A Matter of Horizons

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll

It seems to me this quote reflects where many people are right now. Waiting to be told what the future is so that they can go there. The problem of course is that we just don’t know. And that’s fine.

I was talking with Steve Done yesterday around how we saw people’s reactons to the current situation, and he compared to the idea of finite and infinite games, and the work of James Carse and Simon Sinek.

What does it take we wondered for a perfectly reasonable, rational, social person to turn into a shelf clearing, toilet roll hogging monster? Or someone with a balanced long term portfolio to panic sell?

The games we play

The world of most work is built around finite game thinking. Timeframes, scores, winners and losers, competition.

At the same time, the mindset of our best leaders is built on infinite game thinking – decades out, focused on creating something lasting.

Infinite game leaders recognise two things; firstly that this will pass. It is a shock to the system, but the vast majority of us will survive it. According to the ONS, roughly 75,000 of us die each year from respiratory diseases, out of the half million or so in total, so whilst Covid-19 will clearly have an impact, we need to get it into perspective.

Coronavirus is an existential threat to finite game mindsets – whether that is from a personal, or business perspective. From a longer term view, it’s a blip. We will get past it.


Our horizons determine our reactions. If our entire raison d’etre is based on this years results, we have a problem. If however, like the Native American peoples we regard ourselves as the fourth of seven generations – shaped by the three generations preceding us, and shaping the three that follow us – our perspective changes. Covid -19 will not determine the destiny of my great grandchildren, should I be fortunate to have any.

On the other hand, climate change might, or how we handle the integration of AI into our decision making processes. Through this lens, the problem changes, and my concerns move away from short term competition and the drive to win, to how we support each other to ensure we get to play another game.

A New Game?

Maybe, just maybe Covid-19 is both signal and opportunity. We have been given a wake up call, and an opportunity to reflect on where we’re heading if we stay as we are.

We can either see this next few months as a looming disaster, or a time out in order that we can look upwards and outwards, not inwards.

At an individual level:

  • What time horizon do you have?
  • Why have you chosen that?
  • How would you explain your job to your grandchildren so that they are grateful to you for it?

Over the next few months, alongside the necessary work to get through, we need to reflect on this and decide, once we’ve survived this episode, why we’ve survived it.