Leadership X.0
01 November 2019

In VUCA contexts the effective leader will be who will understand that he has to play an infinite game, in which the rules of the game, the perimeter of the playing field, and the players change and where the only goal is to preserve the game and himself in the game. It is also essential to create a leadership culture that promotes an infinite game perspective.

“The horizon is the line that emphasizes the infinite”

“Culture is an infinite game. Culture has no boundaries. Anyone can be a participant in a culture-anywhere and at any time.”

“Fear of infinity is a form of myopia that destroys the possibility of really seeing it”

Complexity and uncertainty may lead us to think that VUCA contexts are a source of threats and difficulties that any individual, company or institution would willingly avoid, if they could. In this article, instead we show how VUCA contexts, if approached correctly, can give rise to a myriad of opportunities, unlike what happens to the Stable, Predictable, Elementary and Certain contexts (which from now on we will indicate with the acronym SPEC). However, in order to identify and pursue these opportunities, individuals, companies or institutions must change their perspective of thought and action. To deepen the discussion, we will make a distinction between two perspectives: finished games (which take place within a limited time horizon, in which the participants’ goal is to prevail over others, putting an end to the game) and infinite games (which take place over an unlimited time horizon, in which the objective of the participants is instead to preserve the game and remain in the game themselves). Finite games provide a perspective of thought and action incompatible with the VUCA contexts. Only infinite games, on the contrary, allow to effectively navigate a VUCA context. In fact, through an infinite game, every participant in the game can promote his own potential and increase that of the context in which it operates, seizing the opportunities and fending off the threats that the VUCA context generates. The leader will have to avert short-sighted leadership by orchestrating complementary resources to support his infinite game and thrive in a universe of possibilities.

We have already introduced the VUCA contexts in our articles, paying attention to two of their essential characteristics:

  • Complexity (defined as the existence of an intricate set of relationships and connections between agents that does not lend itself to being fully described) and
  • Uncertainty (which emerges because it is virtually impossible to foresee developments in a complex context because of the innumerable interdependencies that characterize it).

SPEC contexts, on the other hand, are stable, predictable, elementary and certain. In SPEC contexts, the thinking and the action of the actors take place within a given scenario, which the actors consider stable. Actors therefore think and act within a scenario that is familiar to them. For SPEC contexts, a change represents a discontinuity. The change is infrequent and puts an end to the context as it was previously known. It represents both a

  • threat (actors may not be able to react to change and adapt to the new context) or one
  • opportunity (the change will allow the more agile and reactive actors to adapt to the new context before the others, gaining an advantage over them and prevailing in the game).

In VUCA contexts, change is instead the only element of continuity, the only thing that never comes to an end. In fact, in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous context, nothing is stable, nothing is at a standstill. The entire reference system is constantly changing. In this context, it makes no sense to react to change to restore stability since stability does not exist and therefore cannot be pursued. Complexity makes the context unpredictable, the boundaries of thought and action are not given. The challenge for the actors is not to react to an occasional change and to restore stability, but to navigate the change in order to adapt, evolve, and thrive.

The differences between the two types of contexts and the implications that these differences trigger for leadership lend themselves to be deepened in the form of games, in particular, finite games and infinite games.

When we talk about games it is inevitable to think of game theory, terms that denote a set of mathematical contributions to the study of strategic relationships between individuals and firms. Game theory studies how players, through the strategies they can deploy, give rise to equilibria in finite and infinite games. The games studied in game theory are not directly comparable to those we will discuss in this article, which instead are drawn from book by James Carse. Contrary to game theory, Carse does not dwell exclusively on the equilibria that arise in the two types of game, but characterizes the different perspectives of thought and action of finite and infinite games and discusses their implications under various standpoints, including the anthropological, business, social and everyday life.

In particular, Carse studies two types of games:

  • The finite games have a limited time horizon during which the players adopt strategies with the objective to prevail over other players. The win of a player not only implies the defeat of others but also marks the end of the game. In the case of a finite game the context is stable, the rules are given and known to all, the boundaries of the game (a market, a sports field) are known and not changeable, and the strategies of the participants are processed within these boundaries. Many of the contexts in which one operates, e.g., working, business or social, can be framed as finite games: for instance, we compete with our colleagues, perhaps for a promotion; the companies for which we work compete with other companies, perhaps to erode their market shares, become more efficient, or gain a competitive advantage; our favorite soccer team competes with others for the victory of a competition.
  • Infinite games, on the other hand, have an infinite time horizon. In an infinite game, the goal of the players is to preserve the game and not prevail over the others. To continue playing in an ever-changing environment, players will have to compete on themselves, not against others. Furthermore, if the objective is to continue playing, each of the participants will interact with the other players with the aim of continuing to play. Each participant will then choose actions that will also allow other participants to choose actions. The proliferation of possible actions creates a universe of possibilities and therefore improves the conditions for sustaining an infinite game.

By their nature, finite games are not compatible with VUCA contexts, that is, they are not sustainable in a VUCA context. In fact, it is highly unlikely that the conditions for playing a finite game will emerge in VUCA contexts. Assuming that the rules of the game are known and stable when they are not; assuming to know all the actors of the context and to predict their behavior when indeed it is not possible; believing, finally, that the success of the game implies that someone prevails and someone else succumbs, when instead it requires that all the participants contribute to supporting the game itself, are clearly in contrast with many of the characteristics that define the VUCA context. The actors of a VUCA context, therefore, will necessarily have to play an infinite game.

The participant to an infinite game does not choose between known options but faces a dense universe of possibilities. Some of these possibilities may be accessible to all game participants, and whether or not they access these possibilities may depend on various factors related to the resources in their possession, the capabilities they will be able to develop, or the cognitive factors that more or less effectively allow them to perceive opportunities and threats promptly triggered by the ongoing changes. Other possibilities, often those of greater interest, will not be readily available, but must be created. Facing the myriad of possibilities that a VUCA context has the potential to generate and destroy through its incessant change, the successful leader will be able to adopt a long-term perspective, which will resist the temptation to win a battle because it recognizes the importance of winning the war.

Being a leader in an infinite game means adopting a different culture, for which the sources of complementarity are more important than sources of competition, for which, moreover, orchestrating complementary resources is more important than directing them, for which, finally, the only enemy to safeguard oneself from is myopic leadership.