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The Infinite Game

Seth Godin likes to describe work and life in terms of an “infinite game” in which our goal is to find ways to keep playing. Our work, our art, our vocation are all part of this ongoing effort to keep doing the things that are meaningful to us; to keep pursuing the things that bring us fully alive.

I like the game metaphor because it gives a model to structure the chaos of the wide openness of a lifetime without tying it to a specific destination. The winding road we follow leads us on and on; the stops along the way are partly destinations but there is always somewhere else to go. The road, and the game, go on. Godin’s point: success in this game means we get to continue playing.

A number of recent internal marketing discussions have me focusing on our game in a different way. Whenever we work to package up an idea or bring structure to a concept, it forces us to answer so many questions. We may start with the “why” but the process always seems to lead to what we think the receiver needs to hear – the call to action. All along, the quest for clarity is paramount. What are you trying to say? How should you say it?

Bringing Order to Chaos

In many ways, the message packaging process is like building a company. It starts with small pieces pulled together to create something and then, as it evolves, we work to put structure around it. The chaos of those beginnings demands the order of organization, focus, and purpose. Along the way, we need to make it clear to ourselves and to others what we are doing and why it matters. The market rewards or punishes based on how much what we do matters as well as our competency in delivering.

The ordering process becomes interesting when we sail toward uncharted waters. Our efforts to bring structure and order become more difficult when we work to build something new. The difficulty only increases as we escalate our thinking higher on the imagination spectrum. The wilder our aspirations, the more challenging are our efforts to structure them – to put them in the clarity box. To fit them into the known and acceptable.

In a world that wants to define us based on set markets, structured supply chains, and standard modes of competition, how do we break out? Now, we walk into the world of innovation. The new, the unknown, and perhaps the unimagined. The place where customer surveys, standard practices, and competitive analyses look like old charts of limited use in sailing across. new oceans.

And everyone claims to want to play there. For market aspirants, innovation is key. Anticipating needs, developing creative solutions, and executing are critical success factors. Your opponent is the status quo. Inertia holds everything in place.

Compelling Innovation

For the incumbent, innovation is often the enemy. Change brings risks. Margin risks. Infrastructure risks. Investment risks. Moving away from the status quo usually costs money and innovation reduces or eliminates old advantages. The system revolves around building the machine and letting it run quietly in the background. Fixed. Steady. Predictable. Inflexible. Entrenched.

Compelling innovation is not just about making the right moves, its about changing the game. The old game already has rules in place. Order has been applied. That road has a set destination and its travelers don’t want others crowding its narrow byways. The innovator changes the game by building new off-ramps to more compelling destinations.

Innovation brings new answers to old questions. It also brings new questions. Yes, it may look risky but it is the only path to growth. In many cases, it is the only path to survival. For those with fixed interests in the status quo, it can be quite dangerous. Ignore it at your peril.

Winning Your Game

Our free market system makes innovation possible by rewarding those who bring new ideas, solve problems, and show us paths to new possibilities. In this game, we win by always looking ahead and stretching toward what we, and everyone else, think is impossible. The game board becomes multi-dimensional and our imagination becomes the only limiter to our moves.

Where do you play in this game? Are you an incumbent or an innovator? Can you be both? Are you defending against innovation or bushwhacking a new path with new ideas?

In Godin’s infinite game, the right moves allow us to keep playing. It isn’t about winning, it’s about earning the right to keep playing. You compete against yourself. The problem is, we don’t just compete with ourselves. There are others sitting across from us wanting to win as well – often at our expense.

Don’t play their game, play yours. So much of what we do to optimize our businesses centers on rearview mirror thinking and what we think others are doing. We obsess on external inputs as we try to determine what to do next. Trends drive decisions and we jump onto the status quo train trying to do more of what worked before. Or worse, we keep doing more of what isn’t really working now.

Look ahead to something new. Make your move. Imagine it. Plan it. Build it. Repeat. Then, make your next move. The game goes on.

As for me and those marketing discussions, I smile as I consider the exciting challenges of packaging up and communicating ideas our customers and prospects have yet to consider. I relish our position as an innovator and the opportunity to show others new paths to the unimagined. For us, this is the infinite game and every day, we get the chance to make our next move.