Celebrate a Culture of Failure
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek The Original Series, The Man Trap (Season 1, Episode 5). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Kirk.
There is a shape-shifting, salt vampire on Planet M-113 and McCoy is in love with it! Sort of. He's in love with the shape it shows. So, he ends up making some egregious mistakes. In this episode, Jeff looks at how Captain Kirk responds to those mistakes and shows you how to do the same; creating an culture of "failure," which is really just a more shocking name for a culture of innovation.
Article by Doug Andrew:https://medium.com/the-mission/whos-to-blame-94-chance-it-s-a-system-failure-not-you-26396b2b3811
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Do you value innovation? Do you want a work culture where people take risks and try to improve their work and the work of the entire team? Well, that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about as we watch the 5th episode, but also kind of the first episode, of the first season of The Original Series, The Man Trap.
The Enterprise is orbiting Planet M-113. There is a Federation archeological expedition here made up of Robert and Nancy Crater. They’re here for the annual medical evaluation, which is pretty routine, and weird, “but for the fact Nancy is that one woman in Dr McCoy’s past.” 0:39 She and McCoy parted ways 10 years ago.
Kirk, McCoy and some medical dude are there for the exam. Nancy shows up and, right away things are not what you’d expect. “You haven’t aged a day.” 2:02 McCoy sees a vibrant, young woman while Kirk sees a more aged, yet still vibrant version. And the medical dude, Darnell, sees a girl he is sure he left behind on Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet. But no one is connecting the dots at this point. She heads out to find her husband, and Darnell nonchalantly follows along.
Robert shows up and he’s every eccentric scientist trope – frustrated and bothered that they’re here, just makes his demands and tells them to leave. And all they need is more salt. Apparently the planet is hot and they need salt to stay hydrated. As McCoy starts the exam, Robert is a little worried that they had already seen Nancy. They’re interrupted by Nancy’s scream.
She’s standing over Darnell, dead, with a lot of sucker things on his face. They try and tell them he ate a plant and was poisoned from it. Robert uses this to, again, encourage them to pack up and get out of town. But not before bringing down more “salt.” 10:11 They say they’ll be back the next day, but begin investigating the death of Crewman Darnell.
It doesn’t take them long to realize they haven’t gotten the whole story. “The mottling is not a symptom. Then he wasn’t poisoned.” 12:27 McCoy reviews his records and can’t find any reason why Darnell had died.
Spock investigates logs and records finds that the couple was very productive a few years ago, sending regular reports and shipments of artifacts. But recently, there has been next to nothing. McCoy also makes a discovery. “Sodium chloride, not a trace of it. This man has no salt.” 15:09 Kirk connects these dots, this is what the Craters were asking for. So they head down to continue the investigation. Kirk questions Robert but they aren’t sure where Nancy is. A few crewmen head out to find her. And that was where it all really starts falling apart.
The crewmen are found, dead, with the same red, rings on their faces. And then we see something terrifying. Nancy, standing over crewman Green, shapeshifts and assumes his form! She’s the one killing them by taking their salt and she can shapeshift! The surviving crew beam up, including fake Green. They scan the planet for Robert and Nancy, so they can get them on the ship as well.
We get quite a few scenes of the salt sucker acting strangely around people, changing forms a few times and even killing another crew person. Eventually they realize Robert is alone on the planet so they head down to find out what happened to Nancy. With them gone, and McCoy fast asleep in his quarters, the creature takes on his form.
On the planet, Spock finds Green’s body. “You have an intruder aboard.” 33:40 and they still think it looks like Green! After a standoff, Robert finally tells the whole story. There were millions of an indigenous creatures on this planet and now there is only one left alive. He dances around the questions, so Kirk asks directly, “Where’s your wife? Dead.” 38:24 The creature took her form. It loves Robert and he has come to love it as well. Kirk immediately informs the Enterprise that it can shapeshift and then beams Robert up.
Kirk calls a meeting of his experts and they problem solve. McCoy, salt sucking McCoy, tries to make the case for a peaceful resolution, “It’s an intelligent animal. No need to hunt it down.” 40:54 They decide to use truth serum on Robert so he will identify the creature. Spock accompanies McCoy and Robert and is attacked but not killed, apparently Vulcans don’t have the salt it needs. But, “Professor Crater, Dead.” 44:22
Kirk heads to McCoy’s quarters. It’s back in Nancy form and real McCoy is trying to protect her; he doesn’t know what all has happened. He tempts Nancy with salt, leading to a melee. After some super mid-60’s style fighting, Kirk is down. Nancy drops the disguise and goes to suck his salt. She’s a pretty terrifying looking creature! McCoy, finally convinced that Nancy is dangerous, phasers her. It reverts to Nancy form and begs him for mercy, but “Lord, forgive me,” 47:47 he phasers her again and she drops to the deck. Dead.
The episode ends with what we will come to expect in the Original Series. Spock, McCoy and Kirk on the bridge. Kirk reflects on life and extinction and they warp away.
This was the very first Star Trek ever broadcast. In this episode you can see the seeds of the Star Trek we have fallen in love with, but it also still very much figuring itself out and has some pretty rough, mid-60’s cultural tropes that are, well, unfortunate. But even with that, we have ended up with an episode that is a part of the zeitgeist! One that Trip Tucker actor Connor Trinneer has called his favorite in all of Star Trek.
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To be honest, on balance, this really is not a great episode. There were significant chunks of time that went on for too long, and some of the key plot points just don’t hold up, or , worse, are contrary to the Star Trek philosophies we, in the 21st century, are more familiar with. First of all, are they seriously going to have plopped just two people on a planet, alone, to do a multi-year archeological dig? Moreso, are they going to plop them onto a planet with poisonous plants and hostile creatures living on it? Yeah, probably not.
Second, I get that McCoy and Nancy were a thing, but is he seriously going to be so blinded by that that he just stares as she tries to suck the salt out of Kirk’s face? And, maybe worst of all, are they just going to wipe out the last of an entire species? If it were hostile and aggressive, I could see it, but this creature can clearly communicate. For an organization that exists to seek out new life, this seems pretty off-brand to me.
One of the many things Star Trek is celebrated for is its progressive portrayal and representation of underrepresented people and groups. The stories of Nichelle Nichols’ and George Takei’s impacts are very well known. But, I’ll tell you what…they sure took a their time coming around on portraying women as more than objects. “How about that?” 22:50 Yikes!
But, beyond that, there is a lot of really cool in this episode. I watched this on Paramount Plus which has all the remastered TOS episodes and this was so well done. The exterior of the ship, the shots of the planet from orbit, they were incredible. Absolutely gorgeous.
There was some really good acting in this one as well. Whenever the salt sucker would assume someone’s form, it had certain mannerisms and a…well, a hunger in its eyes. All of the actors that portrayed it really nailed this well. Especially the guy that played Green, Bruce Watson. He was excellent in this role. I did a little research on him because he did so well and you can imagine my surprise when I saw he was born just a few hours’ drive from my place in North Bend. A small town near the beautiful Oregon coast. Sadly, he died from suicide in 2009, but he had a long career with an IMDb listing that goes on for quite awhile.
One of the cool things with the acting and the writing is that, especially when the salt sucker is impersonating McCoy, you, as the viewer, have to understand that he’s not acting normally. Now, by the time he falls asleep and the creature takes his form, we’ve known McCoy for like 30 minutes, but it’s clear this isn’t the guy we met at the top of the episode. Really well done.
You can see from this early stage in Star Trek that this series was going to be about the Sci Fi Trinity: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. I mean, from go, they clearly have a great relationship, “What’s the matter can’t sleep?...” 27:28 and they end this episode as so many end, with the three of them on the bridge reflecting on or joking about the story of the episode.
But to me, there is one, serious issue I have with this one. When Star Trek was ready for prime time, they had a few episodes in the can and ready to go. The question was which one to air first. I mean, they had to really snag people with this high concept, very expensive show. They chose this one over The Corbomite Maneuver, Charile X, The Naked Time, Mudd’s Women and Where No Man Has Gone Before because, according to the book, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, it was pretty straightforward, had a clear monster and leaned into the idea of visiting strange new worlds. The other episodes were either too high sci-fi, focused on humans or human looking people as the antagonists, or dealt with selling women to lonely miners. They believed this one was basically basic enough to appease the masses.
But that’s not my problem. My problem is that this episode should not have been basic! When Professor Crater tells the story of the salt sucker, he uses the Buffalo as an example. “The American Buffalo.” He talks about this beast that was once so numerous the herds were unimaginably large. And now they’re gone. He compares the salt suckers of Planet M-113 to them. A race that was so numerous we couldn’t imagine it, and now there is one left. This episode shouldn’t have been a murder mystery kind of thing, it should have been an exploration into genocide and when and if it is ok to drive a species to extinction. I mean, they even touch on it! The creature itself says it’s peaceful when fed. But instead of exploring that and trying to communicate with it, they back it into a corner, it kills Robert and, shortly after, it attacks and McCoy has no choice but to kill it.
There was a really interesting Star Trek episode in this one. We just didn’t get to see it.
What does it take to create a culture of innovation? One where people are comfortable taking risks and trying new things? The answer might be more simple than you might think. You not only allow for mistakes and failure, but you encourage and reward them as well! I’m going to talk about Captain Kirk’s approach to this and how you can create a culture of failure, a culture of innovation, as well.
I’m also going to share a passionate example of what it looks like to relentlessly pursue the culprit when something has gone wrong.
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I work primarily in the different flavors of Corporate America and parts of Corporate Europe. Lives are almost never directly on the line in what I do. But I know they are for some of you. Acknowledging that, I’ll use the example from this episode but want you to know I am going to pretty quickly bring this down to non-life-on-the-line applications.
Fairly early on in the episode they find Crewman Darnell dead and how he died is a mystery. Nancy has told them the story that he ate a poisonous plant, but nothing is backing that up. Kirk is furious, he’s broken and up and he is relentless. He says to Dr McCoy, “I’ve lost a man. I want to know what killed him.” 13:28 This expression causes McCoy to approach his investigation differently and he ends up finding the lack of salt in the system.
What is key here is that Kirk identified the problem, made it clear it needed to be resolved, and made it even more clear that they would not stop until they had an answer. What I love about this, though, is that while Kirk’s passion is pointed at McCoy, he’s not blaming McCoy. He wants to know what went wrong that allowed Darnell to die on a relatively routine mission.
We have these things happen in our non-life-threatening worlds too, except these are usually failures in whatever work you do. Getting an order wrong in a restaurant, packing a pallet with the wrong inventory, quoting the wrong SKUs, making the wrong determination on an eligibility application…the list is endless. These are the errors, the defects that happen in our day-to-day lives. You can apply the same fervor to these issues that Kirk does to finding out what killed Darnell.
What Kirk does not do, and you absolutely should not do either, is go after a person. He doesn’t ask who killed him and he doesn’t blame Darnell for doing something wrong. In fact, his confidence in Darnell to not do something wrong is what drives the investigation in the first place. Nancy said he ate a poisonous plant, if they take her at her word, believing an experienced crewman would do something like that, it’s case closed. Give the Crater’s their salt and head off on your next mission. But he knows Darnell wouldn’t do that, he begins with that assumption, which leads them down the path to learning something is sucking the salt outta people.
So let’s look at common problems in our world. I’m a sucker for tearing apart quote processes, because most organizations are really bad at these, and if you think I’m talking about your organization, you’re probably right. But this is something a lot of us run into. Sales team does their work with a customer, they develop a solution everyone feels good about, they send that off to the quote team and then hope everything comes out looking good. I worked with a medium sized VAR, or value-added reseller, a few years ago that had a nearly 63% error rate on their quotes. 63%! That means that this team got it correct just over a third of the time. Now, most of these errors were caught by the Account Rep or someone on the sales team but it was not uncommon for the wrong quote to make it to the customer.
The simple way to quote, solve this problem was to start looking at the people doing the work. Asking the question, who is messing this up? But if this was a who issue, quote errors wouldn’t be a totally common problem across sales organizations. Instead, ask the question, what allowed this to happen? This question assumes that people are doing their best and that processes, or training and guidelines, or something outside of the person, something systemic, allows the problems to occur.
According to Dr. W Edwards Deming, called by some the father of quality, who we talked about in the 36th episode of the podcast, DS9’s Things Past, 94% of all problems come from faulty systems and processes. That means that about 6% of issues are caused by people. That’s it! Knowing this, it makes complete sense to look to the systems when things go wrong, but despite that, so many immediately blame people.
In a 2018 article by Doug Andrew, which I’ve linked in the show notes, he talks about looking to the systems for root causes for problems instead of blaming the people doing the work. Dr. Deming says that people can’t perform better than the system allows, so look to the system.
That quote process I was talking about a little earlier, the one with a 63% error rate. This is what we did. We found 3 systemic issues that, once addressed, resulted in significant improvements. We found that a pre-sales engineer wasn’t normally engaged in the sales process early enough. This resulted in inconsistent, incorrect and unclear bills of materials being submitted to the quote team. We also found automation tools available to the teams were not being used so quotes were often manually data entered instead of automatically updated and routed. Finally, we found that management had not provided clear expectations around turnaround times or quality.
We focused on these three systemic areas and, in about 6 months’ time, reduced the error rate from 63% to about 42%. My time with the organization ended after that, but they were on track to reduce it even further as they continued to fine-tune their processes and take advantage of the technology within their current systems.
Notice that at no point did I say any person was doing anything wrong or poorly. I did say there weren’t clear performance expectations, though. Once those were provided, and people were coached to performance, they exceeded the expectations. And, I’ll tell you, this doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s fairly common. People tend to exceed what you expect of them when they are supported and coached instead of blamed.
All of the work you will do, digging into your systems and looking for root causes will be for naught, though, if you aren’t building up the people to be high performers and risk takers in the first place. In that article Doug Andrew points out that failure happens, but it’s not the failure that matters. It’s what we do with that failure. Let’s look at another interaction between Kirk and McCoy that shows what to do with failure and how and even why you should be encouraging it.
Again, it’s Kirk and McCoy in sickbay, trying to determine what happened to Darnell. McCoy has discovered, because Kirk was relentless in determining what allowed Darnell to die, that he has no salt in his body. “Except the red rings. You called that mottling. Another error. I’m not counting them.” 15:25 McCoy let his relationship with Nancy cloud his judgement and he missed data that would have showed this sooner. Again, the easy version of this is to lay into McCoy and tell him he had better not make mistakes like this again. But, is that really easy?
It might, possibly, maybe solve the immediate problem in the short-term. Like, McCoy will probably be a lot more cautious and thorough on his next few patients, but it won’t last. It won’t last because he’ll be trying to avoid getting in trouble, not trying to do a good job.
Does that concept make sense to you? The motivation to do something to avoid getting in trouble vs the motivation to do something because it’s good or right? I think about traffic laws when I think about this difference. Some people follow the speed limit because they don’t want to get a ticket. Other people follow the speed limit because they don’t want to create unsafe situations. Both people are following the speed limit, but the focus is very different. The first person will be looking around for cops or cameras, possibly missing other drivers or pedestrians while the second person will be watching and looking for those specifically, trying to drive as safely as possible.
The same applies to work. If you meet expectations because you don’t want to get written up, you are going to stick to the established process, not ask questions, and when questioned, likely become defensive. If you meet expectations because you want to do a good job and care about the work you do, you are more likely to look for better ways to do things, innovations and process waste elimination.
As a manager, as a leader, you have a tremendous amount of influence on which side the people on your team fall on. If you demand perfection, micromanage performance and insist that everything is done exactly the same way every single time, people will work to avoid getting in trouble.
Contrast that with the approach Kirk takes. McCoy admits to a mistake, a personal mistake and not necessarily one caused by the system, and Kirk is ok with it! This acceptance acknowledges McCoy’s work and expertise, and it also encourages him to do a few things I know I would love for everyone on my team to do: try to better in the future and openly share when they’ve made a mistake.
I’m going to share something with you that I hope is not a shock. If it is a shock, I recommend going back to the first episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy and listening all the way through! But that thing is that people aren’t perfect. None of us are. And expecting perfect performance from someone all the time is no different than expecting a rock to win a race, going uphill, against a car. It’s just not going to happen. And if you foster an environment where the expectation is perfection, you will be miserable and so will the people on your team.
But even if you aren’t expecting perfection, how do you handle it when people make mistakes? Do you encourage them or are they punished? I know workplaces where people work hard to cover up mistakes, hoping no one knows they ever happened. And then I’ve seen workplaces where it is celebrated when mistakes are shared.
Here's the thing, if mistakes are frowned on, or worse, people will be working to hide them and will perform to avoid getting in trouble. When that happens, the absolute best you can expect is minimal performance. Meeting expectations and status quo are the most you could hope for.
But if you build a culture that celebrates mistakes, and not as mistakes but as opportunities to improve, then the sky is the limit. When you encourage people to try new approaches, new things and take risks you will grow. You’ll innovate. Amazing things will happen with your team. But the keys here are very simple: focus on systems and not blaming people; allow for and acknowledge failures, celebrate the improvements and lessons learned and PROFIT!
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Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
Oh, this one should be fun! The 9th episode of the 1st season of Lower Decks, Crisis Point. It’s a holodeck episode, but one where Mariner creates a movie for everyone. We get a lot of homages to the various Star Trek films and we dive deeper into Mariner and Captain Freeman’s relationship. This is a fun episode, and if our previous forays into Lower Decks are any clue, it will be full of incredible leadership lessons.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!