Economic Development: The Infinite Game

On Friday I had the pleasure of attending the Global Leadership Summit in Parkersburg. GLS brings a multitude of leadership gurus, communicators, and business leaders into communities via webcast, and empowers them to make their organizations better. Among the many lectures I heard the presentation by Simon Sinek was one that was especially helpful.

Sinek has long been famous for his works on leadership and asking Why?, but this lesson in particular was about Finite Games and Infinite Games. By definition a finite game has set rules and set pieces with an end in mind. An infinite game is one with limited rules, a revolving player set, and no defined end. It is usually one that ends when one side can no longer afford to play. The example Sinek gave of an finite game (a basketball game with set player numbers, a time limit, and determination of winner) and an infinite game (the Vietnam Conflict with many countries, no set limit, and varying determinations of wins and losses), was one that I found very intriguing given my role in economic development. His chief warning is that problems arise when an finite player competes with an infinite player. The goals and measures are completely different and as a result the ability to wage war is markedly different.

I am oft asked, how will you know you’ve been successful in economic development in Washington County. The canned answer I always give is, “When we have a varying set of shovel ready sites from small scale to large scale, and the county is universally viewed as the best place in the region to start, grow a business.”. That’s all good and grand, but it neglects the reality of what is at work. Our office at times has been playing a finite game when in fact the game is infinite. The goal isn’t to win, the goal is survival.


Those aspirations for our office are moves in a game but are not end game moves. That is because the nature of economic development is about building environments that can respond to changing needs. There is no end game. Each of the items I identified in our belief statement are ones that are part of a larger environmental piece. For that reason our approaches should be one with the infinite game in mind. Building something that can solve the immediate need is well and good and in many ways helps win the battle, however it is but a small piece in the war. For our region in regards to its economic future variety of site, skill, and delivery make us more nimble in our ability to anticipate and address need. This becomes even more critical in the future as the nature and scale of businesses change.

What ultimately we must consider in our daily work is that the job is never done, and that the problems we seek answers to were not created in a day and won’t be solved in one. A strategic and pragmatic approach to achieving overall mission and allowing many persons inside and outside the organization to champion and further the mission is a key to waging a war in the infinite game of economic development.