The Infinite Game
(Originally published December 2019)
Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game (2019), is about leadership of for-profit corporations, but the book’s themes apply equally to government agencies of all types. Sinek asserts:
“As human beings we are naturally inclined to seek out
immediate solutions to uncomfortable problems and
prioritize quick wins to advance our ambition. We tend
to see the world in terms of successes and failures,
winners and losers. This default win-lose mode can sometimes
work for the short term; however, as a strategy for how
companies and organizations operate, it can have grave
consequences over the longer term.”
According to Sinek, leaders of organizations who play a finite game are mainly concerned with winning and losing as determined by clearly defined rules, for example quarterly earnings or performance indicators. In finite games there is a beginning, middle and end; there is a clear winner and loser. However, Sinek maintains that with infinite games:
“There are no exact or agreed-upon rules. Though there may be
laws or conventions that govern how the players conduct
themselves, within those broad boundaries, the players can operate
however they want. … Infinite games have infinite time horizons.
And because there is no finish line, no practical end to the game,
there is no such thing as “winning” an infinite game.”
In Sinek’s account, infinite games have no finish lines and no winners.
Sinek mocks business leaders who claim to be “the best” or “number one,” based on recent profits, numbers of customers, or a variety of other metrics. In finite games, he asserts: “There’s a single agreed upon metric that separates the winner from the loser … In infinite games, there are multiple metrics which is why we can never declare a winner. In a finite game, the game ends when the time is up … In an infinite game, it’s the opposite. It is the game that lives on and it is the players whose time runs out. … there is no such thing as winning and losing in an infinite game…”
Sinek’s view is that to succeed in an infinite game, “we have to stop thinking about who wins or who’s the best and start thinking about how to build organizations that are strong enough and healthy enough to
stay in the game for many generations to come.” And in a paragraph
child welfare staff at all levels should ponder:
“In the Infinite Game, the true value of an organization cannot
be measured by the success it has achieved based on a set
of arbitrary metrics over arbitrary time frames. The true value of
an organization is measured by the desire others have to contribute
to that organization’s ability to keep succeeding, not just during
the time they are there, but well beyond their own tenure.”
Child welfare is an infinite game
Several years ago, I spoke to a statewide meeting of child welfare managers and supervisors in another state (not Washington). Following my talk, the newly appointed director of the state’s child welfare system
introduced himself with a discussion of a ranking of state child welfare systems based on measures from Child and Family Service Reviews (CFSR’s), the federal government’s periodic reviews of child welfare systems. Child welfare managers listened to their new director brag about the state’s child welfare system being ranked fourth nationally by a conservative advocacy group. The director’s comments were met with an uncomfortable silence by a knowledgeable group of insiders who knew better than to take such rankings seriously in an agency with multiple deficiencies, inadequate numbers of foster homes, staffing shortages and a thin array of in-home services. These managers were not in a bragging mood; and some appeared embarrassed by the child welfare director’s cluelessness.
Any set of performance indicators provides an inherently limited perspective on child welfare performance, even when the indicators
provide useful information and are difficult to “game.” CFSR measures are a mixed bag of useful and inadequate measures (e.g., maltreatment recurrence). Furthermore, the greater the managerial emphasis on a small number of performance indicators, the larger the incentive to manipulate the measure, i.e., to “look good at the expense of being good.” (see The Tyranny of Metrics, 2018).
In Sinek’s view, an overemphasis on periodic performance indicators – even well thought out accurate measures – reflects a finite mindset playing an infinite game. Sinek asserts that “Because finite-minded leaders place unbalanced focus on near-term results, they often employ any strategy or tactic that will help them make the numbers.” Middle managers seek to please the managers above them
with a laser like focus on quarterly or annual performance indicators, while ignoring or putting at risk factors that build a strong organization: trustworthy leadership; retention of experienced, highly committed caseworkers and supervisors; encouragement of initiative and innovation; community collaboration. Sinek maintains that “When we play with a finite mindset in the Infinite Game, we will continue to make decisions that sabotage our own ambitions.”
In most states, child welfare leaders are replaced frequently. Newly appointed child welfare directors are usually highly motivated to distinguish themselves from their immediate predecessors and to use a brief honeymoon period to muster political support for an ambitious reform agenda that will give their leadership a distinctive stamp. According to Sinek: “a finite-minded leader uses the company’s performance to demonstrate the value of their own career. An infinite minded leader uses their career to enhance the long-term value of the company.”
Sinek believes that “any leader who wants to adopt an infinite mindset must adopt five essential practices”:
Advance a Just Cause, i.e., “a future state so appealing that people are willing to make sacrifices in order to help to advance toward that vision.”
Build Trusting Teams
Study your Worthy Rivals
Prepare for Existential Flexibility
Demonstrate the Courage to Lead
I have a somewhat different list of strategies and practices needed to create an infinite mindset in child welfare:
Make major investments in the child welfare workforce, i.e., salaries and benefits, workload controls, mentoring, certification programs.
Support professionals and professionalism, i.e., reference to standards, a knowledge base, and initiative rather than managing to compliance with ever increasing policies and procedures.
Develop co-located ongoing collaborations with other human service agencies and professions, e.g., public health departments, law enforcement agencies.
Make it safe to tell the truth, not just for public agency staff at all levels, but also for foster parents and other stakeholders.
Invest in research and development of promising practices through practice-based research.
Investing in the Child Welfare Workforce
By now, it must be apparent to many veteran observers of child welfare systems that most states’ reform initiatives rarely have much impact on practice or outcomes, regardless of the programmatic innovations they contain. In fact, reform agendas that increase policy and procedural requirements may add to overwhelming workload pressures depending on the extent of staffing increases. In addition, the history of U.S. child welfare has numerous examples of standardized assessment tools, practice models or services viewed at one time as potential “silver bullets” that had little, if any, aggregate effect on states’ outcomes, whatever their effect in a specific office or community.
In retrospect, the expectations attached to risk assessment and safety assessment tools, family preservation services and various team decision making formats seem foolishly exaggerated. Nevertheless, these programmatic innovations had (and have) potential benefits when implemented in a thoughtful way by adequately trained, well supported staff in units and offices with reasonable workloads. No programmatic innovation has much positive effect in units and offices with chronic overwhelming workload pressures and high turnover of caseworkers (25-50% annually in many states). Practice models that emphasize engagement skills or assessment skills take time to learn, but when caseworkers cannot afford to spend time in training or coaching, practice models become merely an off-putting jargon used to document mundane activities.
Top managers and policymakers around the country have been slow to learn one simple lesson: Programmatic innovations are effective if and only if workload requirements are brought into line with staffing resources, and when caseworker retention rates are greatly increased.
Salary levels matter, and so do workload requirements. A recent report from Florida asserts that the state’s CPI investigators have an annual base salary of less than $42,000 with a turnover rate of 48%! There is no practice model or assessment tool in the world that will improve a child protection system that pays caseworkers paraprofessional salaries and loses half of its investigators every year. In Washington State, it remains to be seen whether recent increases in caseworkers’ top-out salaries (to close to $70,000 per year) will improve retention rates in the I-5 corridor. An annual salary of $50-70,000 is a lower middle-class income in King County where housing prices and rents have forced many middle-class families to move out of county. The effect of these recent salary increases on caseworker retention rates in Washington remains to be seen.
Policymakers in Washington State have never been willing to staff the state’s child welfare system to a reasonable workload standard, i.e., 8 new investigations/assessments per month in CPS and a maximum of 15 cases (i.e., children) in foster care units. Currently, many CWFS caseworkers in Washington have caseloads at least 50% higher than this standard. No programmatic innovation or new set of services is likely to be effective in these circumstances.
Some investments in the workforce are not financial. Sinek asserts:
“Investing in human beings goes beyond paying them
well and offering them a great place to work. It also means
treating them like human beings. … When companies
make their people feel like they matter, the people come
together in a way that money simply cannot buy.”
In a finite mindset immediate results are more important than employee health and well-being; in an infinite mindset, it’s the opposite.
Support professionals and professionalism
Some states pay caseworkers paraprofessional salaries; in other states such as Washington caseworkers are paid better than most paraprofessionals but often not on par with social work positions in other organizations. A few states pay salaries high enough to retain a large percentage of experienced line staff, depending on other conditions. However, without exception, public child welfare agencies are managed in ways that undercut the development of professionals and professionalism, i.e., through compliance with ever expanding policy and procedural frameworks, by limiting initiative and use of professional judgment and (usually) through inadequate investments in professional development. In many agencies, caseworkers are referred to as “workers” and regarded as little more than tools through which to delivery standardized practices. High turnover in casework positions strengthens an implicit belief of child welfare leaders in a paraprofessional managerial paradigm.
Many, perhaps most newly hired caseworkers have had little or no educational preparation for child welfare employment; and may not aspire to a career in child welfare. Professional knowledge, skills and commitment take years to develop. Child welfare systems that support the development of professionals in line units can do the following:
Fund enrollment of caseworkers in certification programs in substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, cultural competence, child development, etc.; and give staff who complete a job relevant certification program a 5% salary increase;
Pay experienced caseworkers in good standing a small monthly stipend to mentor newly hired caseworkers for the first 5-6 months of employment;
Give experienced caseworkers a three-month educational leave every 4 years of continuous service and fund their participation in graduate level courses; and
Cease and desist from further attempts to mandate best practices in policy manuals; develop professionals and professionalism, not more policies and procedures.
Develop collaborations that include co-location with other community agencies
Public child welfare agencies do not control most of the resources and services that children and parents with open cases urgently need, e.g., substance abuse and mental health services, DV crisis intervention, homelessness services. Accessibility to services depends to a great extent on child welfare staffs’ relationship with other community professionals. Middle managers and top managers of public child welfare agencies should be engaging in persistent efforts to involve other community agencies in ongoing partnerships that involve co-location of staff, for example CPS and law enforcement, FAR caseworkers and public health nurses. The lesson from decades of community collaborations is that effective collaboration depends on existing relationships, not on written agreements.
Make it safe to tell the truth
Child welfare leaders with an infinite game mindset must be as concerned
with organizational culture as with performance on various metrics. First and foremost, child welfare managers should be, per Sinek “building a culture in which employees feel psychologically safe; and feel like their employer cares about them as human beings.” Trustworthy leadership in every organization depends on permission for truth telling and critical questions, both top-down and bottom-up. During recent years, there have been many distressing stories of widespread managerial bullying in child welfare agencies around the country, bullying that sometimes results from an insistence on meeting performance targets. Truth telling which involves criticism of policies or managers has been suppressed in some child welfare systems and in some child welfare offices in this state.
Invest in research and development of promising practices
For many years, Washington State had an Office of Children’s Research
within the state’s child welfare system, a research entity that produced many valuable studies of risk assessment, child protection, foster care, reunification services and other subjects. Absent ongoing investments in
research and development, a child welfare system has no way of systematically studying promising practices “on the ground.” The idea that state systems can depend on authoritative web sites, or on the federal Administration for Children and Families, to identify evidenced based practices is false. State systems that lack the capacity for practice-based research (usually generated through partnership with universities) have no way of knowing whether specific evidenced based practices are effective when implemented across the state. Depending on scholarly experts to identify promising programs based on a couple of randomized controlled trials is faith-based practice with scientific pretensions.
The practices that strengthen child welfare systems for the infinite game are often difficult to measure and may not be the subject of studies for years at a time. However, the facets of organizational culture that influence how managers treat caseworkers and supervisors; how caseworkers interact with birth parents, children and foster parents; and how middle managers and leaders engage with their counterparts in other community agencies make an indelible impression. An organizational culture will be remembered long after rankings on various metrics have been forgotten.
Child Protective Investigator and Child Protective Investigator Supervisory Educational Qualifications, Turnover and Working Conditions Status Report, Department of Children and Families, Office of Child Welfare, October 1, 2019.
Muller, J., The Tyranny of Metrics (2018), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Sinek, S., The Infinite Game (2019), Penguin Random House, New York City, NY.
Sounding Board- 2019 (Click here to see complete index)
January - Prevention and Social Norms
February - Game Changers in Child Welfare
March - Expertise in Child Protection
April - Effects of the Nurturing Environment in Nurturing Families
May - Emotional Maltreatment
June - Family First: Risks and Opportunities
July - Mitigating Design Flaws in Family First
August - The Mind Fixers
September - The Bitter Pill
October - Moderating Harmful Effects of Psychotropic Medications
November - Foster Care: 1990’s vs. 2019
December - The Infinite Game