Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Sci-fi management models #1: Star Trek

(This is a draft version of the first chapter of Ragtag Leadership. It's a work in progress and I would LOVE your feedback, negative or positive)

"The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it's scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based. And if you can't find it within yourself to stand up and tell the truth about what happened, you don't deserve to wear that uniform!" 
Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in the episode The First Duty

When I used to watch Star Trek as a kid, I wondered why everyone in the future wore the same kind of clothes. I didn't realise it was speaking about an organisation with a uniform. Star Trek has a lot to do with the uniform, with being part of something.

The Star Trek crew speak the same language, because they've been through the same training. Their goals and mission are clear: to seek out new life, new civilisations. Their parameters are clear: the prime directive guides their behaviour (except the odd occasion where circumstances dictate otherwise).

There's a clear chain of command, even when a merger takes place (as in Voyager), or when working in a joint venture (as in Deep Space Nine).

Everyone's cross-trained. When consoles blow up in Chekov's face (as happens with astounding regularity), Uhura is always able to take the conn while he goes to sickbay. And so on.

The fact that so many people on present-day Earth want to wear this uniform is tribute to the culture that Starfleet, this imaginary organisation, has created. 

Want proof? See the documentary Trekkies, which delves into the culture of Star Trek fandom, from conventions to fan fiction to one woman insisting on wearing her uniform to jury duty. While others thought it was a bit of a joke, she was serious about the values that uniform stood for. (Full marks for courage!)

What's it really about?

And yet, Star Trek is not all about sticking to company procedures. Star Trek has always been about deep space exploration, where the buck really does stop at the captain's chair, even though there are officers higher than him or her back at starbase. The best person to make a decision is the person closest to the action.

In fact, some of the most compelling episodes of Star Trek are those which contrast captains who've been through the same training, and deliver different results. In Equinox, a Star Trek:Voyager episode, Captain Janeway comes face to face with a captain who has cut ethical corners in order to survive. 

When she discovers what the other captain has done, she has little sympathy:

Captain Ransom: "It's easy to cling to your principles when you're standing on a vessel with its bulkheads intact, manned by a crew that's not starving."
Captain Janeway: "It's never easy, but if we turn our backs on our principles, we stop being human."

For Janeway, it's not so much a matter of Starfleet protocol as it is being human. When you're millions of light years away from home, being human is pretty important.

Variations on a theme

Over five different incarnations we've seen plenty of variations on the Starfleet management model. 

The original seriesStar Trek: The Next Generation and Enterprise showed us a Starfleet ship with a Starfleet crew, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine showed us a joint venture (a Starfleet outpost near the planet Bajor, staffed by a mixture of Starfleet and Bajoran personnel) while Star Trek: Voyager showed a merger between the stranded Starfleet Voyager crew and the equally stranded outlaw maquis crew. 

Okay, that's two variations on a theme. But still, these series provided some great moments of truth when it came down to the true nature of leadership. It goes far beyond position and title (particularly when you're far from the rest of the chain of command) and relies a lot on your personal negotiation ability.

Of note: even though the Maquis in Star Trek: Voyager were outlaws, they had still been through the same Starfleet training as the rest of the Voyager crew. The Bajorans in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had not, and it's interesting to see how far Captain Sisko associated himself with the Bajoran cause rather than representing Starfleet. His personal dilemma was between representing and advocating Starfleet's interests, and serving the people of Bajor. In the end ... well, I won't spoil it for you if you've never watched it.

What's awesome about the Star Trek model

Strong shared values can set a team on fire, and cause them to do together what they could never do alone. Military groups know this, that's why they draw heavily on their history and traditions and shock recruits into identifying with each other rather than any other background. 

We also see it in the corporate world, with mixed results. Before the financial crisis and the scandal of early 2010, Goldman Sachs was admired for its strong culture. In a 2005 BusinessWeek articlehttp://www.businessweek.com/bschools/content/feb2005/bs20050210_3129.htm , Aaron Marcus, head of campus recruiting, describes the teamwork culture at Goldman Sachs:

"teamwork means taking a passionate interest in facilitating the success of other people with whom you work."

The 2007 book Meaning, Inc. praised the bank's "restrained, almost cerebral tone", where "excessive individualism is frowned upon". The book also identifies Goldman's strong sense of long-term success ("a view that doing the right thing and building strong, enduring relationships with clients works out in the end. 'Long-term greedy', they call this orientation.")

A strong culture also comes with a sense of history. Again according to Meaning, Inc., Goldman Sachs hired anthropologists to "dig into its history and unearth key themes".

What's worrying about the Star Trek model

For one thing, it's worrying that I'm referring to Goldman Sachs as a good example of the Star Trek model. Being in a tribe can lead you to do things you wouldn't do alone, and that can be bad as well as good. How many sins have been committed by people "just following orders". 

And this is an issue that's addressed in many Star Trek episodes and movies, case in point being Star Trek: Insurrection. In it, the Enterprise crew uncover corruption and must act outside of their Starfleet capacity to put things right. 

In a confrontation, the corrupt Starfleet Admiral Dougherty threatens Captain Jean-Luc Picard with court martial. His response: "If a court-martial is the only way to tell the Federation what is happening here, Admiral... I welcome it." 

It goes back to what that same Picard said at the beginning of this section: the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth - not to comrades. 

And that's the challenge facing any tribal organisation with a strong culture: encouraging the individual courage to stand up against the system when the system is wrong.

Another worry about the Star Trek model is simply its unsuitability for early 21st century employment patterns. Gone are the days of lifelong tenure, or even 25-year stints at a single job. Now the average length of tenure for a marketing manager is under two years. In this environment, incentives and messages need to be different.

Posted via email from Ragtag Leadership

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