“Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the popular science-fiction series set in the year 2364, shows the adventures of the starship Enterprise and its crew on its “continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations”. Read on to learn how Business Intelligence professionals, and especially consultancies and other companies employing large numbers of technical specialists, can learn some fundamental lessons from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a peaceful and prosperous future for all mankind.
Set in the “Alpha Quadrant” (the Milky Way and its nearby galaxies for all non-Trekkies), the series was brought to our television screens by Gene Roddenberry in 1987 and ran until 1994, although reruns of this popular show can still be found on the SciFi channel today (and are just as popular as when it first premiered).
The Emmy Award winning series was a staple afternoon entertainment throughout my childhood and early teenage years. I admired the idyllic society made up of people from various backgrounds and cultures, working together for a common goal, exploring new planets on a technologically advanced starship and overcoming many of the same problems we face today such as racism, war, poverty, slavery and more (albeit in an alien setting). They also had this very structured military-like United Federation of Planets, that meant everyone had a job, lived in peace, without poverty and hunger, all even though there is no money anymore.
Reflecting on my own experiences in the business world and working for a consultancy, and how starting a new project is often like having an away team land on an alien plant, I started thinking about how there are many valuable lessons we can learn from Captain Picard and his crew in how to successfully work with and in alien societies (not that I’m saying bankers are aliens or banks hostile…), whilst helping each other and not compromise their own morals (the prime directive if you will).
Here are 9 lessons I learnt from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation.
1. In order to succeed, you must work together
One lesson that is driven home time and time again in the series, and which is applicable across all areas of life not just in business, is that teamwork is essential if we want to succeed. As a group the crew is stronger and can accomplish difficult tasks, escape perilous situations and defeat enemies which were previously thought of as invincible. Especially in consultancy, knowing your colleagues’ character, strengths and weaknesses, as well as being able to rely on one another and trust unquestionably are all fundamental attributes of successful teams. I touch on this later on when I discuss diversity, but having a team made up of varied backgrounds, educational backgrounds and abilities is paramount in building a strong team that can face anything when working together.
Some might argue that sometimes having a very large or diverse team or company can mean that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Individuals may have to make sacrifices in order to benefit the greater good. It can be argued that although this may happen in small areas, it should be kept to an absolute minimum and be restricted to areas that are not essential to consultants’ everyday lives. Deciding on the type of benefit your company receives will never please 100% of people 100% of the time and that’s ok. But unfair working conditions, underpaid workers and overworked or burnt-out consultants are a recipe for disaster and ultimately result in a high staff turnover. Non-negotiables should not benefit 80% of workers, they should benefit everyone or they will start questioning why they join the company in the first place. Nobody should be subject to unethical practices directly or indirectly – for example on a particular client site but only those that work for that client, especially when this is for extended periods of time. Checking in with an unhappy minority from time to time not just essential to the survival of a company, it will directly influence productivity, reputation, employability of consultants and ultimately profitability.
Similarly, company sponsored team activities and training days should not be seen as multiple wasted day-rates for the days spent away from client site, rather they should be encouraged to drive conversations, friendships and ultimately lead to everyone performing at their peak capacity. This includes company away days, sponsored activities, sports days, pub events and much more that can be free, such as regular team lunches, coffee breaks or check ins with managers. Ten-Forward, the hub of the Enterprise’s social activities, is a fixture on the show and regularly features in the crew’s everyday life. While it is possible for crew members to withdraw to the Holo-deck, go on leave on alien planets or hide away in their quarters, it is just as important for the crew to share meals, engage in a round of space chess or poker games or have a drink together because it forges tight connections that will play an important role later when the ship is in peril and a common enemy can only be defeated through team work.
2. Diversity is a good thing
Just looking at the picture at the top of this article, you can see that the Enterprise crew is made up of many different diverse groups, cultures, backgrounds and races. Not only are there humans of various races and Earth nations, as well as a rational-thinking android in the command crew, the aliens in the crew possess many different special abilities, languages and powers. Although the crew usually keeps to the standard Star Fleet jumpsuit uniform with divisional colours, individual crew members are also able to express their individuality through small adjustments in their everyday uniforms that represent their cultural diversity. Sometimes we see tunic versions of the uniform with bare legs and boots, sometimes members wear shirts with different styled shoulders and collars or jackets, but the overall look and insignia remains consistent. The lesson? Don’t discourage or forbid the expression of individuality or personal culture as long as people adhere to an agreed standard.
When we look at individual crew members, we also learn important lessons about diversity not just in culture, including religion, or looks, but also abilities. Take for example Geordi LaForge. Blind since birth due to a birth defect, he uses a technological device called a VISOR to see, although this is replaced by ocular prosthetic implants in the later films. Rather than seeing a disabled crew member as a hinderance or someone who needs to be pitied or taken care of, Georgi enhances the team because he can detect electromagnetic waves all the way from raw heat to high frequency ultra-violet, making other crew members seem blind themselves by comparison. Working together with his best friend Data the android, Geordi is especially effective on away missions as his VISOR can replace some of the basic functions of a tricorder.
Deanna Troi, a half human and half Betazoid crew member, functions as the ship’s counselor and advisor to the Captain due to her ability to read emotions. She personifies more emotional and sensitive people, and because such characteristics predominantly ascribed to females, many companies see women as possessing a limitation in today’s cold and hard business world because of their sensitivity and heightened responsiveness to feelings. On the Enterprise however, Troi is an asset especially because she is revered for her warm and sensitive character, which is in stark contrast to her often more cold and tactical male crew members. Rather than limiting her career advance or not using her on away missions because she is not a soldier or a scientist, she is included and used for her sensitivity and warm nature and is a key ally to the crew in difficult negotiations with hostile alien nations, as she can also detect lies and deceit easily. Additionally, when working on the ship, she counsels crew members as a therapist when they are going through difficult emotional times and need to speak to someone in confidence.
Captain Picard often seeks advice from the wise Guinan, a refugee on the starship from the El-Aurian people, believed to be between 500-700 years old. Due to her age and special abilities to detect the normal flow of time, she is also able to detect disturbances in the timeline and changes in “normality”, and she is simultaneously aware of all possible alternatives in her and other universes. Her species are known as listeners and she gives invaluable advice to the captain in times of need. Guinan’s planet was destroyed and her people were subject to a diaspora and subsequent reintegration into other cultures and people. After she starts living and working on the Enterprise as a barman in Ten-Forward, she continues to wear her people’s traditional clothing, which can be interpreted as a reference to race and refugees issues, their contribution to society and questions about integration. Guinan actually turns out to be a key ally when it comes to dealing with everyone’s common enemy, the Borg, who are set on assimilating any and all cultures. The parallel that can be drawn from her character is not only that refugees or expats should be welcomed in an open multicultural society as well as companies set on growing and prospering, but that older age and diverse backgrounds should not be seen as hinderance but as assets.
There are countless more examples of succesful integration that I could cite here, from Worf the Klingon warrior, raised by humans after his parents were killed and his home world destroyed by Romulans (another common enemy of the Federation), who receives the scorn of his own people for becoming part of human culture and society, to Data a self-aware and sentient artificial life form built in the likeness of his inventor father, who experiences ongoing difficulties during the early years of his life understanding various aspects of human behaviour as he is unable to feel emotion or understand human idiosyncracies or idioms, which ultimately inspires him to strive for his own humanity.
Star Trek has always been about pushing boundaries, both within the show’s universe (Worf is the first Klingon to serve in the Federation, Data the first machine), as well as in real life (the first inter-racial kiss between Kirk and Uhura). It has inspired inclusiveness, diversity and technological advances (Remember those sliding doors on the Enterprise? They inspired the sliding glass doors we have in supermarkets today.). If we can learn anything here it is that rather than seeking to only employ individuals from a limited pool, we should broaden our horizons and strive to diversify our workforces as much as possible. A 22-year-old science graduate is not going to know the first thing about the intricacies of the age-old systems your bank used back in 1998 to house loans that had entered recoveries. Nor is he going to be the best in comforting a colleague who was just informed of her relative’s death by telephone. But as a team with experience in various different fields, different age groups, cultures, religions and life goals you will be safe in the knowledge that together they can master many different situations.
3. Everyone is equal
Not only is the crew of the Enterprise (and the entire Star Trek universe for that matter) incredibly diverse, they are actually able to live, work and communicate together effectively and achieve common goals. Although a popular theme is the encounter of less developed societies that for example still practice racial segregation, or misogynistic practices, Starfleet, the Federation and the Enterprise itself are a place of mutual respect and equal treatment. The Star Trek universe’s belief in equality, with respect for social, economic and political rights and privileges also includes the protection of individuals beliefs, culture and customs.
Equality is not treating everyone the same. It means treating different people in ways that have the same outcome for them collectively. A single childless woman does not need flexible hours like the single working mother does, nor does she need ad hoc days off to take care of unexpectedly sick children. Allowing a disabled worker more sick days than your sickness policy normally allows is not to the detriment of the able-bodied worker. Giving certain employees those special benefits is not unjust because the ultimate outcome is that both are able to do their same job effectively.
Allowing people a voice and accepting feedback, however unpleasant it may be, is paramount to improving a company and its culture. All too often honest feedback is met with justifications as to why things are the way they are rather than an open ear and the willingness to change.
4. Money is not the main motivation
In the Star Trek universe the accumulation of wealth is no longer the goal of society. Because its use is the facilitation of transactions of goods or services, which on the Enterprise happens for reasons such as self-betterment and advancing the society as a whole, there is no longer a need for the exchange of currency. As Picard puts it when asked how much the Enterprise cost to build: “We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity”. Selfishness is discouraged as unnecessary, as it will actively hinder a person’s career where collaboration is valued above all else.
This philosophy of self-enhancement is important, as far from today’s reality in business as it may be. We still need money to live, and to enhance our lives and careers. The only reason companies employ people and offer them sick days, holidays and training days is because they are lucrative streams of revenue. However, if we want to create an environment in which employees favour self-enhancement and furthering a company’s goals (the society in this example) then we must ensure that all employees feel that they are treated equal and compensated equally. No two people performing the same job should receive vastly different salaries. Whether a company justifies this to themselves by arguing length of service, starting salaries or gender (based on maternity leave taken), ultimately the truth will come out between workers, usually over a pint or four, and the result is always deep-set unhappiness on the part of the worker who feels wronged because they do the same job for less money.
Mistrust and doubt in leadership are toxic for groups that rely on teamwork and openness and they are a breeding ground for accusations and bitterness. It is paramount to eradicate unequal treatment instead of pretending that the truth will not come out because people will and do talk. Similarly, instead of swearing employees to secrecy upon receiving a rather large bonus or a salary increase, why not advertise the fact with the reasons for it, in order to encourage others to strive to better themselves?
Admittedly, the reason Star Trek is able to function without money is that they are a post-scarcity society. They have the technology, energy resources and ability to meet everybody’s basic needs. How can this idea be applied to a consultancy in a world that revolves around clients and revenue? In a business sense at least, the aim should be to reduce the perceived scarcity of the variables you have control over: employee benefits, bonuses, salary reviews (and increases) and promotions.
Instead of having people compete for the salary increases or bonuses against peers who appear to get favoured for training or career progression over themselves, introduce a rigid and transparent system everyone must follow. Performance based bonuses, billable days linked training allowances and bench time activities, a rigid points-based training allowance/schedule, as well as black-and-white steps to achieving the next salary band while revealing these bands openly in a clearly communicated and open salary structure and how it is linked to performance and achieving seniority. Above all else, transparency is key when communicating factors linked to money, a secretive boys club culture that excludes certain groups will never be as prosperous as one that is inclusive, encouraging and perceived as fair.
When money ceases to be the driving mechanism for achievement, motivation turns to personal satisfaction, status and reputation, both within a company and on client site. When all members of a crew feel they are treated equally and compensated fairly, the way they operate automatically becomes about self-improvement and working towards a natural career progression that is both fulfilling and helps their peers. On a ship like the Enterprise, not everyone is an officer, but those that are ensigns strive towards bettering themselves, learning and helping each other because they seek fulfillment and they don’t feel done over.
5. When someone asks for help, stop what you are doing and help
Whenever the crew of the Enterprise discovers a distress call during its voyages, after scanning if any other ships in the vicinity are available, they will immediately come to the aid of the other ship. A distress call is typically sent by an individual or ship that has encountered a problem they cannot overcome on their own and the purpose of the signal is to summon those who can help. By definition therefore the person or persons sending the distress call will be in danger of perishing without assistance. But why should you help someone in need?
On the Enterprise, the common knowledge of self-improvement being the key to an individual’s as well as a society’s success also means that crew members realise the value in helping one another. It not only sets an example for others, it facilitates a strong sense of encouragement in those witnessing the act of kindness. When a group of people actively follows the practice of helping others, it becomes the new normal and can lead to remarkable impact on events that follow that one act of kindness.
In addition to this, by helping one crew member you increase the chances of your own survival. This simple law is dictated through the fact that the Enterprise is a ship in a vast and hostile environment, sometimes light years from Earth and in enemy territory. Failure to help one engineer perform their job could have a rippling effect that could lead to the failure of the entire mission or even the death of the entire crew. By working together like a well-oiled machine individuals ultimately improve their own chances of survival and the quality of their lives.
In a business setting, or where employees are working together on a project, there is often no immediately obvious or life-altering reason to help one another. Instead, where people perceive themselves to compete for promotions, bonuses or client favour, the temptation to purposefully not help others to increase one’s own chances of looking good may arise. The points I argue above about removing the perceived scarcity of rewards and perks to the job still apply. But on top of that, a culture that encourages collaboration, where individuals further each other’s careers and help bring people together needs to be practiced by all levels in a business.
In addition to encouraging a culture of support, it is just as important to be seen living by example. Once a year on the Enterprise they celebrate “Captain Picard Day”, a holiday the children living on the ship love but Picard finds infinitely embarrassing and unnecessary. However the overall message is very important: the communication of the values, achievements and vision of the ship’s leader, the man in charge of their lives and well-being, which are all so important when it comes to influencing the next generation.
In a business sense, the “generations” are much shorter. They will be groups of people recruited together during certain periods of growth and be separated by maybe a year or so. These groups of people tend to naturally flock together, sometimes because they work together on the same client project they were recruited for, or they are of similar age or backgrounds, or because they remember being hired and/or interviewed together. These groups will tend to behave in similar ways and have similar expectations regarding their salaries, career progression and overall treatment based on what they see their peers achieve, as well as the values communicated down from the leadership team.
How often do we see consultants who don’t know what their company’s leadership team achieved in the past 6 months, what their vision is for the next year or 2 or 5, or how they live the company values they preach. The management team must lead by example and demonstrate regularly how they have helped further the company’s goals, and how they have helped make everyone’s lives better. Investing time and money in others leads to people attaching that value to you, and as a result to your company. Doing this repeatedly will result in a huge improvement in the level of respect you and your company receive. Ultimately it can lead to new career prospects, increased revenue and achieving personal goals.
6. Success is actively encouraged
This point ties in with the argument for regular team activities and time for training days, and encouraging team members ascending through the ranks. On the Enterprise, we see regular crew members promoted as a reward for hard work and personal accomplishments. Rather than having a pyramid structure with unnecessary levels between bottom and top ranks, we have a military like hierarchy with clear career progression paths, specific exams that need to be passed depending on the area, and specific training in order to achieve this. In addition, due to the size of the Federation we have a rather flat structure where large numbers of peers working alongside one another in teams with specific purposes.
We also learn that everyone has a place on the ship and that when everyone does their job well, the ship will naturally function more smoothly. When someone does a particularly good job, they will be promoted and progress their career, which is supported through rigorous training and studying, and achieve their dreams.
It is frustrating being stuck in a company structure that is unnecessarily complex, has too many ranks to rise through when compared to the size of the company, or stops good performers from achieving their goals because employees on the bench are given priority for training as them attending training does not result in a loss of revenue. A high staff turnover is the most telling sign that something in a company’s glorified training catalogue is not translating to the real world, or that there are too many hurdles to promotion.
Imagine this scene on the Enterprise: a group of Starfleet graduates originally wanted to become ship engineers, but they have been stuck working in the canteen washing dishes for the past two years because for a short while there was no one else to do that job and they begrudgingly did it. After that they got stuck because owing to them being engineers, they were more efficient at washing dishes than anyone else on the ship. In business you often see that type of false economy backed by bogus rational decisioning and frustration and stagnated careers are an all too common occurrence.
7. Integrity > success
Leadership is not just about a title and a paycheck, respect stems from the ability to inspire others, because that influence spreads the passion you have for your own work in a way that equally inspires colleagues and clients.
Few characters have inspired us fans more than Captain Picard as we were growing up. The way his character is depicted on the show is first and foremost deeply moral, logical and very intelligent. He is a master of diplomacy and debate, who resolves seemingly impossible issues between unrelenting sides with wisdom and strength of character. Picard is also shown using his remarkable tactical cunning in situations where it is required.
In practical terms, what is clear is that moral standards and strength of character are deeply important and distinguishing aspects of one’s nature, and as a result they determine whether others perceive us as deserving of their respect and admiration. And while nobody is always “perfect”, strength of character and morals are things everybody can fall back on when things get tough and we have to fight for what we believe in.
8. Boldly go where no one has gone before
One of the reasons Star Trek inspires young and old to this day is that it portrays so many of our core values in a relatable way. It inspires an adventurous spirit and encourages the furthering of oneself for the benefit of others, all whilst travelling the universe in an effort to chart the unknown stars and nebuli of the Milky Way.
Travelling itself is a worthwhile exercise that leads to broadened horizons, provides a means of self-exploration, and is a source of memories and experience. Sights seen and experiences and self-knowledge gained along the way often mean the journey was more important than the destination. Similar parallels could be drawn to the world of business and consulting, especially when it comes to accepting new challenges and leaving one’s comfort zone. The main rewards of completing projects and contracts successfully can arise from the experiences and self-knowledge developed on the way, not just the monetary reward. Goals such as high praise earned from a client or colleagues will be worth more in the long run than money or a promotion.
9. Never wear a red shirt to work
Ok that last point is less serious, although it doesn’t always pay to stick out in the work place and can make you an easy target…
Hopefully you have been inspired by some of the points I made here. Let me know in the comments if it made you reflect on your own working life, I’d love to read some of your thoughts – whether they are on Star Trek, Financial Services or Business Intelligence!