What Game are You Playing: Finite or Infinite?

In the first article of his new content series, "Achieving Success in a Modern Firm," Clayton Oates explains how you can create a firm that is focused on the future and sought after by team members and clients alike.

Dec 17th 2019
Owner QA Business
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So, you want to have a future-focused, modern firm, one that clients and team members alike seek to be associated with. Well, what does this look like, and how do you create (or re-invent) not just a modern firm, but an infinite one?

What Game are You Playing and Why?

There are two distinct games accounting professionals can play. One is a Finite game, while the other is Infinite.  

Deciding which game you are playing and knowing the rules of play are critical first steps for any player of either game. The relationships with your clients, your team and those you partner with (e.g. software vendors) are dependent on you making these distinctions.

So, what are the two games? As James Carse articulated in his classic work on Finite and Infinite Games, “Finite Games” are those that have an end point (usually where someone wins the game). The participants in the game are known, and the purpose of participating in the game is to ultimately end the game (hence finite). On the contrary, the “Infinite Game” is one in which the purpose of the game is to participate in it and continue to play the game. There are no boundaries in the Infinite Game (aside from some regulatory and hopefully ethical borders). It’s about continual improvement, innovation, finding purpose beyond oneself and adding value to others.

Simon Sinek extends on this notion specifically as it relates to business in his latest book The Infinite Game. He notes that business is at an inflection point where a total focus on owner’s returns is the antithesis as to why business exists. While finite thinking creates a scarcity mindset and often a focus on near-term shareholder and executive returns, the Infinite Game encapsulates abundance thinking, collaboration, pure partnership in the service of others and ultimately creating value beyond that which we capture.

Not everyone you interact with is playing the same game.

Take a moment to pause and determine which game you’re playing: Finite or Infinite? Now determine what game your firm, the vendors you partner with and the clients you serve are playing. Are you at the same ball game? Is there congruency? After all, business is a team sport, but it’s hard to be on the same team when we’re playing different games.

Is It Possible to Play Both Games?

Like others, you may discover that you’re an Infinite Game player, but some of those you are working with and partnering with are playing the alternate game. This begets the question: Can we continue playing with others who are not playing the same game? Is coexistence possible?

My answer is, “Maybe in the short term, and it may also be necessary; however, this will become increasingly difficult if not impossible to sustain in the long run.” One of the tenets paramount to the Finite Game is self-interest, and it’s difficult for two parties to play a game where one wants to end it (win) and the other wants to continue playing. Ultimately, these types of relationships are temporary, although I have seen them last for decades before evaporating.

So, What Does an Infinite Professional Firm Look Like?

The articulation of the Finite and Infinite Games may be new to you; however, the attributes of an Infinite Professional (and the firms they create) will be familiar and have been in play in the accounting profession for at least the 30+ years I’ve been working in and with the profession. The Progressive, Curious, Client Centric, Long-Term-Thinking Professional has always been the one that clients and team members (playing the same game) have gravitated to and learned from when it comes to playing the Infinite Game.

There is a self-effacing humility that they don’t know the answers to everything but want to actively participate in the De-Mystification of their profession for the benefit of others.

For example: What if you knew how to set up and educate a client in the use of a cloud-based accounting system?

The Finite thinker may view this as a catalyst to capture the client’s bookwork (without a consultation as to the alternate solutions), create an ongoing revenue stream for the firm and lock the client into a relationship that is dependent on bookkeeping and accounting remaining mystical to the client.

Alternatively, the Infinite Game player may determine (with the client) what the appropriate solution is for their current and foreseeable future needs. They will consider if the client would like to be educated and supported in maintaining their books or outsource this role to the firm (with a view to one day handing this back to the client as their business and capabilities grows). In the Infinite Game, the focus is on serving the needs of the client and recognizing that the solution we are providing may be transient and that’s ok.

Some common traits of the Infinite Accounting Professional are:

  • They are life-long learners, investing in professional and personal development above and beyond the required CPE, with a focus on enhancing their relationships, communication and connecting skills. They inherently appreciate that people continue to do business with people they know and who like, trust and care about them. While it may not be their natural strength, they know it’s something worth investing in ….… forever.
  • They empower clients by actively risking their short-term relevance. They are acutely aware that they are in the knowledge transfer business and the attainment of knowledge is from an infinite well of supply that anyone can drink from.
  • They are Connectors: They look for opportunities to connect others to find solutions. They know there is power in knowing how to connect and create relationships, and this is a skill that is always going to be in demand and of value to others.
  • They have a strong Altruistic leadership style that inspires and empowers others. They recognize that they and the firm are part of something bigger than themselves, a vital Cog in the wheel of continual improvement for those they serve.
  • They understand that income is a byproduct of service and a challenge to continually work on is creating a business that can serve more in a better way.
  • They understand the subtle difference between efficiency and effectiveness and that they are not inexorably linked. Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be in order to achieve an effective outcome. The rapid expansion of available business apps has highlighted the need for “Discerners” who can determine what solutions will provide effective results that are also efficient.

The Infinite Business (Firm) is not focused on its return to its owners, but the creation of value for all of its stakeholders, beginning with the clients it serves. By doing so, Sinek argues that this will naturally increase the return to the shareholder, but it’s in that order. By being an Infinite Player, you are adopting a long game with a forever mindset that frees you up to collaborate with the client on  discovering what needs they have in business and how you and others can serve those needs.

While Accounting may be perceived by many as the study of numbers, the reality is that it’s about relationships and the human story behind the numbers. The modern Accounting Professional is a tremendous example to their clients on how to play the game of business. My only question to you is: Which game are you playing?

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