The Managing Partner spoke with measured emotion.

And conviction.

The topic was the desire he and his senior partners shared to continue the legacy they were beneficiaries of by passing on a thriving firm to the generation of lawyers, now laboring as associates and young partners.

I was taken by the forward thinking…the commitment to something more long term than the monthly hour-watch or annual budgets backed by little more than what it will take to increase earnings.

The conversation included articles to support this focus on the future. Speaking of their search for business development and marketing leadership, he emphasized, “we’re not making this move for this year or the next. We’re looking three to five years down the road. We want a framework that will serve the next group of equity partners.”

It was encouraging. Refreshing. We want to build a capability we don’t have…something that will serve the firm long after we’ve stepped aside…and we recognize this requires a different perspective.

Two Views

Simon Sinek, the organizational and management consultant best known for his TED Talk and best selling book Start With Why, has a new offering available. The Infinite Game focuses on the effects — both short and long term — of approaching particular endeavors as though they are finite in nature, with a beginning, an end, a winner and a loser.

In a finite game, Sinek suggests, there are accepted rules, known participants, and a clear conclusion to the game. Baseball is offered as an example — accepted rules, the participants are known, there is a beginning, an end, and a clear winner.

Then there are infinite games. “Rules” are much less clear. It’s difficult to identify every participant; in fact, players may come and go. And there is rarely a clearly predefined and specified end.

I’ll resist the temptation to do a full review; but if you’re interested in the dynamics of leadership, relationship and effecting legacy in any arena, the book is well worth your time.

For purposes of this discussion, here’s the suggestion: to the degree we operate as though we’re engaged in an endeavor that begins on January 1 and ends at midnight on December 31, the hallmarks of an infinite game will be tough to realize. Namely, a shared commitment to something that transcends higher profits this quarter.

Decisions and operations that infringe on the finite measures of winning — more hours billed each month, higher rates realized, and therefore higher profitability this year — are easily dismissed. Winning in the short term is the most important calculation.

Once you’ve bought into the rules of a finite game, not much is going to shake this focus.

Clarity Around Where Things Never Change

We can theorize or rationalize til our eyes glaze over. But, no matter the venue, there is one reason big change is slow to come: things aren’t broken enough. The status quo is too comfortable. The benefits of playing a finite game are simply too good. Why should we change?

Talking about innovation…opining over operational shifts…meeting after meeting focused on what we should change with respect to our approach to diversity, client development, succession, mental health in the workplace — and the list goes on — these are game pieces that are ever present because we know something isn’t working right. 

Sadly, the only time things tend to change is when the status quo is broken to the point of being irreparable. When what we thought were rules suddenly shift, and the forces of a volatile market conspire against what we are playing for — numbers this year — perspective tends to change. But often, it is too late. Ask the now defunct firms that were once industry leaders…benchmark-makers.

Where we postpone innovation, it is because the price this year is viewed as too great, and we’re comfortable right where we are.

Where we fail to deal with the opportunities of diversity, it is because investment is required; and there are simply no penalties for not dealing with it in substantial fashion.

And where we continually experience little-to-no improvement in business development efforts — fight the same battles…engage in the same debates…have the same conversations every year — it is because there is no real pain associated with rocking along with the way things are.

I am fairly sure the Managing Partner who spoke years ago of perpetuating a legacy spoke out of honest aspirations. But the firm was successful. Partners were comfortable. The way things had always been done had worked just fine. What was the compelling case for change? His partners did not see one.

Things simply were not broken enough to inspire a different perspective.

{Postscript to all aspiring to instigate a new game. Sinek suggests that the object of an infinite game is to keep the game going. The application for us might be to keep the conversation going. There is little victory in many of the skirmishes in which we choose to engage.}            T