Chasing the latest fad not only causes confusion but actually demoralises people. What Simon Sinek is proposing though is that leaders should be willing to radically change their strategy or technology if in so doing they will better advance their Just Cause.
Existential flexibility calls on two human qualities without which Simon Sinek’s fourth leadership practice is not possible.
The first is humility – a preparedness to admit that you don’t have all the answers and are not always right, a capacity to rise above your arrogance to consider another way.
The second is courage – to fundamentally change not knowing whether it is in fact the right thing to do but absolutely knowing that to do so will not only be disruptive in the short term but may even result in failure.
Once again Simon Sinek is calling on leaders to evidence the best in themselves as human beings. I agree that to play the infinite game (defined at the end of our summary below) requires a noble purpose, trust of others, giving up the need to win at all costs, humility and courage. All of these are in short supply in modern organisations, but are infinitely worth pursuing.
OUR SUMMARY OF THIS VIDEO: In Apple’s history, Steve Jobs and some of his senior executives visited Xerox in Palo Alto – as executives do, they visit each other’s companies.
Apple was already a big company and Steve Jobs was already a famous CEO.
On this visit, Xerox showed them something they had invented called the graphic user interface. This interface allowed computer users to move a mouse so that you could move a cursor over the desktop and click on icons and folders in order to work the computer. In other words, you didn’t have to learn a computer language anymore.
As the Apple people were leaving Xerox, Steve Jobs said to his executives, “We have to invest in this graphic user interface thing.”
Remember, if Apple’s Just Cause is to empower individuals to stand up to Big Brother, “this graphic user interface thing” empowers way more people to use the technology.
The Voice of Reason spoke up and said, “Steve we can’t do that – we’ve already invested millions of dollars and countless manhours in a different strategic direction. If we change and invest in graphic user interface we will blow up our own company. We can’t just abandon our investment.”
To which Jobs said, “If we don’t blow up our company, somebody else will.”
That decision led to the Macintosh, a computer platform so profound that the entire software of Windows is designed to act like a Macintosh. A decision so profound that it changed the way computing works today. A computer has become an appliance which is so common in our homes and companies that an individual can now indeed compete against a corporation.
Existential flexibility is the capacity to make profound strategic shifts – 180 degree shifts – in order to better advance your cause. And failure to do so may ultimately lead to the demise of your own organization.
Back when Blockbuster was the dominant video renter in the US, there was this little upstart company called Netflix that had a new business model based on subscriptions. Netflix would send you the DVDs which you could keep for as long as you wanted.
The CEO of Blockbuster went to his board and said, ‘We have to look into the subscription model thing – especially where streaming technology is getting better and better. We should probably prepare ourselves.” And the board said, “Absolutely not, we may not do that because we get 12% of our revenue from late fees and we’d be walking away from that revenue.”
Blockbuster no longer exists and Netflix dominates the industry because if you’re not willing to blow up your own company the market will blow it up for you. Do it even if it means making a hit to the short term results in order to have a capacity for existential flexibility.
A, you have to have a Just Cause; and B you have to have trusting teams. The cause is what directs that flexibility.
This is not like Shiny Object Syndrome that so many of us have suffered from – in which some entrepreneur says, “Here’s the latest shiny object” and wants to redirect the whole company. And after the fourth or fifth one this year nobody knows what the hell is going on.
I’m also not talking about the daily flexibility required to run your business.
I’m talking about when you discover a technology or a better strategy or a better way to advance your cause, and you’re willing to make this choice, this profound strategic shift, in order to advance your cause.
But you have to know what your cause is first and you better have trusting teams because the likelihood that you will put your company through upheaval in the short term is high and your people have to be willing to go along with it, to say, “We agree this will hurt but let’s do it.” Because if they don’t they’ll all abandon ship.
Kodak made the same mistake. George Eastman invented film – he is the reason why you and I can take pictures of our families on our holidays. Before George Eastman the only way you could take a picture was to hire a professional photographer.
George Eastman was obsessed with democratizing photography – making it simpler and simpler and simpler so more and more people could engage in photography.
In 1975, a Kodak engineer, Steve Sasson, who believed in George Eastman’s Just Cause, invented the digital camera.
Unfortunately there had been so many leadership changes at Kodak over the years that the executives by then had adopted a finite mindset. When they saw the digital camera they decided to suppress the technology for fear that it would cannibalize film sales. Because the company had built its monstrous self based on chemicals and developing and cameras and all the rest, they couldn’t imagine the upheaval in digital cameras.
They knew once the genie was out of the bottle there would be no putting it back. They predicted about 10 years before digital technology would show up somewhere – and amazingly, exactly 10 years later digital technology started to show up from other companies and the digital revolution started to take hold.
In fact Kodak made billions of dollars from the royalties they received from the patents they had for digital cameras and technology. But when those patents ran out five years later they were bankrupt. Because they refused, they couldn’t go through with, the existential flex.
They had abandoned their Just Cause, they had adopted a finite mindset. Their teams were no longer trusting teams because the company was so driven by short term gains and short term goals that for so many years they thought they were doing well because of those royalties – until they no longer existed as a threat or as a significant market player.
Do you have a capacity for existential flexibility? If you want to stay in the infinite game you had better.
NOTE: Sinek defines a finite game as having known players, fixed rules and agreed-upon objectives. By contrast, rules are changeable in the infinite game, with unknown players who are in it to keep playing. Problems arise when finite players are up against infinite players. Often the former end up mired in lost trust and declining innovation.