Star Trek Lessons For Running Your Own 'Enterprise'

Resilient organizations are simultaneously democratic and mission focused, making rapid decisions to keep pace with economic cycles. Yet, the commercial universe is blurred with fiefdoms in which power, not contribution, is the basis for engagement. Given enough time, even with progressive intentions like "don't be evil" (Google), traditional attitudes or astigmatic motivations lure companies from their mission. Examples that are at once humane and robust remain scarce. So, if aspirational paragons are almost fiction, perhaps that's where we turn to paraphrase our yearning for optimism. If so, the sky is no limit. We go, if need be, to the farthest reaches of galaxies for exemplars of healthy organizational culture.

Star Trek: the Next Generation ("STNG" to fans) appeared two decades after the original 1960’s show, as the third series of six in the mythos. The broadcast satellites of 1987-1994 orbited an era bounded by Black Monday and the World Trade Center disaster, chilling harbingers of financial and cultural uncertainty. STNG beamed to Earth a hopeful diagram, not merely of technical advancement, but of how human beings collaborate effectively in high performing groups. The premise was a long-term project to engage other organizations on behalf of the Enterprise's organizational parent. Open-ended yet particularly defined, their operation was a virtual classroom for company vitality.

Three months ago, Netflix subscribers gained 178 digitally remastered STNG episodes. Granted immortal existence in the sempiternal medium of streaming content, the Patrick Stewart led crew of the aptly named Enterprise now continues to epitomize the effective organization as often as we press play. STNG's "Enterprise culture" exemplifies four principles:

Personality, not toxicity: The leadership of Picard, Enterprise's CEO (starships have "chief executive officers") is transmitted throughout the organization. When a superior with a different leadership style assumes command, the crew chafes against his methods, Picard supports him (episode: "Chain of Command"). By contrast, when a superior fosters mistrust and suspicion in Enterprise's otherwise healthy culture ("Drumhead"), Picard exposes it as toxic. Likewise, attempts at currying favor are ignored. When a commander receives an ingratiating "Aye Aye," he answers "one Aye is sufficient" ("Lower Decks"). The implication is "no kissing up." 

Performance over popularity: Far from encouraging a narrow culture of "fit," workplace eccentrics are defended and valued when their contribution is stellar. When personnel criticize socially awkward Barclay as bumbling and gauche, Picard refuses to transfer him. Instead, he encourages Barclay to take advantage of life coaching by the Enterprise counsellor, a move that increases Barclay's confidence and reputation ("Hollow Pursuits"). It's not hand-holding: Picard is blunt if staff violate express organization standards ("Reunion"): "The Enterprise crew... each have their individual beliefs and values and I respect them all. But they have all chosen to serve... If anyone cannot perform his or her duty because of the demands of their society, they should resign." Leaders will admire Picard's professional candor.

Unity requires tension: Rather than channel raw authority, stakeholders are open to initial contradiction. Team members are expected to lobby for differing solutions on major initiatives, and dissent is welcome. The head of security advises caution, the data scientist (aptly named "Data") encourages precision and logic, and wellness advocates evoke ethical and emotional considerations. Because all participants are heard, there's unanimity of action when decisions are made. Once there's a decisive plan, all are expected to adopt it and perform optimally to achieve it. The Enterprise model optimizes decision making and execution where other organizations bottleneck. If plans fail, they revise initial assumptions without any need to placate stakeholders. 

Competence more than rank determines project roles: As projects are fluid, team members are regarded as peers rather than extensions of their superiors, so leaders display a pattern of consulting them on decisions. Subordinates might even override a superior's instructions, when they contradict his intentions. Picard declines to take disciplinary action when Data disobeys ("Redemption 2"), saying they aren't cultivating staff "who follow orders blindly without analyzing the situation." STNG portrays a leadership structure that is multidimensional — at once vertical and horizontal.

No other televised series has portrayed so consistently and for so long an organizational culture as elaborate, developed, and highly functional as STNG. We needn't have been C-level professionals 20 and 30 years ago to draw organizational insights from these spacefaring explorers that, naval and military lingo aside, comprise a formidable organization ready for any competitor the universe can throw at them. Having escaped the atmosphere of the 2007-11 financial crisis, we can find more wisdom than ever in STNG's internal work life and operational culture.

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