MEL as Infinite Games

by Fodé Beaudet

March 19, 2024

Fodé examines MEL and the inquiry process through a binary of infinite and finite games, with reflection on what it takes for MEL to become systems stewards and systems weavers. This thought piece is an output of the MEL in Systems Change Inquiry Group, hosted by the School of System Change in 2023.


I owe the inspiration for this blog to my children. A while ago, during a virtual conversation, noticing that my eldest was playing by himself, attentive to something that grabbed his attention, I asked, across the screen, an ocean away: “Do you want to end the call?”

“No,” said the four year old at the time. “I just want you to be there.”

I never asked the question again. 

How have I mistakenly assessed his need? Maybe I conflated my desire to be significant in his life through an active presence, seeking “evidence” that what “I” had planned (e.g. playing improv, rock-paper-scissors, reading a book) contributed to his wellness. None of that was important, he taught me. It wasn’t about doing, but about being. Present.

When I first wrestled with my boys, they always won, pinning my shoulders for three seconds. We were playing “finite games”, described by  James P. Carse as games played for the purpose of either winning or losing. If they now sense that I will inadvertently fall by drawing one of them to pin my shoulders, they alert each other: “Pull up dad! Pull up dad!” We are now playing “infinite games”, where the purpose of playing is to continue to play. The goal, the true purpose, is to be together. For as long as we can. 

Monitoring, evaluating and learning the growth of my children needed to reflect their growth, evolution, and how we change over time. Including me. And through change, we begin a new cycle, a new conversation. We don’t necessarily repeat or scale a game per se. We scale what we learn.

MEL as Infinite Games

I struggle to pinpoint when I started to view MEL as the beginning of a conversation rather than the conclusion of a process evaluating predetermined outcomes. There had been whispers over coffee or a drink about what research already demonstrated: the effects of target-based performance management systems found in the studies evidence of gaming (80%) and deliverable lying (74%)¹.  The collusion serves to maintain compliance as a goal, not achieve what rules are meant for. However, I also notice what is possible when we let go of proving what we planned, and rather plan around what we learn. When this happens, MEL evolves to infinite games, disrupting assumptions about learning and failures. 

What is possible when we are no longer seeking to prove what we planned, but rather genuinely seek to expand what we understand about our systems and what contributes to outcomes? 

Evaluation and sensemaking as the continuation of learning together. Discussing with former peers at Global Affairs Canada (GAC), I learned about a novel approach from the evaluation unit. They produced a social network analysis in the Democratic Republic of Congo about NEXUS stakeholders (i.e. humanitarian, development and security). A visit was planned to validate their findings in Kinshasa. Our conversation evolved to leveraging this social network analysis as a dialogic approach: hosting a sensemaking workshop to discover what we are learning from the relationships, our collective vulnerabilities, strengths and entry points to nudge the system towards a shared purpose. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) joined in the effort, and an organic collaboration ensued, mobilizing an impressive stakeholder group. I recall some testimonials: “We rarely make sense of our shared ecosystem”, “We need to recognize we work from different mental models”. This sentiment reverberated across other whole-government initiatives: stakeholders too often coordinated what they had already decided in isolation rather than make sense together about their interrelationships of actors and factors within their ecosystem. In contrast, the workshop in Kinshasa was an opportunity to co-create together based on collective sensemaking.

This experience, among others, stayed with me as I joined the MEL Inquiry Group.

Inquiry as an Infinite Game

Brenna Atnikov and I were tasked to co-host our first self-organized Inquiry Group session. We thought: what if the anchor is not choosing the right topic per se but rather amplifying, through one case, how an inquiry can contribute to everyone else’s own path? 

We adapted a case clinic format used by Reos Partners, which is also similar to other practices such as coaching circles or the Tamkeen approach to mirroring questions to reveal assumptions. Brenna facilitated the process, and I offered a brief case study related to my experience in Tanzania with Human Learning Systems (HLS), an approach developed by the Centre for Public Impact. The project was about sustaining what had been learned through a country-wide education initiative across Tanzanian Colleges. The Canada-led initiative funding was coming to an end. We set up Learner-Centric experimentations to foster agency within Teacher Colleges senior leadership. In other words, the end of the project was designed as the beginning of a new approach. This blog summarizes how we leveraged the HLS Action Learning Lab to learn across systems early in the process. 

And that led me to wonder: how can we amplify MEL for transformative change across boundaries? This question, inspired by the reflections described earlier in the blog, was an attempt to experiment with this concept through a case clinic process.

Process summary

Our process consisted of four interdependent steps: (1) I briefly introduced the Tanzanian case study and my inquiry. (2) Brenna hosted coaching questions, which are meant to expand and deepen the thinking about the inquiry, rather than looking for solutions. (3) I reflected back on the coaching questions: How do the questions inform my inquiry? What am I discovering, learning or unlearning as a result of the coaching questions? (4) Finally, the collective reflection; everyone shared how the conversation is shaping their own individual journey in exploring MEL.

Insights about the process of the case clinic

1. Wisdom of the crowd. By framing an inquiry focused on what to learn, the conversation contributes to learning from one another. A criteria for a good inquiry is an open-ended question. This encourages drawing from the wisdom of the crowd, because individual reflections expands everyone else’s. 

2. Framing, Reframing and Mirroring the inquiry. Clarification from other participants serves the whole group’s shared understanding about the inquiry. Mirroring back also helps. Here is a quote from a participant: 

"I'm just noticing how we get the idea that learning creates knowledge bundles that we then have to transfer and give to others rather than [appreciating that] it creates emergent questions or implications or nudges or disruptions to the systems around it."

And the participant expanded to say that these emergent questions become the opportunity to stretch the boundaries and help ecosystems to talk with each other. I understood my inquiry better through the eyes of others. 

3. Role of the facilitator and self-organized threads. The facilitator plays an important role in discerning when to transition from one phase to another. A good facilitator contributes to easing self-organized threads and generative dialogue. For example, between questions, there was often a thread, something along the lines of “That question makes me think of….”, “What was said reminds of…and so here’s what I wonder….” As such, questions formed an interconnected web rather than simply a brainstorming list.

Insights about MEL

I’ll expand on two reflections I shared with the group, inspired by their questions:

1. Tensions & opportunities

A participant spoke about the tension between individual growth and the stagnation in institutions. It is a tension I witnessed through learners voicing, naming and noticing a fork in the road when engaged in participatory processes. Although we like to think that organizations look for “evidence”, “results” and are “data-driven”, the reality is that emotions, social identity, and a vested interest to preserve a system is strong. Sometimes for good reasons – resistance can also be about preserving value².

2. MEL as a threshold for bigger question(s)

A bigger question is a provocation that does more than transcending the topic: the bigger question invites to reframe or challenge deeply held assumptions, including structures or factors that produce outcomes, including our relationship to outcomes itself. Hence the value of a deep listening and sensemaking to notice and be aware when these questions show up. An awareness that a bigger question challenges our assumptions is awkward to process or admit, because of accountability mechanisms focused on validating planned activities. And space for questioning the assumptions embedded in a program are often incongruent with funding expectations. In writing this, I am less critical of organizations per se; I am drawing attention to a broader issue, which is about how we navigate with these bigger questions when we step into a new territory that challenges our mindsets. I am not only referring to this organization or that institution. I am looking in the mirror. That’s when we meddle in thresholds or liminal spaces. The poet John O’Donohue:

"A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres (...) At this threshold a great complexity of emotions comes alive: confusion, fear, excitement, sadness, hope. This is one of the reasons such vital crossing were always clothed in ritual."

Revisiting the experience with the MEL Inquiry Group, I started to see the potential for MEL to play a role in designing organizational versions of “rituals”. In that passage, we might ask: what do we need to let go, what do we keep, and what might we need to change? The answer is not a list of recommendations in a report. Maybe a better response is the ensuing dialogue, across systems, reflecting back what we are learning, struggling with, in this liminal space where we are no longer who we were and not yet who we want to be³.

3. Start with a different mental model

If MEL is a threshold with potential for transformative rituals, then its locus cannot be limited to the end of a cycle. As raised by a participant during the case clinic, a complexity-informed approach invites a radically different way to design interventions; for example, if we understand that systems are made of actors and factors interacting in unpredictable ways, then paying attention to what emerges from interventions becomes a goal in itself, which places learning as a core to design. Consequently, we cannot reframe MEL without reframing the structural assumptions of programming. Insisting to maintain a linear theory of change leads to falling prey to what has already been well documented earlier about how target-based performance management leads to gaming the system and deliberately lying. 

4. MEL as systems stewards & systems weavers

Reflections to create conditions for a ritual through thresholds and to cultivate infinite games: 

Convener & Network weaver: convene ecosystems to learn about common patterns emerging from interventions at different scales⁴. And include leaders who can enable conditions to support the transition towards bigger questions

Structured Learning Processed: co-create learning processes that value the emergence of new insights while strengthening the robustness of evaluation methods (a strength of MEL practitioners).  

The rationale for this expanding role in the context of systems change, is to make explicit that “accountability” is also about honoring the bigger question; the ultimate accountability is not to reinforce the systems for the sake of the system, but to constantly evolve towards a “deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and action” (O’Sullivan, 2012⁵).

MEL as Infinite Games. Allow the purpose to drive the rules, not the other way around. Position MEL as a convening space and do more than reporting back: MEL can also be about co-creating forward.

What Now?

I am now exploring more closely three promising paths in my own practice:  

1. Inquiry across boundary systems as an entry point for experimentation. Initiate the co-design of new experimentations with actors who share common interests. The value of nesting coaching circles within an experimentation-led approach is to go beyond the potential trap of spinning into a rabbit hole - at some point, the embedded assumptions of inquiries have to be tested in real-time. 

2. The practice of coaching or mirroring questions as an organization skills set and as a catalyst. Coaching or mirroring questions is an art. It can be counter-intuitive; our reflex is to come up with answers to questions. So to build the “coaching” muscles, through practice, helps to go beyond habitual ways of responding inadequately to complex challenges.  

3. Co-inquiry Group Processes. I discovered that the case clinic can serve diverse inquiry-led groups or communities of practice. For example, by inviting coaching questions as a way to surface a deeper level of insight for individuals and the group. In doing so, it makes clearer what patterns the group has energy for. And this is consistent with Organizational Development literature, whereby the first problem we raise in client systems is rarely the one that needs to be addressed: framing, reframing through dialogue helps us not only to understand a system, but our role in it.


I neglected a detail about wrestling with my boys: after I let them win for a while, I started to win too. At first, they didn’t take it well. And I said: “You won’t always win in life. But you can get better if you learn from failure.” And they got better at wrestling, whether they lost or won. Finally, maybe it’s less about choosing finite vs infinite games; perhaps we all interact in finite games one way or another - the key is to keep in mind the bigger game. The bigger question, answered while dancing.


1: Franco-Santos, M and Otley, D; “Reviewing and Theorizing the Unintended Consequences of Performance Management Systems”; International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol 20, Issue 3, 696-730

2: For example, see “Resisting change or preserving value: A case study in a health organization” by James Conklin.

3: Source: Bridges, William “Transitions”

4: See Centre for Public Impact’s work on Human Learning Systems for a novel perspective on learning as a management strategy that informs some of these ideas.

5: Deep Transformation: Forging a Planetary World-view. In E. W. Taylor, & P. Cranton and Associates (Eds.), The Handbook of Transformative Learning: Theory, Research, and Practice (pp. 162–177).