Episode #70: The World According to Star Trek

Grad Conn

February 4, 202114 min read

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Set your phasers to “stun” as we boldly go where no one has gone before, at least not during the CXM Experience. Today we look at no-win scenarios, and the mindset required to turn intractable problems into wins. Turns out that the Starfleet Academy has a lot to teach us about creative solutions to business and personal challenges. Fascinating.

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Welcome to the CXM Experience. I’m your host as usual, Grad Conn. I’m the chief experience officer or CXO at Sprinklr. And today we’re going to talk about Star Trek. And, you know, it’ll relate. If you listened to my Gordian knot presentation, you’re going to get a lot of value out of this podcast. If you didn’t listen to my Gordian knot, presentation, you’re still going to get a lot of value out of this podcast. So, either way you can’t lose. This builds on that. After doing the Gordian knot podcast the other day, I was like, I got to talk about this other story, which I think is equally appropriate. Let me talk really quick on Star Trek. And then I’m going to talk about the Gordian knot. And then I’m going to go into this really interesting scenario, which I think you’ll enjoy.

I am, as most people know, a huge Star Wars fan. And before you go there, yes, I’ve seen The Mandalorian. Like, what is it with everyone asking me if I’ve seen this crazy new show on Disney+? Yes, of course I’ve seen it. And I have the t-shirt. So, I’m good. I’m good. I’ve seen The Mandalorian. But I’ve also seen all other Star Wars movies. And unlike many Star Wars fans, I am not a critic of any of them. There’s some I’ll watch maybe more than others. Some I like more than others. But you’re not going to be hearing me going on at length trashing anything about the Star Wars universe. Except maybe… no, no, no, I’m not gonna trash anything about the Star Wars universe. I love everything that George Lucas has done. It’s a piece of brilliant storytelling. So, love it, love it, love it.

Now, what’s interesting about me is I’m also a huge Star Trek fan, which is a little bit unusual. There’s a lot of Star Wars versus Star Trek stuff out there. I don’t see that. For me, if you’ve got “star” in the title, I’m good. Right? So, I like anything to do with space. But I’ve been watching Star Trek from a very young age. The original reruns. I actually watched the animated series live when it was on TV in the early 70s. Totally got into that. I still have the animated series as a box set, which is gorgeous. And I’ve seen every single Star Trek movie, and I’m actually a big fan of all of them. Even the much maligned “Star Trek V,” which was directed by William Shatner, which may be why it has brought so much ire from people. But “Star Trek V” is brilliant, in my opinion, in its exploration of the relationship between Spock, Bones, and Kirk. And Scotty. I think that relationship and friendship is something that was really built out in that movie, and I love that about it. I’ll always watch that one as well.

So anyway, so big Star Trek fan, big Star Wars fan. And in the Star Trek universe, there is actually a story that’s got some kind of similarities to the Gordian knot story. So, a quick recap on Gordian knot. It is a legend associated with Alexander the Great. It’s very, very much a Sword in the Stone type of legend. So, the town of Gordium had this knot cipher. A knot cipher as a knot that was… the instructions to untie it would be passed down from generation to generation amongst the priestesses and priests. And this knot was famously untieable. And the legend was, the person who could untie the knot would go on to conquer Asia. As you all know, Alexander the Great did go on to conquer Asia. So you kind of know how the story is gonna go. He arrives in the town of Gordium. He’s presented with the knot. He looks at it. It’s a really tough knot. Multiple knots, in fact. And very, very hard to undo. And feels that he may have stumbled upon a solution to how to untie the knot. And the solution is: he pulls out his sword and chops the knot in half. And when he chops the knot in half, it’s no longer tied. Boom, done. Problem solved.

And I think that the Gordian knot story is a wonderful way of talking about how to use orthogonal thinking to solve an intractable problem. And if you think about your own life, there are many times when you have a Gordian knot problem, and maybe the way to solve it is just to go around it. Just try something different. Chop the knot in half with a sword, that kind of idea.

There’s another story that’s got similarities to it in the Star Trek universe. And if you know anything about Star Trek, if you’re a fan at all, right now I’m sure you’re screaming into whatever device you have as you listen to this saying; “Kobayashi Maru, Kobayashi Maru, Kobayashi Maru.” And that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about today. And if you don’t know about Kobayashi Maru, check it out. There’s a lot of resources available. It’s an amazing story. It’s got two really interesting components to it. One, which is very unique about how do you handle something when you can’t win. And one which has got a Gordian knot quality to it, which is how do you solve an intractable problem. And so I’ll talk briefly describe how it works. And then I’ll go into a little bit of detail in terms of how they’ve executed it in the movies, and then many of the books as well.

So, the Kobayashi Maru is a simulation, presented to cadets in Starfleet Academy. And it’s one of many, many simulations that they go through. And it’s a simulation designed for the cadet who’s playing the role of Captain. And it’s essentially set up to create a no-win situation, and to see how a cadet responds to the pressure of certain death, and no win. And how do they react to that. The scenario is reasonably simple. There’s a freighter, a civilian freighter called the Kobayashi Maru. It has accidentally wandered into the neutral zone, which is the barrier between the Klingon Empire and the Federation. It has become damaged. There are survivors and they’ve sent a distress call. So the ship, we’ll say the Enterprise. The ship will get the distress call. And the cadet has to make two choices right away. One, note that the freighter is in the neutral zone, and violations of the neutral zone could spark a war with the Klingon Empire and kill billions of people. And condemn the crew and passengers on the Kobayashi Maru to certain death. Or go and rescue them and violate the neutral zone treaty and potentially put their own ship in danger and potentially create a war. Tough decisions, right? Most people choose to go rescue the passengers. Partly because there’s pressure from the rest of the crew. It’s kind of a federation principle. And it just seems like the humane thing to do. And most people assume they’ll be able to zip in and zip up before they get caught. There are some examples in some of the books where people choose to not rescue. And there’s some interesting consequences there.

If you choose to rescue, when you get to the Kobayashi Maru, three Klingon war vessels will uncloak and begin mercilessly pounding you with lasers and missiles and all that kind of good stuff. And your ship will be destroyed, and you’ll die along with everybody in the Kobayashi Maru. And there’s no way to get out of it. There’s no scenario where you can actually win that fight. And so the idea is, this is a no-win scenario. And how does the captain deal with a no-win scenario? S

The first time it appears, is in the Star Trek movie, where they bring in Kahn, so “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” generally viewed as one of the best Star Trek movies. It’s pretty cool. But it’s done in a really interesting way. So, the cadet is named Saavik. And that’s played by a very young Kirstie Alley in her first movie role, first big role of any kind. Prior to Cheers and all that kind of stuff. And the way it’s played in the movie, is you don’t know it’s a simulation. Tou just see Saavik, she gets into this battle with the Klingons. And then you see Spock get killed, and the crew’s all dying, Uhura’s dying, and everyone’s falling over. And it’s like, oh, my God, what’s happening to the Enterprise? And then the lights come on, and Admiral Kirk walks out. And it’s just a simulation, and everyone stands up and dust themselves off, and then the movie starts from there. If you haven’t seen that movie in a while, it’s definitely worth rewatching. It holds up incredibly well.

What’s really interesting about that scenario, though, is that Kirk famously beat the simulation. So part one is the no win. And if you’ve ever been in a no-win situation in your life, and I have been. Fortunately, not thousands of times. But there have definitely been situations where I have tried to make something happen, or tried to create a scenario of fortune, and then it just didn’t happen. And there was no way to fix it. And I’m pretty good at pulling things out of the fire. And sometimes you just can’t. And how you deal with those types of stresses, and those types of scenarios is actually quite interesting. And you do learn a lot about yourself. So, it’s not a bad idea to challenge yourself with no-win scenarios.

But what Kirk did is he actually took the test three times. And on his third attempt, he actually reprogrammed the simulator so that it was possible to rescue the freighter. He essentially cheated by reprogramming the machine. But he was actually given a commendation for original thinking. This whole fact is revealed in “The Wrath of Khan.” There’s a point where Kirk and Saavik and many others are marooned. And Saavik actually accuses Kirk of never having faced a no-win scenario. And Kirk replies very famously that he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, which is really cool.

The 2009 J.J. Abrams film where they relaunched the Star Trek film franchise actually plays the scene of when Kirk is doing it, and where he reprograms the test. It’s actually a little bit of a different take, because Spock is the commander in charge of the simulation. And he’s very upset and feels that it was inappropriate. And there’s a disciplinary hearing. And this is where Spock and Kirk meet for the first time and use many of the lines from the original series, the original movie, The Wrath of Khan. And then they become Kirk and Spock. So, it’s a really great way to join those two characters together.

What’s kind of funny, and I love this particular factoid, is that in the novelization of the film, so this is not revealed in any of the films. But in the novelization of the film, the answer to the question of: how did Kirk figure out how to reprogram the computer? Because Kirk’s a great commander, awesome captain, famous Starfleet Admiral. But I wouldn’t look at him and say, code geek, right? He doesn’t look like a programmer, and I’m not sure he could program anything. So how do you figure this out? How did he know how to do it? And it’s always been one of those questions that hangs out there and no one really… it is what it is. And he somehow figured it out. That’s the story. We’ll go with it. But what was the actual way he did it? If you remember in the movie, he was bedding an Orion female cadet. I don’t know if you remember, but there’s a famous scene in the film. And apparently, she talked in her sleep. And when she talked in her sleep, she gave away the clues of how to reprogram the Kobayashi Maru scenario. So that’s how Kirk did it. That seems totally appropriate. Like Kirk would figure it out while having a tryst with a fellow cadet. I would totally buy that particular explanation. That’s very appropriate.

Anyway, so the Kobayashi Maru scenario is a really great way to think about no-win, and when have you faced no-win scenarios in your life? And how have you managed through those, and what kind of battle damage did you take when you manage through them? Because they do leave scars, and sometimes you don’t recognize them. And so it’s useful to know that, because sometimes you will encounter other scenarios where they have similar characteristics to the “no-win” that you were in, and your scars may predicate your behavior along the lines of assuming it’s no-win, and it may not be. Because there actually aren’t that many no-win scenarios in your life, but you can create a lot of them if you always assume things are that way, if they present themselves the same way.

And I think that Kirk’s guidance, which is he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios, is a very good mindset, because he might still run into them. In fact, he does. If you’re familiar with the series in terms of how his career or his life ends in the Star Trek movie series, it is clearly a no-win scenario. But by not ever believing in it, he never approached things as no-win. And so he would always work hard to find the solution to what seemed like intractable problems. He would always look to find: what is my Gordian knot in this situation that I can cut and get through it? How do I reprogram this simulation, so that I can win? I do think there’s a lot of really powerful lessons from a mindset standpoint in here. And I do believe that mindset is the most important thing that we carry around with us every day. Because it is our mindset that traps us in old modes of thinking and traps us in accepting things that don’t need to be the way they are.

I see it almost every single day. I work with some of the world’s most interesting companies. And I work with an incredibly smart, incredibly dedicated group of people at Sprinklr. And we are constantly running into these scenarios where something doesn’t seem to work, or it’s an intractable problem, or no one’s commenting on this, or this doesn’t work, or this is and it’s like, how do you work around it to find the solution. And one thing I love about my job is I get a chance to cut a lot of Gordian knots. And you know, I quite enjoy it.

So, hopefully that was an interesting session. We’re gonna be spending a little more time talking about CXM over the next couple of weeks, especially from the standpoint of what does it really mean, and what is an experience flow, and how do you understand what experiences your customers are having, and how do you get behind your own firewall and put yourself in the customers shoes and think through what they’re experiencing and what they’re going through. So, a lot more on that over the next couple of weeks. I’m quite looking forward to it. It should be really interesting and super fun.

And for now, if you find yourself in a no-win situation, try to reprogram the computer. If you find yourself faced with an intractable problem, try to cut the knot. Alright, for the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, and I’ll see you next time.

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