviously, as business is an infinite game, Value Hacking must be a perpetual journey of envisioning, design, execution, learning, and pivoting. You have to be very careful not to fall into the mental trap of success and complacency, accepting as definitive the game you find yourself in. Bear in mind that changing the game is the essence of the game. It is a perpetual evolution. Others will be trying to change the game, too. Sometimes their changes will work to your benefit and sometimes they will not. You may need to change the game again. There is, after all, no end to the infinite game of changing the game.
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The full-stack strategic framework to shape, scale and dominate your own billion-dollar game in the digital era