A lesson by the Washington Generals: Winning doesn’t make sense if you are playing an infinite game

“what is it about a team that has lost over 10,000 games and counting to the same team, and had their last win against them all the way back in 1971” (Why I love The Washington Generals)

I’m a tennis player. But I do not play tennis to win. I do not play to lose either.

Adolfo, you ask, what do you play for?

play_the_infinite_gameI play for the challenge. And I play for the fun. I play for doing right the right things.

When everything out there was dangerous and risky, when every generation lived through a major war, when roads were dangerous, when it was win or die, you used to need to train to win at all costs. It’s no wonder that the original olympic games were all about throwing weapons, wrestling and jumping over walls and moats.

Many of our current sports are heir to this tradition although it makes no sense anymore. We are not throwing spears to our enemies, but we still keep trainning, and competing, on javeling throw.

But there are lots of sports that are not competitive:

  • Figure ice skating
  • Dancing
  • Tennis played among old glories from the 80’s

Of course you can compete (and we do) on figure ice skating. But subjective judges based on hard to understand criteria are the ones “choosing” who wins.
Of course a doubles tennis match Cash-McEnroe vs Lendl-Wilander can be competitive. But they’re not playing for the result. They’re playing for the fun. Their fun and the crowd’s fun. That’s why they arrange this awesome long rallies, full of trick shots, instead of going for the quick winner.

We have been taught that this is not as valid as a competitive match. We have been taught that this is not serious nor professional. We’ve been told that a professional must win. At all costs.

We have been fooled. Won’t get fooled again.

Every year the market is less about competing and more about cooperating, but win-win relationships won’t prosper until we all understand that sometimes competing is a root cause for the problem. Being able to force your supplier to a 10% cost reduction is not a win if next year you’re obliged to search for another supplier when the current one fills bankruptcy. Being able to sell a broken product to a customer is not a win if news spread and you loose trust and confidence from your customer base.

The Generals are not there for winning. They’re there for the fun.

“Their job is not, nor has it ever been to win championships. Like their long time rivals their job is to entertain a crowd. The fans may come to see the Globetrotters but it’s the Generals who see to it that the Trotters always do their best.” (Why I love The Washington Generals)


  • Why I love The Washington Generals (Dan The Generals Fan): “what is it about a team that has lost over 10,000 games and counting to the same team, and had their last win against them all the way back in 1971”
  • The short game, the long game and the infinite game (Seth): “In the infinite game, though, something completely different is going on. In the infinite game, the point is to keep playing, not to win. In the infinite game, the journey is all there is.”
  • Turning competitive into cooperative: “Competitive games are useful for learning things like getting more than your fair share during a negotiation or like killing the enemies of your people.”

My first football match and my first day at a job

I was six when my father first took me to the stadium for watching my town’s local team playing football. I was thrilled. I didn’t know a thing about standings, promotions or relegations, or even in which category was our team playing. But being there was excitingly terrific. By the way, C.D. Logroñes beat Sporting Atletico, two goals to one.

logrones_sporting_atletico I started coming regularly with him and some friends. Every day… and I mean EVERY, ONE, OF THEM, I was equally thrilled for being there. It didn’t really matter if it was a 1-4 defeat against Bilbao Athletic or a last minute 2-0 victory over U.D. Salamanca. I always came to the stadium thrilled, happy, expecting to take part to the experience and ready to give my best to the task.

Then I grew up and realized the football world was much bigger. I realized that each match counted, and that there were promotions, and relegations. Sometimes I was thrilled because of a promotion, but sometimes I was scared of my team being relegated. And those thoughts changed the experience. I was no longer coming to the stadium filled with hopes and joy EVERY single day. I usually came thinking on how badly the team played last match, or the fact that we had lost four times in a row, or the fact that my team was at the bottom of the table.

Football is a competitive zero-sum game. What you win, I lose. When the referee calls the end of the match, that’s it. At the end of the season you win a trophy or you are relegated.

On the other hand, the interesting thing is work is not a competitive zero-sum game. Not anymore. I can go there thrilled, happy, expecting to take part to the experience and ready to give my best to the task. Everyday. EVERY…ONE…OF THEM.

Related: Stinginess in the connection economy (Seth): “But in interactions that lead to connection, to shared knowledge, to possibility, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a zero-sum game being played. In fact, the more enthusiasm and optimism people bring to the interaction, the more there is for everyone else.”

Related: Winning is overrated: “Sometimes you just need to lose, and losing while making your best effort is far better than winning by default.”

You are not what you are

I stretched back and I hiccupped
And looked back on my busy day
Eleven hours in the tin pan
God, there’s got to be another way
Well, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)
Oh, who are you? (who are you? who, who, who, who?)
                                                                                    “Who are you?” (The Who)

You are not your degree.

You are not your role not your job position.

You are not your age not your weight. You are not your gender, nor where you were born.


You are not your marital status, nor your citizenship. You are not the place where you live. You are not your savings nor your debts.

You are what you do.

And, each day, you can decide to do lots of different things. Or you can decide not doing anything. Even you can decide not deciding at all.

What are you doing? Who are you? Two different questions meaning absolutely the same.

Persistence as the way to achieve things

The main reason why people don’t get what they want is they don’t ask for it.

shawsank_redemptionAndy, main character in The Shawshank Redemption, knew it when he set him up to get a library funded in the prison.

Andy Dufresne (reading the letter he’s just received): “In addition, the Library District has generously responded with a charitable donation of used books and sundries. We trust this will fill your needs. We now consider the matter closed. Please stop sending us letters.”
Guard Wiley: Good for you, Andy.
Andy Dufresne: Wow. It only took six years. From now on, I’ll write two letters a week, instead of one.

Red: [narrating] Andy was as good as his word. He wrote two letters a week instead of one. In 1959 the State Senate finally clued into the fact they couldn’t buy him off with just a two hundred dollar check. Appropriations Committee voted an annual payment of five hundred dollars just to shut him up.

You can track this piece of advice back to The Gospels.

One piece from Matthew.

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (Matthew, 7)

Another one from Luke.

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she will not eventually wear me out with her coming!'” (Luke, 18)

Persistence, being able of keep trying after receiving a negative, not being afraid of asking once and again, not being afraid of failing… are not the kind of personality traits we usually relate to winners.

We tend to think winners are people who always get what they want.

In fact, winners are people who didn’t stop trying to get what they want after a defeat.


  • Don’t be afraid of losing. Receiving a “no” is just another step to getting the final “yes”.
  • Know what you want, and don’t be afraid of asking for it.


  • Related: “In business if there’s one thing that successful entrepreneurs have in common, it’s just sheer determination and persistence. Often to get a sale it’s a no, the second time is a no, sometimes 7 times it’s a no and eventually it’s a yes.” (Sam Ovens)
  • Related: “Succeed as often as you can. But don’t let failure keep you from trying and learning and improving and trying again.” (On winners and dealing with failure)
  • Related: “You are going to lose. But you won’t get shaper, nor stronger, you won’t reach pro level, nor acquire enough experience just by quitting.” (Winning is overrated)

Jenga: turning competitive into cooperative, and finite vs infinite games

We are used to playing competitive games. Football, indians and cow-boys, poker or rock-paper-scissors are all competitive games. Whether I win and you loose, or the other way around.

jengaCompetitive games are useful for learning things like getting more than your fair share during a negotiation or like killing the enemies of your people.

For the last decades, war has decreased and Toyota taught us about the importance of win-win negotiations for sustainable business. You need to teach a new set of skills for cooperation instead of competition. That’s why you need more cooperative games… or turning our competitive games into cooperative ones.

Jenga is a tradicional basic game. A group of people take turns for removing little wooden bricks from the bottom of a tower and try to put them on top of it. The first person making the tower fall, loses.

In this competitive game:

  • You want everyone else to fail, so you’ll make moves that let the worst case scenario for the next player.
  • You are interested in the shortest possible tower. The faster someone fails, the easier you win.

How about turning competitive Jenga into cooperative Jenga?

Let’s say the rules are changed so the goal is building the highest possible tower between everyone. The rest of the rules are left the same. Now:

  • You want everyone else to succeed, so you will do moves that facilitate the next person move.
  • You are interested in giving advice, support and assistance to the others, so they make moves easier for them and also easier for a sustainable growth of the tower.

With Cooperative-Jenga you get longer games, cooperation and team building and a way of working based on sustainability and on helping others.

Help, cooperation, long-term thinking, sustainability… against rivalry, individuality and seeking for failure.

What are the skills you prefer learning and practicing today?



  • The short game, the long game and the infinite game (Seth Godin): “In the infinite game, though, something completely different is going on. In the infinite game, the point is to keep playing, not to win. In the infinite game, the journey is all there is. And so, players in an infinite game never stop giving so they can take.”
  • Don’t give up, don’t let others give up and absolutely never make others give up. “When a colleague is in trouble or has failed, you can always show up and offer some help, whether it represents a helping hand, a good piece of advice or just listening to some whining. As a team member, you always have the option to support the rest of the team.”
  • Assertiveness (John Welford): “To be assertive is not, as some people imagine, to be overbearing and aggressive, but to be straightforward, open and honest. It means that you relate well to people, able to express your needs freely, take responsibility for your feelings and stand up for yourself when necessary. In conflict situations you seek, where possible, to reach a ‘win-win’ outcome, in which the needs of all parties are fully acknowledged.”


Team’s organization: using a physical whiteboard or being digital

You are working in an agile team, so you probably find a good idea using a kanban panel, a lean comm-cell or something like that.



what if you are in a remote team? Lots of applications solve this from a technical point of view. Whiteboard emulators, with virtual post-its and sharpies on colours you can’t even name.


And then the problems arise. You are discussing an issue and the panel is not there, directly visible. Maybe the application is not open, so you need to log in, and maybe your password expired yesterday night, so you end up discussing without looking at the board.

Maybe the team is not 100% remote, and a part of the team is co-located while others are remote. Then, the people at the office find convenient having a physical panel, so they can interact easily with it even with the computers off. Nice idea, but then the remote workers can’t watch it, can’t update it.

What could we do? As many times, the answer is… it depends.

  • team 100% remote: go digital. 100% digital. Everybody meets in front of a screen, so it’s convenient to have 2 windows, one with the IM/videoconference software, the other with the board. And while working, the board must be open. Always.
  • team 100% colocated: go with the whiteboard. 100% physical. You benefit from the size, the fact that is always present and the easiness of manipulating items.
  • part remote, part co-located: this is the hard situation. Best case scenario is going digital with a big screen (MS-Surface?) always on, so the colocated people still benefit from the 100% co-located scenario, and every meeting with the remote colleagues will benefit from having online app. If can’t afford a Surface, a 45″ screen will do the trick with an small computer (arduino?), a mouse and a keyboard permanently attached, on and open so you can easily manipulate it.

And as always, try, inspect and adapt. Plan, do, check and act. You already know…


  • Remote. Office not Required (Friend, DHH): “Feeling like a second-class worker doesn’t take much.[…] There’s also the annoyance of having every debate end with ‘John and I talked about this in the office yesterday and decided that you idea isn’t going to work’. Fuck that.”
  • Combining Lean with Agile: the developer perspective (Kris Hoogendoorn): “Above is a photograph of our Scrum board before we embarked on our Lean journey and a picture of our Lean Comm Cell today. You can immediately see how Lean has transformed our daily stand-up. Instead of just focusing on progress with the Scrum board, we now focus on three additional aspects every day”
  • Kanban Boards, Atlassian. “Regardless of whether a team’s board is physical or digital, their function is to ensure the team’s work is visualized, their workflow is standardized, and all blockers and dependencies are immediately identified and resolved.”


How to tell apart a good junior developer, a good senior developer and a good tech lead

A good junior developer will be eager to learn, everything under the sun. Eager to read, eager to try, eager to improve her way of working.

books_compute_whiteboardA good senior developer will want to exercise what has learned. Eager to perform. Eager to improve the result of her work. To give a second, and a third thought on how we work.

A good tech lead will spend time teaching, helping others grow, showing others a path he discovered long time ago, or helping others to clear a new track when needed. In the end, letting them become their own leaders as soon as possible. Not sooner. Nor later.


  • ShuHaRi (by Martin Fowler) , “The idea is that a person passes through three stages of gaining knowledge”
  • My Style of Servant Leadership (by Spolsky): “Executives began to spend an inordinate amount of time matching employees with titles. Meanwhile, they worried that employees would become obsessed with climbing the corporate ladder.”
  • Team Leader vs Project Manager. “If both roles have to be played by different people, chances are this people will conflict in several areas. This is my mental image to keep the whole relationship consistent.”