Be an Olympian at Work

July 9th, 2016


torch The Olympics are here!! With them come all the excitement of underdogs versus shoe-ins, veterans versus first-timers and photo-finish dramas. Athletes commit long before they know if they will have the opportunity to compete.  They commit to the idea, to the possibility of being an Olympian and promise to do what it takes to master their sport and manage their life in a way to achieve that possibility.  The commitment is beyond winning a medal. It’s a commitment to playing a different type of game – an infinite game. It’s time to bring the spirit of the Olympics to work!

What game are you playing?

Finite games have a beginning and an end, clear winners and losers, and rules that ensure the game is finite. The Olympic Games are finite. There will be winners with medals and losers without. Let’s consider the context for the Olympians in a different context – in the context of an infinite game.

mobius“Infinite games do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play and sometimes with a purpose of bringing more players into the game. An infinite game continues play, for the sake of play. If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. The only known example is life.” (Wikipedia)

An Olympian-hopeful commits to achieving the seemingly impossible goal without knowing what it will take to achieve it. Embedded in that commitment is a promise to actively reveal and breakthrough mental, physical and emotional limits, not just one day, but every day.  Being an Olympic athlete is a life style, a mindset, a way of being does not end because the torch is extinguished.

The commitment to living a life of breakthroughs – a life of constant learning, challenging limits, being coachable – is a bigger context than the 2 weeks of the actual games.  While we may not have aspirations to be an athletic Olympian, we can generate a context of being an Olympian and play infinite games at work.


Here are 2 infinite games to play at the office this summer, and (you guess it) all career long. All participants reap the benefits:  Transparent and trusting relationships. Genuine appreciation of colleagues. Less friction, fewer feuds. More curiosity and learning. More satisfying performance.

Game #1: Blow the whistle  

assembly lineBack in the day, when going to work actually meant “going to work”, as in leaving home and going to a work place, we had external forces (the factory whistle) telling us when to put the nut on the bolt, when to take it off.  Back in that day, we left our work on the desk (or work bench), turned the light off and went home, perhaps only carrying our lunch pail. Today, our desk comes home with us and the light is, virtually, always on.

Thinking doesn’t stop and start like an assembly line.   In the context that recognizes today’s work as knowledge-based that requires processing and thinking, working 24/7 makes sense. Because there is no external whistle, knowledge workers must be responsible for generating their own.  If we don’t intentionally and regularly disengage from work to rest, our well-being safeguards will blow the whistle for us.  That whistle may sound a lot like an ambulance siren.

You win when you … Leave work early to cheer your daughter’s swim meet. Come in late after volunteering at the teen summer computer camp.  Take vacation and unplug. Everyone wins when you set up others to lead while you’re out. Everyone wins when you blow the whistle on yourself.

Game #2: Helping hands       

We used to be in a constant state of self-defense because of the saber tooths in the next cave. That ancient, inherited, hyper-heightened self-protectionism now has us worry about the competition in the next cubicle.  Rather than protecting us, that unexamined interpretation harms us. Our concern for self-preservation erodes what I believe is a shared, innate human value: helping others.

Winning:  You win when you do something for someone without expecting something in return. You win when you risk being called a goody-two-shoes and volunteer anyway. Everyone wins when you model supportive behavior.

Because work is a finite game – projects start/stop, tasks begin/end, careers start/stop, companies begin/end – playing infinite games to accomplish the work creates an expansive environment, one of individual and collective learning and development. Playing infinite games creates the opportunity for people to commit to seemingly impossible goals and accomplish them because they are drawing on all of their amazing human talents and commitments.

The larger, infinite context generates an opportunity to be whole human beings at work, living our values, breaking through our individual and collective limits.  Be an Olympian! Let the games begin!

Leave a Reply


Subscribe to the blog!

Recent Posts Archives