The Infinite Game
Over recent years the pressure of league tables and the polarity of OFSTED judgements has led to many schools, MATs and their leaders pursuing strategies based on short term impact. Yet the curious thing is, if we step back a little, the leases on our academies in our master funding agreement are in excess of one hundred years. Long after our careers and even our lives are over. There is a growing feeling among system leaders that we need to put aside the short termism of the first part of this century and begin to develop the structures and the people who will lead them in the decades ahead rather than the next few terms.
It is against this backdrop that our Headteachers have been reading the ‘Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek. We are called the ‘Infinity Academies Trust’ so as the Americans may say, Sinek’s work should be our ‘playbook’ as we seek to have a long term positive impact on the community that we are proud to serve.
What is the Infinite Game?
We are so used to seeing the world in terms of black and white or as winners and losers. Yet in education you cannot win the game, as the game does not end, instead one academic year rolls into the next academic year and a cohort leaving is continually replaced by one joining. Furthermore if we were to come up with a win or a loss what would we base it on? There are so many metrics available that a winner could never be truly determined.
Instead education is an infinite game and our primary objective should to be keep playing the game, to keep providing the best education we can. At this Trust we are committed to playing the infinite game and that means that our current colleagues are our future and those NQTs joining us in September, will become the leaders of our vision.
Success in the Infinite Game
To succeed in the Infinite Game we have to think about how we are going to build a Multi-Academy Trust, which will be strong and healthy enough to stay in the game for generations. There are five essential practices that leaders who wish to adopt and infinite mind-set must follow. These are:
Identify a just cause
Build trusting teams
Study your worthy rivals
Prepare for existential flexibility
Demonstrate the courage to lead
A Just Cause
We are used to talking about a vision or a set of aims and a just cause does have similarity to these. It defines where we are going, describes the world we hope to live in and the one we are committed to help build. Sinek give five suggestions of what a just cause should be:
For something not against so it is both affirmative and optimistic
Representative of a wide body of people so it is truly inclusive
Service orientated, for the primary benefits of others
Resilient, able to ensure future changes whether evolution and revolution
Idealistic; big, bold and ultimately unachievable
The just cause must tick all those five boxes and at the same time it must not be a ‘moon-shot’ or be based upon just trying to be the ‘best.’
We all recognise that for teams to achieve their very best, there must be a high level of Trust. Sinek explains this in more detail in ‘Leaders eat last’. We want to ensure that our staff feel safe as they come to work. We want them to focus on providing a great education rather than worrying about making mistakes.
In the infinite game we are looking for long-term success and we need a system to ensure that trust and performance endures over time. Many system leaders will understand that they are not responsible for the results; they are responsible for their Headteachers. Then in a manner akin to Russian dolls, Heads will also understand that they are responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. This will not happen if there is a culture of fear in the organisation.
In education there has been an obsession of competition over collaboration in the last two decades. This has meant that some school and MAT leaders have seen others as competitors, which in some areas has resulted in an arms race reminiscent of the cold war.
We are playing the infinite game so rather than competing we identify those around us who are our worthy rivals. They are organisations that share similar values that we can learn from. They will inspire us to help us get better at what we do and most importantly we can both succeed together. It has been wonderful to see so many MAT leaders reaching out the hand of friendship to the Infinity Academies Trust this year in a culture of sharing ideas so that we can all become better. These are our worthy rivals.
This is the capacity to initiate a considerably change to our current working in order to move effectively towards a just cause. In many ways this is what we are doing at the moment. We have realised that we cannot continue to provide the same education for our community as we did in February via the Internet, as this would not be suitable for our community. Instead we have to think about what we are trying to provide for children and their carers that is aligned with our just cause.
We all know that education is constantly changing so we have to be ready to flex in response to that. We can all think of schools that haven’t changed their methods in the face of examination changes or OFSTED framework and their decline has meant they have been unable to stay in the game.
The Courage to Lead
Finally if we commit to playing the infinite game this requires considerable courage on behalf of the leaders in the organisation. If the rest of the world is looking through the lens of a finite game, it can take huge courage to state we are working for long term not seeking immediate success next term using boom then bust strategies.
We have to prioritise people over numbers and act consistently in line with the values of our organisation. We must also understand the playing the infinite game is not a checklist it is a mind-set.
Finally when leaders exercise the courage to lead, the people who work inside the organisation will start to reflect the same courage. These colleagues will then go onto play the infinite game in the future so that the organisation stays in the game. The very purpose of the ‘Infinite game’.
If you want to read more about the ‘Infinite Game’ by Simon Sinek, I would strongly recommend reading the book (or listening to it). Also have a look at ‘Leaders eat last’ or his first book, ‘Start with why’.
Paul K Ainsworth is the School Improvement Director for Infinity Academies Trust. He is the author of a number of books with his latest book being 'No Silver Bullets: Day in, day out school improvement.' He enjoys supporting schools in and out of the Trust.