Across industries, from small brands to big corporations, you’ll tend to find one concept in common in so many places: winning, or beating the competition. Whether it’s about quarterly or yearly metrics, about market share, or some other common measure, many businesses are dead set on being the best and dominating their corner of the market. This seems like a fairly straight-forward mindset to have—but what if it isn’t as on the nose as it sounds? In fact, what if it’s off the mark completely?
Simon Sinek, author of The Infinite Game, would argue just that. It isn’t about beating the competition, it isn’t about being the best, and it isn’t about “winning,” because what does any of that even mean? Instead, great businesses should see “competition” as “rivals,” and use this rivalry to grow as a brand and company. It all starts with the concept of infinity.
Finite and Infinite Games
What exactly does the “winning” mentality miss? According to Sinek, it’s a misunderstanding of what “game” is being played at all. Think of a game of basketball. There is a finite amount of time allotted for the game, there is a set way of scoring points, and there are agreed-upon rules to follow throughout the game. You can analyze strategy, training, etc., but at the end of the day, who wins depends on who scores the most baskets. Clean-cut, no confusion.
On the other hand, there is often another question: who is the best team? Here, things get a lot fuzzier, and most people would reasonably understand that a response to this question is an opinion, but not a definitive answer that everybody will share. One person might offer that the team with the most championships should be deemed the best, while another might object that that same team hasn’t won a championship in ages—and that’s the problem right there. There are no established metrics, and no finite time for comparison. There is no “winning” in this context. Many people think that business is like the first example, the individual games of basketball, but Sinek argues that it’s actually like the second example, teams “competing,” growing, and evolving over the long run.
Competitors vs. Rivals
Clearly, however, there is still competition in business. We aren’t all just magically growing non-stop, and often growth comes at the expense of a competitor’s market share—so what gives? This isn’t proof that Sinek’s take on business is wrong, rather the lead-in to his next point: rivals. Yes, there is competition, but there is no such thing as “beating” this competition. Instead, brands can realize that the game is not finite, and focus on what’s important in an infinite game: learning from your rivals and growing. Apple and IBM used to be the primary rivals in the PC space. Eventually, IBM fell out of the focus, but this doesn’t mean that Apple “won.” Instead, Microsoft grew to occupy that rival space, and the game continued. Years later, the products and the focuses have changed, but many of these companies are still “competing,” or learning and growing as they continue to play the long game.
A Worthy Rival is Great For Business
All of this means that, instead of focusing on “beating” a certain competitor, businesses should identify what Sinek calls worthy rivals. These are brands who are in direct competition with yours and, more importantly, complementary to your brand’s strengths and weaknesses. If two businesses are occupying an industry as important rivals, chances are that they are both remaining competitive for strong reasons. The fact that they are comparable suggests that where one brand is being more competitive, the other one is lacking, and vice-versa.
Ford is a great example of realizing the utility of the worthy rival. In 2006, when Alan Mulally joined Ford as their new CEO, the company was on the path towards bankruptcy. Until then, Ford had focused on dominating market share, the metric they chose for the finite game they were playing. Mulally quickly found one of the flaws in this approach: they were entirely forgetting about the product. Ford was buying competitors’ cars to dismantle and study the parts and production, but never to drive them. Production is important to customers, of course, but people don’t decide on which car to drive out of the agency after looking at the spec sheet, they decide after the test drive.
Mulally drove a Lexus, not as an insult to Ford, but as an aspiration. Nobody actually wanted to drive a Ford, Ford had become boring, and that was the problem. By seeing other more exciting car manufacturers as worthy rivals rather than competition, Mulally was able to learn from these companies and model Ford’s return after them—not against them. Just as Mulally did with Ford, it’s important for all businesses owners to understand that the game is not finite. There are no winners, no losers. It isn’t about beating the competition, it’s about finding your worthy rival, and about learning more about your strengths and weaknesses this way. If your business is stuck in a plateau, and your team just can’t figure out what’s keeping you from growth, ask yourself: is your strategy aimed at “beating” your competition, or at learning from those in “competition” from you? Have you found your worthy rival?A
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