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Game on! Get ready to compete in the infinite game of pharmacy

I was picking my daughter up from school the other day and when I do, she always wants to play a game. That game is to be the first to see a yellow vehicle that is not a school bus. She often starts playing the game before I even remember and promptly announces that she has won.

Ah, games. 

Games can be fun, but they can also be frustrating. They can be frustrating when you do not know the rules. There have been many times when I have been at a family picnic at my in-laws and game is started, however the rules seem to always change in favour of my sister-in-law. Apparently, there is some great reward to family picnic card games that I do not know about that makes winning them so important. But isn’t it frustrating to try to play a game and not know the rules?

I have come to learn there are two broad categories of games, courtesy of author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek. He teaches that there are finite games and infinite games, and they are wildly different.

Finite games have a specific set of rules, a defined start and stop, and a single winner. Baseball, basketball, hockey, etc. all meet these criteria.

Infinite games on the other hand are much different. In an infinite game, players can start at different times, indeed you may not even know who all is in the game, every player plays by his or her own rules, every player has opponents known and unknown, as the name suggests there is no end to the infinite game, and when it comes down to it, there really isn’t a single winner. You “win” by being able to continue in the game. You win by being able to continue to compete. Business and healthcare are both very much this way. You simply compete for resources that will allow you to continue to participate in the infinite game.

This revelation has been eye opening for me. And the terms of the infinite game make leading through adversity all the more apparent. When it comes down to it, you and I are not competing against each other. We are competing to provide better care. We are competing to obtain the necessary resources to go out and serve our customers and patients again tomorrow.

Yet, my experience shows that all too often, too many people are trying to apply the rules of the finite game to the infinite game. I have been in meetings where the topic was something to the effect of how we “beat” another pharmacy in a specific market. The fact of the matter is, even if we do “beat” them, it does not mean they will go away – especially in the short term.

This is because we are absolutely part of the infinite game. 

This understanding of infinite games should shift our focus to some extent. It is not about outperforming any number of competitors or putting them out of business, it is about leading our teams to obtain the necessary resources to continue to play the game.  Heaven knows there are already more people needing help than we could currently serve today.

During difficult times, it is very necessary to know how to obtain resources to continue to compete. I would suggest this would include knowing how to obtain supplies and demand (patients). 

I was consulting with a local pharmacy several months ago and the pharmacy manager wanted to increase the profitability of the store. So, I asked him a question along the lines of: what do you get the best profit margin on? It's a reasonably simple question. If you could sell two products and on the first you would make $1 and the second you would make $2, it would allow you to make some strategic decisions. I understand that some of you are thinking about costs of goods sold and other such elements, and yes, those are valid concerns. But don’t miss the bigger idea here. If you could sell more of any particular item or service, what would it be? My experience is that far too few have an answer to this question. You may know what you don’t want to do more of – many people look at things from a glass half empty perspective.

So, as you are leading your team through difficulty, consider this idea of the infinite game. (Watch Simon Sinek on Infinite Games on YouTube and learn more about the subject.) Consider looking for ways to obtain and improve the resources available to you so you and your team can continue to compete in the infinite game of pharmacy.

Until next time -

Jesse McCullough, PharmD

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