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Are you working on anything that will outlast you?

A question for you: do you remember something called the ‘Zune’?

Not really, I guess.

Another question: do you remember something called the ‘iPod’?

Of course you do.

Both were MP3 music players. Here’s the thing, though. The Zune, made by Microsoft, was the far superior product, in most respects. And yet it failed miserably and was discontinued a couple of years after its launch. The iPod, made by Apple, was the dominant device of its time.

The story is told to very good effect by Simon Sinek in his new book, The Infinite Game. Mr Sinek spoke some years back at a Microsoft event, and then at an Apple event a few months later. The Microsoft of the time, under the leadership of Steve Ballmer, was obsessed with beating the resurgent Apple. The Zune was part of that strategy, to take on the iPod that was then so popular with the youth of the world.

The product was great, reports Mr Sinek. He was given a Zune as a gift after the event, and found it elegantly designed with a simple and intuitive user interface. And yet he gave it away – mainly because he could not connect it to iTunes, which housed most of his music collection.

After the Apple event a few months later (in which Microsoft was never mentioned), Mr Sinek was sharing a taxi with a very senior Apple executive. He couldn’t resist telling this gentleman: ‘You know…I spoke at Microsoft, and they gave me their new Zune, and I have to tell you, it is so much better than your iPod Touch.’

The reply he got was a smile, and a single sentence: ‘I have no doubt.’

Mr Sinek’s reflections on that response led eventually to his excellent new book. In it, Mr Sinek surmises that Apple plays an ‘infinite game’ in business – a game without end. Mr Ballmer’s Microsoft was playing a ‘finite game’ – one that tries to win by achieving arbitrary metrics over an arbitrary timeframe. Finite game players try to win in the short term. Infinite game players try to stay in the game – even after they personally have left the field. The former are fixated on quarterly targets, market share and personal bonuses. The latter have a bigger deal going on. Their aim is to stay relevant and useful in perpetuity, not to suck value out of the market for personal, short-lived glory.

Apple was not concerned that a competitor had a ‘better’ product. It recognised that the infinite game produces many ups and downs, many wins and losses. Its aim was to help people listen to their music, and carry it around. To that end, the iPod also lost out. After a sterling run, it faded away – killed by Apple. When the iPhone launched, a music player was integrated into a smartphone, and the need for a separate iPod rapidly weakened. Apple lost its iconic product of the time, but so what? The consumer was happy with even greater convenience; Apple was happy to lead the consumer into the new world.

And guess what? Microsoft also found its mojo again. Under a different leader, it abandoned the negativity and defensive posturing of its past and tried to refocus on its consumers – by playing long. It has become a cause again, not just a company. It is trying to deliver utility and benefits, not just numbers. And it shows. Great products are flowing again; new platforms are being built. It is neck-and-neck with Apple.

The iPhone, too, is no longer the best product out there. And yet it is the most desired. It too will fade away, replaced by something better, and those doing the fading will be the folks at Apple – as long as they stay focused on the long game. If Apple also plays short-term, it will eventually run out of ideas.

What about you and your organization? What game are you in? Does your leader ever talk – sincerely – about cause and purpose, or just whip everyone into a fear-filled and greed-driven frenzy about targets and deliverables? Are your meetings fixated on benchmarking and catching up with your competitors, or on your own unique plays? Does everything change when the CEO changes, or are CEOs selected to continue the distinctive values and timeless ethos of the organization? Is your strategy stuck in former glories and antiquated norms, or does it stay ahead of the curve by anticipating the needs of the future?

Are you working on anything that will outlast you?

(Sunday Nation, 1 December 2019)

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