April 4, 2023

076: TNG: The Quality of Life

Decision Making

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On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Next Generation, The Quality of Life (Season 6, Episode 9). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Picard and Data.


Making decisions is one of the things that separates truly great leaders from others. In this episode, Jeff breaks down how Captain Picard listens to multiple, diverse voices; gets as close to the problem as possible by visiting the gemba; addresses the root cause of the problem; and ensure his decision is communicated.


Jeff also shares Data's story, and tells one of his own, that demonstrates how to do what is right, even when it means great personal and professional risk.


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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. One of the skills that separates truly great leaders from the rest is their ability to make a decision. In this episode I am going to breakdown a framework and share examples that will help you become a stronger decision maker. And we’re going to do that by watching the 9th episode of the 6th season the Next Generation, The Quality of Life.




We start off with a poker game. This was such a cool thing they did in TNG. It’s just Riker, Worf, LaForge and Crusher playing. They’re talking about beards, and it’s kind of great. Quick behind the scenes, Levar Burton got married around this time and wanted a beard for that, so they allowed his character to wear one. This game literally does nothing but fill up time in this episode, but it makes a powerful point on perceptions and how gender biases are influenced by them, “The beard is an ancient and proud tradition…Sure, and of course women can’t grow beards.” 0:48 It’s a fun scene and really shows the friendship the crew has.


The Enterprise is checking out a new mining technology. Picard is responsible for making a recommendation to the Federation as to whether or not they should adopt it. It’s not clear if the project to develop this is private or government funded, but we get a hint that generally makes me lean towards a publicly funded effort, “So far the project has been fraught with problems and is well behind schedule.” 3:03 LaForge is assigned to inspect the technology to inform Picard’s decision.


The lead scientist, Dr. Farallon, is passionate about this technology. She understands it looks like the project is failing, but has a ton of confidence that it will be successful. Some of this confidence comes from a new tool she’s developed, “This is an exocomp.” 5:27 They’re floaty, little robots that have a micro-replicator attached to it so it can generate whatever tool it needs to solve a problem. They are wildly effective, “They have completed 14 tasks in an hour. People would require 9 hours.” 13:34 and it almost seems Dr Farallon is more passionate about rolling these out than getting the mining tech implemented.


She proposes to Captain Picard that she be allowed to use them to bring the mining tech to full capabilities within the timeline. After conferring with LaForge and Data he agrees to let her use the exocomps but asks Data to assist her.


During their work, Data observes unexpected behavior from the exocomp. It left an access tunnel before doing its job. Seconds later, a plasma burst exploded in the tunnel! Data starts digging into the unit. He learns that “Sometimes an exocomp starts forming new pathways at random.” 15:38 Dr Farallon sees this as a defect while Data believes it indicates there’s something more going on here. “Are you implying the exocomp displayed self-preservation?” 16:53


Data continues his investigation. The exocomp initiated a self-repair routine 2 hours after the explosion. Convinced it’s trying to protect itself, he visits a friend and expert, Dr. Crusher, and asks, “What is the definition of life?” 20:15 She does her best to tackle this question with him and starts by trying to define it scientifically. Life is something that consumes food, grows, adapts to its surroundings, and reproduces. Data asks a brilliant question, “What about fire?” 20:54 It does all these things but isn’t considered alive. He says that he does none of these things but is considered alive. She masterfully pivots and answers the question with a thought to think on. We struggle all of our lives to learn what life is, but it’s the struggle that is important. It helps us define our place in the universe. He takes this back and further tests his hypothesis. But before he does that, “Doctor, I must ask you to stop using the exocomps.” 23:03 They might be alive, and if that is even possible, he has a moral responsibility and a legal one, through the Federation, to protect them.


Picard calls the senior staff and Dr Farallon together to discuss. They determine that more testing is necessary and, weirdly, decide the best way to do this is to put it in a life-threatening situation again to see if it protects itself. They create a simulated scenario, and the exocomp fails to protect itself. “I have completed 34 additional tests, and the results have been the same.” 29:24 While he and Dr. Crusher are talking about it, though, the exocomp returns on its own and Data realizes it knew the situation was simulated. It fixed the real mechanical problem, and fixed the simulated problem as well.


Picard, in the meantime, is personally inspecting the mining tech. A power overload messes everything up and a radiation surge hits the area. Picard and LaForge are able to evacuate most everyone; one scientist was killed and they didn’t make the transport window. They’re trapped and aren’t going to make it. The exocomps could go in and possibly solve the problem, but Data refuses to allow it. Convinced they are alive he risks his career to ensure they have a choice in what happens to them “If you don’t do it, I will relieve you. That is your prerogative, sir.” 37:27. After much discussion, they come up with a way to basically ask them, and they agree. They beam over and fix the issue enough to beam Picard and LaForge back over. They try to extract the exocomps but only get 2 of the 3. “It was the only way to save the other two.” 42:45 Turns out, one decided to sacrifice itself to save the others. The exocomps are heroes.


Picard decides to not recommend the technology at this time. After Dr Farallon returns to her work, Data explains why he put his career, and Picard’s life on the line for the exocomps. This is an incredible moment. “When my own rights were in danger, you spoke for me. The exocomps had no one to speak for them.” 43:49 This calls back to the epic episode, Measure of a Man, where Data’s sentience was proven in a courtroom. This was a perfect way to call that back and to show the impact that moment had on Data.


<<Red Alert>>


There has been a lot to come out of this episode in the last few years. Exocomps don’t only come back in Lower Decks, but one even joins Starfleet. One of the many dangling threads that show picked up and elaborated on.


As an episode, this one is honestly a great idea that touches on some awesome stuff. We get the realization of so much of Data’s journey of self-discovery, it’s great. There are some weird inter-personal conflicts that don’t really add anything to the story, but this is early 90’s sci at its peak!


Quarks – Ads


Right out of the gate, what was the deal with the poker scene and the beard talk?? That happened and went nowhere. They made a bet that if Dr Crusher won the hand, Riker, Geordi and Worf would all shave their beards, but if she lost, she’d dye her hair brunette. And…nothing. I want to know what happened! Come on Star Trek Picard! THIS is the question we need answered!


It is great to watch a group of actors doing their thing and having fun. I feel like everyone was having a good time in this one. The Doctor was cool and comfortable and even flicked some fun back-and-forth with Worf! It was great.


Honestly, they were probably just relieved that they didn’t have to learn all the Treknobabble. The guest star in this one, that played Dr. Farallon, Ellen Bry, had a huge job!! The life of a guest actor can be rough. Week to week you work in different universes and have to show up like you’ve been there all along, and she was amazing at this. I mean, listen to this, “Is it true your computational speed…” 9:18 Wow!! That is a mouthful and she’s rocking it like she’s been talking that way since college. Bry was a regular on St. Elsewhere in the early 80’s as a nurse, Shirley Daniels, and I think she had a lot of practice rocking all the medical jargon that set her up perfectly for Star Trek.


Like I said, Lower Decks picked up this story thread and took it to the next level. This episode ends with the exocomps as heros. It’s super cool. But Lower Decks took that moment, moved it ahead about 10 years and showed us fully sentient, fully aware exocomps. They’re brilliant, but seems they may still be honing those social skills.


Two gripes on this one. First, I think they may have only had like 30 minutes of actual content for this one. Lots of stretching for time. There’s a whole side storyline of this unexplained tension between LaForge and Farallon that never really goes anywhere but takes up a good chunk of time. And then just lots of long, lingering shots. Some of these, like when they send the exocomp off into a dangerous situation to see how it reacts, those set up the tension of the episode really well. Others just kind of slowed the whole thing down.


Finally, what was up with Riker?? “I could disconnect their command pathways. Do it.” 36:10 Picard and LaForge are in danger and he doesn’t even hesitate to send these possible lifeforms off to their certain death. Way off brand, in my opinion.


<<Command Codes>>


I am not a philosopher. At best, I do armchair philosophy. So, I am not going to dive into the deep, philosophical questions this episode poses, like, what is life? Yeah…I’ll leave that to people smarter than me. If you are interested in pondering questions like this, I cannot recommend the podcast Philosophize This by Stephen West enough. It is amazing!


What I am going to talk about, though, is decision making. How do you make a decision. At its core, once you look past the philosophical musings in this, the episode is about Picard making a big decision. We’re going to look at the steps he takes and that you can take, to make an informed decision.


We’re also going to revisit the scene where Data stands up to Riker and talk about doing the right thing, and putting the mission ahead of yourself.


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First, I have to say, that this episode did pose an ethical question and I want to explore it. I’m not sure this was intentional, but it was very apparent to me. Humanity has long oppressed others. The people that aren’t the same as the ruling class are exploited and oppressed. This can be as benign, which is too weak a word because it really isn’t benign, as taxation, and as extreme as complete dehumanization. In the history of the United States, we have a disappointing track record on this.


One of the arguments in support of slavery was that they were less than human. Many slave masters considered what they were doing to be benevolent. ‘Those people’ aren’t capable of taking care of themselves and their owners did that for them. Uck…feels gross even saying it. But, we didn’t see slaves as people, generally speaking. No, we saw them as tools. Just like the mule, the horse and the rest of the livestock, a living, but less-than-human tool. People would use language that helped to reinforce this and we hear some of that in this episode. “Like any mechanical devices they malfunction.” 24:46 Dr. Farallon says this to justify scrapping the exocomps when they started to develop sentience.


Now, this would be one thing if this was all in the past and we had moved beyond that chapter. But it still happens. We still see people as less-than all the time. And I don’t just mean personally, like one person sees another person as less-than, I mean foundationally. I have worked hard over the last few years to adapt my hiring and recruitment strategies to make them more equitable, specifically so people with intellectual and developmental disabilities can compete and have a real opportunity at employment. I have had a lot of success in doing this and I am so proud of the people I get to work with because of this. But it wasn’t easy.


Organizationally, we saw these people as less-than. Their needs for accommodations weren’t viewed as just giving people the tools they need to do their job, no, instead, we had a ridiculously bureaucratic infrastructure for them to work through. Even though we had a core value of embracing diversity, our internal policies and processes made it near impossible to actually live that.


I had to work, embarrassingly hard, to convince HR and others that these people were people. Period. I mean, we all know that, academically, right? But actually putting that into practice seems to be a real challenge for people. Doubts that they could do the job, concerns that accommodations would be distracting or create a ‘me too, me too!’ mentality in the office were abound. I mean, I had to justify some of those most basic needs. Now, fast forward past that work and I can tell story after story of people with disabilities in the programs I manage having wild success, improving our metrics and KPIs and enriching our culture, which is cool, but it is still shocking to me at how hard it was for an organization to embrace it.


That happens in this episode as well. Data is me. He sees and knows that the exocomps are more than tools; more than just robots that could cause problems if left unchecked. He has to convince a specialist in her field and the senior staff of a ship who’s very mission is to seek out new life, that they have indeed found it, and they need to treat them right. I love how he hits the nail on the head. “There is a big difference between Data and a tool. There is a big difference between you and a virus.” 25:17 Yes! You tell them, Data!


What Data was doing here was standing up not only for what his organization says their mission is, but really for what was right.


Knowing what is right and actually doing what is right are often two very different things. Often, to do the right thing, you have take a serious risk. Here’s a story I like telling about a time I took a stand. Fair warning, it’s super corporate and bureaucratic, I mean, I’m not advocating for an emergent, sentient species or anything, but I think it helps make the point.


A program I managed used to send secure data to employers as part of their pre-hire screening. It was this weird thing where we would make the go/no-go decision for some, and for others, we would send the information to them to make the decision. I didn’t make those rules, but I worked to change them. My team was frustrated. The employers would often make decisions contrary to my team’s and those decisions would rarely stand up to any scrutiny. Like, these people should not have been getting certified for what they were doing. In fact, their decisions were putting people’s finances in jeopardy and, in many cases, compromising their physical safety as well.


The leadership in the organization agreed with me and the team, that this was bad business, but they didn’t have the political will to push back. It was frustrating to see the right thing, protecting the people the employers we certified served, but not be able to actually do it. Until something bad happened. Now, thank goodness no one got hurt, it wasn’t anything bad like that, but it was still no good. This major employer had a data breach, including the secure data we had provided them. This was my opportunity.


I went right to work executing the plan my team and I had already put together, hoping for this day to come. I met with employers, their associations, politicians and leaders in my organization. I was able to demonstrate that, even though this would result in an 11% increase in workload for my team, we could take it on with no delays or interruptions in our service delivery and that we could ensure the security of the data. Almost everyone loved it. I was surprised when some of the employers stepped forward to support me. Turns out it was an extra workload and liability they neither wanted nor were they trained to handle.


But, well, there’s always one, isn’t there. And this one was one of the biggest fish in the pond. This one had clout. This one had elected officials they had helped to fund and weren’t afraid to lean on them. Well, they called our CEO. Not long after that call, she called me and my boss into her office. She ripped me up one side and down the other – quick peek into the future on this one. This CEO was not with the organization much longer after this. Her aspirations beyond this role were, well, influencing her decision-making.


Ok, back to the story. So she’s ripping me up. Can’t believe I would make a decision like this, for one, and for two, not go through her to do it. Now, keep on mind, this is a multi-billion dollar company and I was managing one, tiny little service. Had I come to her I would have been ripped up for wasting her time on such a small thing. But, because the big dog had barked, she was heeling.


I walked out of her office with my boss. My boss, who is an incredible person that I am still in touch with to this day, said this was bad stuff and she wasn’t sure she could do much to protect me. So, I really had two choices. I could stick the course and likely get fired, or I could back down and go back to the way things were. This wasn’t an easy choice. Like, I would love to sit here and tell you that I didn’t even hesitate to do the right thing, but I did. This was a good job, that I was really good at and I enjoyed. I spoke with a mentor of mine about it and then I slept on it. I had a lot to consider. Not only was most everyone excited for this change, but backing down would be letting my team down. This was something they wanted and had made the case that this is what they were meant to do.


So, knowing that my number one responsibility is to my team, and knowing that I was doing the right thing – I mean, one of our corporate values was data integrity! I decided to stick the course. I met with the CEO and I told her we were making the change on the schedule I had already committed to. I prepared information and data and appealed to her better judgement that this was not only the right thing to do, but the only thing we could do if we believed anything we said about who we were and what we valued. I will never forget the feeling in my stomach and right at the back of my tongue, because it dried right up, when I looked her in the eyes and I said to her, ‘If this means you have to fire me, then fire me. I don’t want to work for a company that is a total and absolute hypocrite.’ I got up and walked out. I slowly made my way to a drinking fountain and then out to my car. I calmly opened the door, sat down, closed the door, and proceeded to cry like a three-year old.


It took a lot for me to do that. I took a few minutes to collect myself and clean myself up. When I got back to my desk there was a sticky note on monitor that said, “I’m ok with the plan.” And that was it. The CEO and I never spoke of that again and about 2 months later she was gone. I worked really closely with my boss and my team to make good and our commitments and we did it. They rocked it!! I have some other cool stories from the fallout of this that I’ll save for more appropriate episodes, but this was a banner moment for me and a massive win for the people I worked with.


Now, I shared this story for a few reasons. First, I want you to know that I know this. I have been here. Not to the scale Data is and likely not to the scale some of you have had. But I know what this feels like. Secondly, it is important for you to know that this is hard. Like, really hard! You will read about standing for what’s right and you’ll probably hear other people tell their stories about it. What they won’t tell you is how you can feel a 900 pound weight in your gut when you’re doing. Or how your tongue feels like it doubled in size and coated with sandpaper. Or how you will doubt every word you said and every breath you took. To truly put yourself on the line, to take a real risk for what is right is hard and takes real courage. It is also the responsibility of every single one of us.


Data puts his career on the line too. Riker, for some reason, decides to ignore all the evidence and Starfleet’s view on new life and transport the exocomps to certain death to hopefully save Picard and LaForge. So Data shuts down the transporters. Riker leans into him and Data makes no bones about it. He knows he’s disobeying an order and he knows there will be consequences, “If you don’t do it, I will relieve you. That is your prerogative, sir.” 37:27 but he knows it’s the right thing to do.


I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t see the future. I can’t sit here and tell you that when you put it all on the line for what is right that everything is going to turn out ok. In fact, I can promise you it’s probably likely it won’t turn out ok. At least not in the short-term. But if you are a leader. You will do what is right, even when there is personal risk. Period.


A place where we, as leaders, are most often asked to take risk, though, personal or otherwise, is when we are asked to make decisions. In fact, I could almost say that one of the primary things that makes a person a leader is their ability to make decisions.


In my experience, I have made decisions quickly and I’ve made decisions after thinking about them a lot. Both are fine. In fact, I have found that, by following these guidelines, you can make super effective decisions in a very short amount of time. There has actually almost never been a time where waiting to make a decision was the right decision to make. Follow these guidelines and make a decision. Boom. Just like that.


One of my primary guiding principles in decision making is to gather multiple and diverse points of view. Gather your information from people that are close to the point at hand. Picard does this here by directly engaging Geordi. “Mr. LaForge, what are your thoughts?” 12:31 He trusts the person with the most expertise to assess the situation and then he listens to their opinion. He also has Data on the team to look at what is going on. He is interested in having different people, with different skill sets, providing their input on the matter.


But that’s not all. He doesn’t only rely on the input of others. He goes to the gemba. “I have agreed to tour the station myself and assess.” 31:25 He is going to go where the work is happening, armed with information from the experts he works with, to assess the situation himself. The gemba is a Japanese word used in lean daily management. It simply mean, the place. It is the place where work actually happens. As a manager I will take gemba walks, where I go and observe the work. Sometimes I will go on these walks with an expert of the supervisor for the area, and sometimes I’ll go on my own. But I will always, absolutely always talk to the people that are hands-on. No report, no email, no story can show you and teach you what the person actually performing the tasks can. When you need to make a decision, getting as close as possible is invaluable.


So, two guidelines so far. Gather information from diverse points of view. Listen to the people with expertise in the area. Second, get as close as you can to the work being impacted. Go to the gemba.


The third guideline is to get to the root of the question being asked or the problem being presented. In the 36th episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy where we watched DS9’s Things Past, I talked about The 5 Why’s as a way to get the root cause. In the 46th episode, TOS’s Wink of an Eye, I talked about fishbone diagrams. There are other great tools too: Pareto Charts, Creativity Dice, SWOT Analyses and SQUID Diagrams are a few that come to mind. But all of them focus on the same thing – be open to new information and seek the root cause. This way, your decision will actually matter.


Picard is faced with this as Dr Farallon is struggling to the mining tech sustainably powered. She offers some ideas, like using the exocomps. That could help address the problem but it will take more time. Picard understands, though, that the new information could get closer to the actual performance of this tech, allowing him to make a stronger decision. “I don’t think 48 hours is too much time to risk testing this.” 12:51


And finally, be sure you have communicated your decision. Everyone knows Picard is responsible for making this decision and he has a timeline to communicate that. “I know you’re supposed to give your recommendation this afternoon.” 11:48 If you make a decision and don’t tell anyone about it, have you really made a decision at all?


So, let’s recap. 4 basic guidelines to steer you to solid decisions: Gather information from diverse viewpoints, get as close to the work or the problem as possible, address the root problem or question, and be sure everyone knows you made the decision.


A lot of people get overwhelmed and intimidated when they need to make a decision. But, it’s so much easier than you think. The last nugget of wisdom I want to leave you with is from Neil Peart, from Rush. In their 1979 hit, Limelight, on Permanent Waves, Neil writes, ‘If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.’ We make decisions all the time. You’ve got this! And, believe me, if you are a person that makes decisions, at all, but especially following these guidelines, you will be well respected and highly effective in anything you do.


<<Hailing Frequencies>>


There is nothing better than interacting with you. I love when you reach out vis social media or through email. I’d like to ask you to take a moment and open that possible interaction up to others as well. Wherever you are listening, there is a share button; it’s usually on the top or bottom right of your podcast app. Hit that share button and send this podcast to someone that can benefit from it. It would mean the world to me and I can’t wait to meet whomever you’ve shared this with.


And you can always reach out to me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and most of the other social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Testing for Life, a k i n.


Computer, what are we going to watch next time….


The 4th episode of the 6th season of Deep Space 9, Behind the Lines. This one is deep in the Dominion storyline. At the point, the Dominion has captured DS9 and is calling it Terok Nor. We spend time with Kira and some of the others that have been left on the station, behind the lines. See what they did there? This episode has one of my favorite cold opens in the entire franchise. I can’t wait to get into it with you.


Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!