“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
― James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
Executive coaching is definitely not a game, but the issues clients bring to us are – finite and infinite games – ones you try to “win” and ones you try to keep playing. It’s like the image above. If I had named it “My Mind” you would make the translation and possibly think “She’s feeling scattered and crazy.” The art piece is resolved in your mind (finite game). If I leave the art piece untitled, you can keep looking at it wondering what it is. Each time you look at it, based on the time in your life, the issues you are experiencing, etc., you might see something different (infinite game.) So, how does this relate to coaching clients?
“Finite and infinite games” was introduced by James Carse in his book Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility. When we look at the issues that clients bring to us and are trying to resolve, they often have normal problem solving techniques they use to solve them, often wanting to wrestle them to the ground, accomplish them, and move on. Sometimes their issues can be wrestled to the ground and stay there, most often they are more complex than that. As coaches we ask them questions to help them think deeply and broadly about their issue (What?), the options available from different perspectives (So What?), and the actions they can take (Now What?). Having the framework of finite/infinite game perspective can help a client approach their issue from a productive and sustainable standpoint.
So what are finite and infinite games? Finite games are situations that have a beginning and an end and they have rules. It is clear who/what is involved and it is possible to complete it, or win. Some examples include reaching a particular weight, completing a project plan or task, and reaching a facility safety goal. These are issues that are contained and bounded and you can “win.” Infinite games are those that don’t have an end date, the situation is/can constantly be changing, and you make choices in order to keep playing. Some examples are being healthy, employee engagement, and a safe facility. When you compare the two sets of examples, you can see that there are finite games within infinite games (safety goal as finite and a safe facility as infinite). You might be asking yourself, “So What?” How does knowing the difference and teaching your clients the difference help with coaching?
When you hear a client’s issue or goals, you can listen for what is finite and what is infinite in it. This helps you ask more useful questions and helps the client see more of their issue and how they might approach it. When they see whether they are approaching a situation as finite or infinite, their options for actions are more useful. Why is it important for you to see and understand the difference? Because if a client has an infinite game issue, but they treat it is finite, the client may reach a point and think it is “accomplished” and move on to the next thing, but in actuality what is needed is continual attention and adaptive action. Let me bring this to life with a real example, which my client has given me permission to share.
My client recently indicated she was thinking of letting go of smaller clients that are a financial drain. This started out as a finite goal – she wants to reduce the number of small time intensive clients. As coach, we see this as a finite goal and solution. Our job is to help the client identify the infinite game this finite game is supporting. In this case it was to have a more balanced work/life while making a sustainable income. This will be an infinite game during her career, with the finite option, reducing time intensive clients, as one solution for now. This client then needs to see how/if that creates the results she wants, at this current time. Having the infinite game in view helps you and the client keep track of patterns and be conscious of shifts in a well-balanced life with a sustainable income. As coach, you listen for patterns through out the coaching and also can see the connections across finite goals and their support of the infinite goals of the client. You help the client adapt, through adaptive action cycles – What? So What? Now What?
- What? (The infinite game) Desire for work/life balance & sustainable income
- So What? Look at the many patterns that contribute to this desire being out of balance. Then generate options for action on one or more of the patterns to see how things shift.
- Now What? Choose an option, and act – reduce time intensive, smaller income clients. Then, track and see what new patterns emerge.
As coach, we hold clients accountable to their desired finite game, while helping them track the patterns in the infinite game. Helping our clients, and ourselves, see issues as finite or infinite, help us both choose and act in ways that keep us resilient.
What examples can you think of from your own life, or from your clients’ where you are focused on a finite game and needing to keep in mind the infinite game when making choices and taking action?
- Get your spouse to clean up after themselves? And/or how to build a loving relationship?
- Implementing a recognition program? And/or how to monitor and constantly adapt for employee engagement?
- Making sure to provide appropriate drug doses to hospice patient? And/or how to create comfortable ending to life?
Remembering the context of the infinite game, while working on the finite games, creates new perspectives, ideas, and approaches.
Want to learn more about how to use finite and infinite games in your coaching, along with many other Human Systems Dynamics models and methods? Join Royce Holladay and I for the five-week online Adaptive Action Coaching Lab. (You’ll get some coaching too!) Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you information.