Changing the rules of the game

Mastering the Infinite Game - Sun Tzu and the Art of Business
November 21, 1997

The East not only bring perils of its own invention, it threatens to take western culture and mutate it against its master. Mastering the Infinite Game combines three different approaches in order to spell out to the reader a premonition of doom for current western business culture.

The first is the presentation of statistics and factual examples to demonstrate the inexorable rise of the East Asian nations. The second is the inclusion of results from "the Trompenaars database", a survey of attitudes collected by one of the authors covering 34,000 managers in 60 countries. The last is a fascinating insight into the differences between western and eastern cultures, represented by finite and infinite game play.

Finite game play is represented by two intertwined snakes, western players, each fighting for supremacy at the expense of the other; infinite game play by a Mobius strip, representing the eastern way of playing, in which the superordinate goal of improving the game is more important than an individual victory. The authors illustrate how players of the infinite game alternately compete and cooperate to develop an ever more sophisticated game, while the finite game player strangles his opponent, losing potential knowledge which may arise from co-operation.

Knowledge as an infinite resource is represented by waves which can reinforce each other in harmony or destructively compete, and it is knowledge, as opposed to victory and selfish gain, that is the ultimate goal in the infinite game. Thus a finite-game economist may use a net present-value calculation for higher education to show that for all but the most brilliant graduates to go to college is not worthwhile. Whereas players of the infinite game, by developing knowledge, can harness higher levels of technology while relinquishing yesterday's technology to less developed nations, so maintaining wage growth without creating unemployment. Companies, and even countries, can continue to develop as a team driven by a sense of harmony and common objectives.

Unfortunately, the authors' presentation of cultural philosophy is marred by their decision to tie it to racial stereotypes and by attempts to prove their points with unrepresentative statistics. The other disappointment is the book's use of the Trompenaars database. The authors' results from this are in such conflict with my own impressions after working for 15 years in South-east Asia with Asian companies, that I must waive my own objections to stereotypes and fall back on an explanation for the discrepancy based on the tendency of Asians to give the answer they think the questioner wants. If we believe the results given here, we may be led to consider China's treatment of Tibet as "continuously taking care of one's fellow man even when it obstructs freedom"!

Despite the book's statistical shortcomings, it is full of original insight into cultural values, many of which were those lamented by our own forebears, and which have been eroding everywhere under the pressures of capitalist society. The book is an innovative complement to other books that prescribe reconsideration of these values to protect the future.

Sun Tzu and the Art of Business is Mark McNeilly's reinterpretation of Sun Tzu's ancient text on the art of war. It is another, more down-to-earth business text based on eastern culture. While the opening comparison between western fascination for chess and eastern enthusiasm for Go prepares the western reader for another dressing down, in fact the book has more of a tendency to bring out the similarities between culture and strategy in East and West.

This is a step-by-step commentary on the classic Chinese text of the fourth century BC, liberally interpreted to make it relevant to today's business problems. In good military fashion, McNeilly berates many western businesses for having given up true strategy for fads, but he does not give up on the power of the West to succeed and provides lively examples of western successes and failures to illustrate his interpretations and advice in the context of passages from Sun Tzu.

McNeilly has regrouped Sun Tzu's 13 chapters into six strategic principles which serve as the basis of his own Art of Business Approach. The arrangement does clarify the writings in a modern context without taking away too much of the message and should the reader want the feel of the original, a complete translation by Samuel Griffith is included. On the other hand, the Art of Business Approach is too close to being a fad itself and the book would have been better without this addition, leaving the reader to develop his own strategic approach with inspiration from Sun Tzu and help from the author's interpretations.

Approaching this book, I felt the same as I did upon learning that Disney had reinterpreted Winnie the Pooh. But I ended up gaining much more from it than I expected, as well as finding it surprisingly easy to read. One of the refreshing aspects is that McNeilly does not have any all-out heroes or villains; many of his examples of good practice are cited also for their failures, for instance Hewlett-Packard's success in printers is followed by an account of their disaster in attacking IBM's home territory. This fallibility of even the best strategists, and the healthy encouragement of leadership by moral example instead of "walk abouts", sets the mood for a pleasant addition to management's strategic arsenal.

Paul Brunet, co-founder and chief executive of P.T. Citra Tubindo in Indonesia, is currently doing management research at the School of management Studies, University of Oxford.

Mastering the Infinite Game: How East Asian Values are Transforming Business Practices

Author - Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars
ISBN - 1 900961 08 3
Publisher - Capstone
Price - £18.99
Pages - 269

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