Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where No Association Has Gone Before - Lessons from Star Trek

The final frontier
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise
It's five year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no one has gone before.....Star Trek Opening Sequence

The Short of It
The Long of It

I have spent a considerable portion of my life honing my nerd street cred.  The evidence is overwhelming and includes the four Star Trek action figures that I eschewed Barbies for and still have to this day proudly displayed in my ever-so-grown-up oak and glass cabinet.  (However, I must admit that Doctor McCoy fared the worst of the four and his legs and arms have been rubber banded onto the torso portion - ah the irony.)

I refused to watch Star Trek - The Next Generation for years because I was "affronted" by the producer's audacity to "remake" the original.  I have since seen the error of my ways (mea culpa!) and TNG has become a fundamental anchor piece in my sci-fi lexicon (as well as a valuable lesson about pre-judging something I knew nothing about).  Alas, other series such as Deep Space Nine and Voyager may have been of lesser interest to me but I can live and let live.

So when I heard the new Star Trek prequel was due to hit theaters in 2009 well....boy. It was a must-see. Bearing in mind the lesson from my earlier TNG boycott, I decided not to be a hater without actually seeing the product. Even though I was "keeping an open mind" I have to admit I was admittedly pre-disposed to not like it. I mean really.  Portrayal of the earlier iterations of our beloved?  Haven't we been down this road before?  Was this to be a miserable "Muppet Babies" experience?  A Phantom Menace debacle? (I mean come ON - WTF was Lucas thinking?  Jar Jar Binks?!??!).

The day came. I saw the movie.  And waited with bated breath for the DVD to come out.  And then rented that DVD which I watched almost incessantly while waiting for the gods of Amazon to deliver my own personal, shiny new copy to my very doorstep.

And here's the point.

Management book after study after thesis after white paper on leadership has never even come close to detailing what an organization could or should be like the fiction of Star Trek does.  I have been cursed by a sincere (albeit eccentric) desire to create that level of passionate narrative in my day-to-day professional life and suffer from a mild, yet continual level of disappointment when it doesn't seem to work out that way.  Sure, the lessons are essentially the same in every episode or movie (and there is a Joseph Campbell-esque comfort in the ritual voice over detailed above) but I find the narrative so incredibly compelling because it represents an ideal scenario of what humanity could and should be.  The hope of a future that had to be better than wherever I was at the moment whether skulking in the hallways of high school or making copies and stuffing conference bags or calling that emergency Executive Committee meeting about the budget.  There still HAS to be something to accomplish that is bigger than what we can do alone.  Quite frankly, I believe the mythology of Star Trek has grown so great over the years because it demonstrates several key principles that we are supposedly experts in but seem to have trouble organizationally achieving.  Key principles that if they can be imagined should NOT be so far out of our grasp as to be unreachable.

Clear mission and vision.  Voyages....five year out new life and new civilizations....boldly one has gone before.  Key phrases from the mission and vision for the Starship Enterprise. Clear, simple and compelling.   Downright inspiring.  Fans can recite it from memory and even those of you who never watched the show are probably loathe to admit that it sounds very familiar to you.  Starfleet does not spend time complaining about last years conference dinner or micromanaging its captains.   Here's what we do.  Go do it.  Should your real world association mission be less powerful?  Why does it have to be?

Clear values.  The Prime Directive (General Order #1).  To paraphrase - members of Starfleet are not to interfere in the internal affairs of other species and must not contaminate the social development of other cultures by direct intervention or the revelation of higher technology.  The Prime Directive is the most important values statement in Starfleet and must be upheld even at risk of life and/or ship.  (Fellow nerd alert - I'm not going to get into a technical argument about all of the plot lines that involve running up against the Prime Directive in order to create dramatic tension - I'm making an observation here about the clarity of the values themselves! We can argue the finer points later in another venue).  The point is - the Prime Directive is clear. We value other civilizations.  We value other cultures.  We are humanitarian but do not feel compelled to play God.  These values are deeply embedded in Starfleet culture and the Prime Directive supercedes all of the policy underneath it.  Execution of the directive may, in some instances, be dependent on individual circumstances, but if you are part of the group - you believe in it.  You get it.  If and when circumstances dictate a departure from those stated values it entails a nuanced and thoughtful decision. Am I going to get the same sense of clarity and purpose in a morass of "internal" and "external" value statements in so many strategic plans these days?  Am I going to be fired up enough about values that discuss "providing a customer service culture for members" to the point where I'm willing to blow the association up if we can't achieve it?  Ah, no.  (Not me personally - although you might be).  Does your association have a clearly, simply stated set of values that people "get," are held accountable for and are willing to self-destruct over?  Are your values in the real world less powerful than the ideal world?  Why do they have to be?

Clear policy. There are general orders under the prime directive that lay out policy for Starfleet personnel such as rules of engagement, rules for responding to requests for assistance or help, rules on negotiation, general statements regarding avoidance of the Neutral Zone and other regulations.  The general orders are clear while at the same time acknowledging that some actions trump others.  There is a (dare I say it?  You bet your ass I do) LOGIC in their order of priority.  Should the responsibility to uphold the prime directive necessitate entry into the Neutral Zone, the prime directive wins.  Does your association have policy that is rational, logical and prioritized correctly so your staff can execute those policies in the field where circumstances sometimes dictate a certain level of creativity?  If not, why not?  Rewrite them.

Clear roles. Starfleet is Starfleet, the Captain is the Captain and the crew is the crew.  Symbiotic but clear.  Certain matters are handled in certain arenas.  And speaking of the Captain and the crew, the characters who populate the original Star Trek crew are very clear on who they are.  They are, in my mind, the ideal staff.  They also have certain qualities in common.  Here is a list of characteristics that make those staff members particularly appealing to me and what I want to see in the people I work with.
  • They want to be there.  They are well aware the Enterprise is the queen of the fleet and they are proud to serve on the flagship.  They aren't biding their time until they make enough contacts to get the hell off of it.
  • They are at the top of their fields.  They specialize.  They are the best of the best and actively work to stay at the top of their fields.  They aren't phoning it in.
  • They are content in their roles.  They respect and support each other in their roles.  James T. Kirk is the Captain because he HAS to be.  He has the perfect combination of skills.  Spock is the first/science officer because he's a brilliant thinker. He can command when necessary but recognizes Kirk as the Captain. Spock is not feeding information to Starfleet over drinks after a meeting and angling for Kirk's job.
  • They are collaborative.  They problem solve.  They bring their perspectives to the table and then devise a solution. They also try things that don't work and then try something else.  What great lessons in not giving up.  You aren't going to see the group saying, "Well, I guess we're out of options," shrug, sigh and head down to the bar for a drink.
  • They are rebellious.  They have egos and they have a certain disregard for the rules.  It makes for good fiction but more importantly, it shows character.  We could use a little more rebellion these days.  You can't have innovation without it. "Well trained" "good managers" abhor rebelliousness and that is precisely why they suck.
  • They fight with each other.  Yeah, I said it.  They argue.  They debate.  They stick to their guns.  They aren't willing to give in until somebody else makes some sense.  But once they move, they move together as one.  Nobody is sitting around saying, "Whatever you think is fine with me..."
  • They care about each other.  They actually care.  They may argue, but it's all in pursuit of the higher goal. Urging each other on their way to higher levels of accomplishment.  Learning about each other and the universe that surrounds them.  They are willing to risk and achieve more simply because they give a damn.
So, yeah.  Star Trek has many more management lessons than a lot of books I've read.  Clear mission, clear values, clear policy and clear roles.  Star Trek also has a lot more to say about ethics than any ethics course I've ever been to. I will continue to be a fan as long as they stay true to their mission and I am able to identify with it.  Have you inspired loyalty in your members like Star Trek has in their fans?  No?  Well?  Then may I suggest you wipe the mocking smirk off of your face and rent a few DVDs?  Maybe you have some exploring of your own to do.....

May you live long and prosper......


  1. Brilliant! I'm taping this to my mirror and reading it before I start each day.

  2. Thanks Brian! I'm glad you enjoyed the read....

  3. Ok, guess I need to give myself a Star Trek immersion course. I admit that my husband watches the re-runs and I am usually reading or on the computer and don't actually watch it. I did see the most recent movie, though...

  4. Several books have been written on leadership lessons from Star Trek ... but you probably already knew that.

  5. @Maggie - you have an analytical really will enjoy watching with a new perspective

    @Jeffrey - you are correct sir but I have to admit I have not explored them in depth. Do you have any recommendations as to which would be the best read?

  6. This is one of my favorite leadership metaphors. Thanks for the end of the year inspiration. Are you familiar with the book "Make it So?" by Wess Roberts? I bought it for my Trekie partner to help get his feet wet in leadership theory. Worked like a charm :)

  7. J. J. Abrams' Star Trek was a sequel, not a prequel. Everything that went before still happened and THEN Spock went back in time through a wormhole.

  8. Great point! Sequel....well played....




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