In Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru is a Starfleet Academy training exercise designed as a no-win scenario. The cadet crew receives a distress call from the civilian freighter, Kobayashu Maru, disabled in the Klingon Neutral Zone, and any Starfleet ship entering the zone would be in violation of the Organian Peace Treaty. The approaching crew must decide whether to attempt rescue of the Kobayashi Maru – violating the treaty and endangering their own ship and lives – or leave the Kobayashi Maru to certain destruction by the Klingtons.
Students inevitably try to save the freighter and end up not only failing to save the doomed ship, but also sacrificing themselves to no avail. In the Start Trek series, Captain T. Kirk was the first cadet to win (on his 3rd try) – by reprogramming the computer so that it was possible to rescue the ship. In effect, he changed the conditions of the test and rules of the game. (This is very much in line with Stephen Covey's first rule in the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People": Recognize that you are the Programmer in life.)
So how many “Kobayashi Maru”s are you presented with every day when you’re told this or that cannot be done for set reasons, e.g. “It’s not part of our process”, “...outside of our Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)”, or that “You cannot fight City Hall”? One of the biggest problems with SOPs and procedures are that people treat them as something that Moses brought down from the mountain, written in stone, and unchangeable over time. Processes, rules, and procedures can and should be changed with the times. However, in many other cases, you cannot be a James T. Kirk and rewrite the rules, e.g. you cannot create a “win-win” when it is definitely a “no-win” situation, e.g. the market requirements cannot be fully met by the engineering team due to resources and time or a customer just hates your company without a clear reason.
So What Do You Do with a Kobayashi Maru?
1. Always think like James T. Kirk: “I don't believe in the no-win scenario.” When there’s a will, there’s a way. Rewrite the rules. Change the game. There was an evangelist named “Reverend Ike” who preached prosperity theology. Supposedly, when questioned about the biblical verse: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Rev. Ike replied “A rich man can buy a bigger needle.” Leonardo da Vinci and the Wright Brothers challenged the law of gravity with flight. We talk about shifts in paradigms, thinking outside the box (apologies since I hate such clichés).
2. Destroy the Kobayashi Maru yourself - In “Stone and Anvil”, Mackenzie Calhoun realizes that it is impossible to rescue the Kobayashi Maru so he destroys it himself! He also reasons that it is more merciful to kill the civilians outright rather than let them be captured and tortured; and he assumes that the ship itself was a trap. In real life, your Kobasyashi Maru’s only suck up time and energy to your eventual demise. If your product does not meet the market requirements and you cannot get it completed, then be honest and sink it rather than waste additional release resources. If you are in a bad relationship, get out before it gets worse! (In this case, get out, don't literally destroy your boyfriend or girlfriend. It's illegal.) Too many people are afraid to tell the Emperor that he is not wearing any clothes. Emotions and people are involved so It’s a very difficult but necessary decision. Sometimes, you have to move on. In a Machiavellian world, mercifully ending the Kobayashi Maru’s will allow you to focus on better and more profitable efforts, e.g. investigating how the Kobayashi Maru got stranded to prevent future recurrences, aiding others, etc.
So don't be afraid to face and deal your Kobayashi Maru's in life.
Live long and prosper.
Frank Lio is a Product Manager, Strategist, and Change Agent in the Hi-Tech industry. His growing track record of successes include creating 3 winning software products, leading nationwide seminars, and turning around a failing business unit. He is currently serving a dual role as Product Manager and Business Team Support Manager at Instron ITW.
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