Startup trek, episode 16: When The Bough Breaks
Season 1, episode 16, "When The Bough Breaks"
Lesson: great leaders inspire their teams to pull off the impossible
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
The crew is led to a fabled planet called Aldea, long thought to be the stuff of legend. The planet exists and has been using a cloaking shield to hide for millennia, but the inhabitants don't realize that the shield that protects them also creates dangerous levels of radiation that have rendered them infertile. The Aldeans steal a group of the most intellectually and artistically talented children from the Enterprise in the hopes that this new generation will carry on Aldean genetics and break the infertility spell. Obviously the parents of these children aren't too pleased with that development. The Aldeans refuse to return the children, but agree to negotiate with Picard to provide reasonable compensation for them.
Despite what seems to be an impossible situation--Aldea is fully shielded so the Enterprise crew can't beam onto the planet, the Aldeans won't budge on giving back the children, and the Aldean science and weaponry is much more sophisticated than the Enterprise's--Picard rallies his crew to find options. And they do. La Forge finds a small but exploitable weakness in the planet's shield. Data and Riker beam down to the planet and disable its computer overlord. With the computer rendered useless, the Aldeans can't use it to hide the children with their transporter. And with their biggest negotiating leverage gone, the Aldeans are forced to listen to reason: that even if the children stayed on the planet, they too would suffer from the same radiation poisoning that's causing systemic infertility. The only solution is to disable the shield that protects the planet and keeps it cloaked, yet has been killing its people.
Picard had a very startup-appropriate quote in this episode:
Picard: Data, find a way to defeat that shield.
Data: That may be impossible sir.
Picard: Things are only impossible until they're not!
The cliche depiction that startups are made up of people with massive visions and tiny budgets is pretty accurate. You're trying to "make the world a better place" (cue Silicon Valley season 1 episode 1) but you're running out of cash, nobody has all the answers or even all the information needed to get to an answer, very few people have done exactly this before, and things often feel impossible.
The best leaders push through this defeatist feeling and make shit happen. Steve Jobs was famous for having a "reality distortion field," as people who worked for him would later call it. He'd suddenly declare to his team that Apple was going to make some new, insanely boundary-pushing thing, something that no one had ever come even remotely close to building before, and oh yeah--they had to do it in four weeks because he committed to launching it on stage in front of the entire world at the WWDC.
Side note: I wrote this post and then was going back through and adding relevant links. I looked up "Steve Jobs reality distortion field" and found a Wikipedia article on it. Apple employee Bud Tribble was the first to use it, but apparently he got it from Star Trek: The Original Series. Life imitating art imitating life.
By all accounts, Steve Jobs was kind of a dick. But the people who worked for him admit that they usually surprised themselves and pulled off the impossible thing. They look back at their time at Apple and consider it the most prolific and creative of their careers.
There's a difference between a CEO or a founder or a boss who's completely out of touch with reality and comes across like a raving idiot when demanding that teams accomplish certain tasks. But there's something to be said for pushing people to do the seemingly impossible when there's just enough hope to suggest it can be done. That's the difference between dejecting your team and motivating them.
There can be freedom in the constraint of a problem. Humans say we prefer having more choices, but that actually stress us because we can't evaluate them all and thus aren't satisfied with our decision. When choices are limited, we can think through every option and arrive at a better decision. (For more on this concept, check out The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz). Even though the Enterprise crew felt constrained by the negotiation standstill at first, they focused on the elements they could control and found a successful solution.
Startup life is full of impossible situation and decisions. The next time you find yourself facing one--or trying to inspire your team to do so--know that its limitations may help you focus on defeating it. Make it so.