Monday, August 21, 2017
Designing is an Infinite Game
There is a growing interest within governments, business and militaries in design and
designing. Of course, design takes many forms when embedded in these contexts
depending on the influences from divergent ideas about designing and the concomitant
innovators of the ideas.
I have had the honor to be invited to introduce design—advanced design and systemic
design—to people in several of these organizations—particularly military—over the
past few months. I have come to appreciate the challenges facing champions of design
within governmental agencies and military organizations. They are self-tasked with
making a case for a new strategy and for demonstrating the value of using such a
strategy when confronting challenges of immense complexity and consequence.
Through my experiences with people working within these systems I have become more
familiar with the norms guiding their professional lives—I have come to appreciate that
design is a fundamentally different strategic approach to action and change when
compared to the normative approaches presently in place. For example, ‘training’ is the
predominant approach to building competence for action and ‘war gaming’ is a
predominant approach to preparation for action within the military. The question is what
is the nature of the 'game' militaries and governments assume they are playing? (e.g.
Simon Sinec’s video ). Are they entrained in the mindset of finite game players or
infinite game players?
Extracting from James Carse's book; Finite and Infinite Games:
• A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the
purpose of winning and thereby ending the game.
• An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game, you play
with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue to be part of the game.
• Finite players try to control the game, predict everything that will happen, and set
the outcome in advance.
• Infinite players enjoy being surprised. Continuously running into something one
didn't know ...
• To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be
It appears that the assumption by many is that conflicts and wars are finite games with
endings that produce clear winners and losers. Designing, on the other hand, allows
people to strategically engage in infinite games where there are no right or wrong
moves—only creative or prudent moves taken consistently over time.
The question for those interested in introducing design into organizational cultures that
are designed to play finite games is how would changing to an infinite game strategy
—designing—better serve the needs for safety, security and peace? Or in the case of
business—which uses 'war' metaphors often—how can design help their bottom line?
The US has been involved in many finite games of war over the past few decades and
has not decisively won the peace and security desired—paid for in blood and treasure.
Design, as an infinite game strategy, is worth a try. People are coming to appreciate
that maybe conflicts and wars are not games—finite games—at all. Design is a way to
not continue to ‘play the game’ but to be persistently engaged in renewal, adaption and
advancement whether in conflict, states of readiness or peace.