The continuous development game and how to win it

Tech – the most rapidly-evolving infinite game there’s ever been. Too many organisations treat IT transformation like a finite activity; aka, ticking off checklists to become digital businesses. In this blog, I’ll explain why CIOs must embrace an ‘infinite game’ mindset and how to achieve this – because the need to transform isn’t going anywhere.

Use the right lens

I learnt about the paradigm of finite versus infinite games from author and TED speaker Simon Sinek, after watching his Google Talk on the subject.  Simon, a passionate speaker on leadership and how this relates to business performance, was inspired by the work of New York University Professor of Religion James P Carse. He believes poor decision making is down to organisations looking at their business through the wrong lens.

As a lover of strategy and someone who’s worked in complex programmes for a long time, I was captivated. Sinek provided a new dimension for prioritising goals and objectives, whilst inspiring an ‘aha’ moment for one of my favourite mobile games, DomiNations.

Finite or infinite games

Carse wrote: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play*.” He suggests ‘play’ is a metaphor for many complex human engagements, including how corporations compete.

Sinek points out finite games have an end, known and fixed players, and clear rules. The objective is to win, then its game over. You know your organisation’s ‘won’ when you’ve ‘crushed’ the competition.

But the reality is we’re all part of an infinite game, one with known and unknown players. Rules can be dynamic, and our goals are to gather resources and outlast the opposition. Sinek reminds us of Myspace crushing Friendster. Job done – until Facebook crept on the scene.

Thinking back to my initial ‘aha’ moment, DomiNations, as well as Boom Beach, Clash of Clans and many other mobile games.  You lead your city, tribe or nation towards victory by advancing through time and unlocking new technologies and upgrades. Unlike the games I grew up with (still love a game of RISK), this is a game you can’t complete – there are always more levels being developed and more players joining the platform. Rules are challenged, rebalanced and unbalanced, all disrupting progress.

Developers target those that don’t realise the game they’re in – finite players in an infinite game. They get immediate satisfaction from passing the next level. It’s a great feeling, quickly replaced by the need to reach the next milestone, which brings me to…

 Finite battles, infinite games… and the cloud

I wonder how many CIOs feel they’re participating in finite battles when tasked with transitioning workloads to the cloud. I wonder how many have to make sacrifices for a short-term gain that doesn’t deliver the desired long-term value.

I believe organisations that are successful in the cloud have invested in continuous transformation. They’re preparing for what’s next and enabling their businesses to assess, consume and optimise the right tech for sustainable benefits. Organisations must recognise this ongoing approach to drive long-term value, competitive advantage and IT transformation.

If all this sounds a little academic, let’s try a different tack. Consider how many new features AWS has released in the last 12 months. And GCP. And Azure. And now Alibaba, let alone the plethora of private cloud technologies. How will your business deal with that pipeline of opportunity?  How do you realise the opening of something your organisation only partially understands? How will you leverage this tech to enable strategic value from your employees?

Ready your business for ongoing change and new tech opportunities. The language and rules are constantly changing, so get comfortable and avoid internal politics that resist change. Focus on trying to win the one fight you do know about – watch this video to help develop a shared language with IT .

Embracing the infinite

We can no longer define success through ‘endgames’, we need to think in terms of ‘next-next’ – what does good look like and how adaptable is it. There are no magic processes or tools to find the ‘right’ answers in a continuous change cycle. Trying to work out whether what you’ve developed will be redundant by the time you’re done isn’t an effective use of anyone’s time.

Take Rackspace. I’d say we’ve been playing the infinite game since the beginning. First with our public cloud on OpenStack and then in our next age as an ITaaS company – building new muscle along the way, like the Professional Services business I run.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow”, said ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. But what does readiness for constant change look like and how can you make this happen?

Techniques to ‘run fast’ infinitely

The pre-requisite to building out these capabilities is going to be credibility. Get the basics right, start with what you have.

You’ll need an operating model to support how IT and the rest of your business need to work together.. Moving to an “infinite game” mentality means being prepared for battles you don’t see coming.

Decision-making frameworks are vital. Before a consistent, speedy and high-quality execution, you’ll need consistent decision-making to take away some of the emotion and politics that comes with change.

Benchmark what good looks like, particularly when it comes to security and compliance. Make the minimum bars, the non-negotiable and the guardrails transparent from the start. Reduce the surprises – embed security and compliance so they don’t become blockers.

A ‘learning culture’ is critical. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. In part, it’s the cost of investing in technical training, but also finding the balance between inhouse and external knowledge to ensure the best bottom-up ideation and innovation percolates at the right pace through the organisation

Finally, build muscle memory around your execution capabilities. Author and AWS enterprise strategist Stephen Orban argues the most impactful way to create change in your organisation is to develop a Cloud Centre of Excellence (CCoE). Using set pillars can help you codify the ‘how’ to build and execute your cloud strategy – an effective method to get results and influence change.

This brings me to joint-problem setting – ensuring everyone is aligned on key issues and top priorities, followed by identifying ‘people and processes’ as one capability and ‘technology’ as another. In this instance, the CIO must be viewed as a partner rather than an internal supplier.

Change how CIOs are seen

Enabling continuous change means partnering with the CEO internally to lead the business and externally with experts to keep core operations going.

In moving from ‘supplier’ to ‘partner champion’ the CIO should lead from the front when creating a culture for agility. This means keeping knowledge up to date, getting under the skin of new tech and being an exemplar of perpetual learning. CIOs must bring tech-enabled strategies to life across the organisation as part of a continuous programme of change, not finite IT projects.

So, if I had DomiNation Crowns to spend as a CIO, I wouldn’t waste them ticking off one-time fights, I’d invest in building the mindsets and strategies required for the long game.

Check out my Q&A video for looking at the role of the CIO in developing organisational readiness for advancement through tech.

Drop my team a line an email on or find me on LinkedIn.


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