There are at least two kinds of games...A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, and infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” – James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games (1986)

It is an invariable principle of all play, finite and infinite, that whoever plays, plays freely. Whoever must play, cannot play.” ibid.

Finite games can be played within an infinite game, but an infinite game cannot be played within a finite game. Infinite players regard their wins and losses in whatever finite games they play as but moments in continuing play.” ibid.

Charlie called us on a Tuesday. “I was so frustrated in our weekly status meeting yesterday. In my organization, it seems as though the rules of the game keep changing all the time. Sometimes the execs tell us we need to focus on our quarterly revenues or ‘the worst’ will happen. At other times they tell us we need to build a sustainable business. I can’t tell what they want! What game are they playing?”

We thought about it a bit and dove into our Human Systems Dynamics toolkit to help this frustrated manager make sense of his situation. Our search led us to the ideas outlined in James P. Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games. First published in 1986, Carse’s ideas may be more relevant today, given our awareness of complex adaptive systems, than they were when first published.

In order to shift behavior patterns, we choose how to look at the system. Will we get more benefit by viewing the situation through a finite game lens - as a moment-in-time snapshot, single root cause, predictable, controllable, stable rules, single goal for “winning,” predefined outcome? Or through an infinite game lens - as a continuing-time video, cause intertwined with effects, surprising, emergent, ever-changing rules, shifting goals, multiple possible outcomes? Or somewhere in between? Which kind of game do we play?

Considering “games” in the context of complex organizational behavior, we can use Carse’s thinking to help us identify and shift characteristics that exist in our current systems. Using the complex adaptive system lens from Human Systems Dynamics, we can “map” the games in an organizational system by examining three characteristic aspects (closed/open, low dimension/high dimension, linear/nonlinear), then chose an action that will shift the system toward the best fit for our ongoing purpose.

We responded to Charlie, “From your description, your organization is playing a game - an infinite game! Let’s get together to talk about how you can succeed in an organization where the rules of the game are changing. We have some techniques you can use and tools you can learn that will help.”

When we next met we used more HSD models and methods to plan an Adaptive Action with Charlie. First, we all took another look at the situation using the “Magic 21” technique to provide a broader understanding and help us “see” the system. We asked ourselves what was the “Same/Different” about the times when short term or longer term goals seemed to come to the forefront for Charlie’s organization. It enabled him to discern patterns, so we could discuss which ones were best fit and which weren’t.

Then we helped Charlie “design an exchange” for the next staff meeting to influence the pattern of swings in short term/long term emphasis. And we set a time to examine the effects of his influencing action and iterate on the Adaptive Action cycle.

Have you encountered “sticky issues” that just won’t go away in your organization? Do you “fix” problems...only to have them pop up again? Does your VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment make it difficult to decide collectively on next steps?.


For more on the complexity of change in organizations, listen to "Our Changing Views of Change", episode 7 of season 2 of our leadership podcast, Partnerships and Possbilities.