The Kobayashi Maru: A lesson from Star Trek for Business


The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise in Star Trek. Its purpose is to test how cadets cope when faced with an un-winnable situation.

In many organisations’ it is frustrating to see talented, committed staff struggling to find a way to achieve in an un-winnable situation. The problem is compounded by the fact that they blame themselves for not achieving or delivering. But, if the organisation itself makes it impossible for them, then they need to recognise they face the Kobayashi Maru.

I am sure there are other situations that create the Kobayashi Maru such as an adversarial internal culture, lack of talent management but below are 3 key factors which can create an un-winnable environment.

1. The organisation has initiative overload.

This can happen when organisations are keen to deliver new or innovative ideas but there is a lack of oversight about the success of individual initiatives or how they work together. For staff implementing projects and programmes this can be an exciting time until they realise that the organisation is not interested in taking the initiative further than the pilot or 'proof of concept' stage. The time, energy and personal investment are suddenly seen as futile. Eventually, with so many initiatives happening it becomes clear that the organisation has no process for embedding or recognising the end result.

2. The performance and target setting undermine the culture of the organisation.

This can happen when a company is acquired and a new management team brings in consultants’ keen to drive up effectiveness through improving efficiencies. The problem is that this often involves reducing resources 'the do more with less' mindset. This in effect undermines staff ability to produce meaningful outcomes such as to 'think innovatively', 'improve the customer experience', or 'increase revenue'. The danger here is that target setting is not linked to the reality of the business environment and staff are burdened by performance measures, which they cannot hope to achieve.

3. Loss of strategic vision.

In this situation, the lack of leadership and a clear vision of the organisations’ future mean that those working hard to deliver and keep staff morale high are faced with being the crunch point for the frustration of others whilst trying to maintain their own professionalism. When an organisation lacks a clear strategic version, its purpose can become diluted. The loss of strategic version is the biggest flag that the organisation is creating an un-winnable situation.

In the end you could do what Captain Kirk did, which is to reach the conclusion that the situation is rigged, so cheat! Alternatively, you can recognise that the situation does not lessen your skills or abilities but that no one in that situation could win, so use it as opportunity to reflect on how you deal with pressure and how you could spot the warning signs earlier to you don't find yourself confronted with the Kobayashi Maru.


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