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The Star Trek guide to a down market

By Arthur Goldstuck

Moving house must be one of the great pleasures and one of the great displeasures of life, combined into one life-changing process. Part of that process is getting rid of accumulated junk, which can be most traumatic for the hoarding-minded, but it often results in retrieving a treasure from that junk.

Sometimes, these treasures were lying before our eyes all along, but we stopped noticing them until we had to make a decision on keeping them or throwing them out.

Such was the case when I came across an old poster that I had seen a thousand times, but had never really thought about, entitled “All I need to know I learned from Star Trek”.

It includes such gems as:

“Enemies are often invisible – like Romulans, they can be cloaked.”
“Insufficient data does not compute.”
“Don’t put all your ranking officers in one shuttlecraft.”

You may well question the relevance to your business of a space vehicle going nova with a bunch of captains and colonels on board, but that’s the beauty of Star Trek: it is so grounded in everyday reality, that even it’s most futuristic expressions remain relevant in this distant past. The genius of Star Trek – and this applies whether you are a science fiction fan or not – is that most of the original episodes were underpinned by a powerful philosophy laid out by series creator Gene Roddenberry.

Among other things, he envisaged a microcosm in which origin, colour and creed made no difference to your standing in life. As long as, that is, they embraced the mission of the Enterprise: to explore new worlds, contact new life forms, and embrace the alien.

A common theme expounded by Roddenberry, as explained in the book “Meaning in Star Trek”, by Karen Blair, is that the process of encountering the unknown involves us with both the familiarity of the past and the foreignness of the future. That theme has become so relevant today, as the business world and the business of hi-tech in particular charts its way through unknown territory, it is well worth revisiting some of the dictums that sounded cute four decades ago, but have a deeper resonance today.

The best line to capture the uncertainty of the present global economy is Spock’s old rule that “Insufficient data does not compute”. In other words, if you don’t know enough about a situation, it’s impossible to analyse the situation effectively. That precisely describes the situation many businesses find themselves in today. But that isn’t the real problem for business. Behind that rule lies a call to gather more data until it is sufficient to compute. And that’s where businesses are reneging on their obligation to stakeholders.

Instead of gathering the data that proves how bad or good things are, most business decision-makers rely on what they read in the newspapers or on what analysts declare on TV. This is even so when it is clear that the media and analyst view of the economy is driven by media and market sentiment and little else. How many analysts call a down market when everything is moving up? And how many go starry-eyed when all about them the downturn intensifies? Precious few. Even those who have been around the block a good few times, and know that trends don’t continue in one direction but are subject to cycles, are seduced by the power of what is happening right here, right now, instead of getting a bigger picture, i.e. data that reveals the long-term, not just the previous quarter’s trade figures.

That poster I found does also declare that “Humans are highly illogical,” but that’s no excuse for acting like a human. Instead, we can all take a leaf out of Mr Spock’s book of leadership. In analysing his qualities, the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once wrote, “We were always ready for First Officer Spock’s cool calm, his rationality and his sense of ethics.”

In the absence of sufficient data, that sounds like the perfect formula for leading a business forward into the unknown: don’t burn your enterprise by responding with frenzy to market volatility; make decisions based on rational analysis and not media hype; and conduct business ethically, even as all about you are cooking the ledgers to make the numbers work, or raiding the piggybank when they can’t. We’ve already seen some of the biggest stars shot out of the sky for disobeying those rules.

There’s just one Star Trek teaching I wouldn’t suggest you embrace too fast. As one discovers in various phases of life, such as looking at the cost of building a house instead of buying one, or trying to convince people to use a new technology when the old on will do nicely thank you, it isn’t always wise to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Oh, and don’t always be in a hurry to throw away old posters from your misspent youth.

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and managing director of World Wide Worx, South Africa’ leading independent technology research organisation. He can be contacted on mailto:arthurg@internet.org.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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