October 25, 2010

Captain Kirk Was a Lousy Tech Manager

Those of you who remember the original Star Trek series will remember the running trope of Captain Kirk asking Scotty how long something will take, and when Scotty responds something like “two days”, Kirk would respond with “You have two hours”, or some other ludicrously short period of time. Scotty would shake his head exasperatedly and go off to spin straw into gold (always making the deadline), while Kirk would get a smug, self-satisfied “There’s brilliant leadership at work” look on his face to let us know what a genius commander he was.

Years later on Star Trek: the Next Generation, Scotty made a guest appearance and confided to the engineer that he should never tell how long it would really take to do something: it turns out that the result of Kirk’s management style was to train Scotty to game the system.

Now sometimes good leadership requires pushing team members to pursue “stretch goals,” so that they continue to grow professionally and stay engaged with their jobs. But to make asking for the impossible into a routine part of every task assignment is just a bad idea. Scotty shows us why: it backfires, since the team member learns that honest estimations are punished.

The commanders in the next-generation Star Trek shows, Captains Picard, Sisko and Janeway, had much better leadership skills in this regard. They encouraged honest estimates and had open and respectful discussions with their team members about priorities and deadlines. It’s hard enough dealing with alien invasions and other calamities without introducing dysfunctional group dynamics into your own team through “heroic” Captain Kirk-style management.