The 6 Words That Will End Any Organization and a Shortcut to Trust
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Discovery, Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad (Season 1, Episode 6). He will examine the leadership approaches of Lt. Stamets and Specialist Burnham.
Trust takes time to build, but sometimes you simply don't have the time. In this really fun episode, Lt. Paul Stamets demonstrates a useful shortcut to trust (and Jeff uses what could be his nerdiest analogy yet to help describe it!).
And Specialist Burnham gives Jeff the opportunity to share the six words that mean the beginning of the end for any organization, at any level.
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Welcome! Thanks for joining me today. Who wants to party with the Discovery crew? We are going get to do a lot of that! We’re also going to learn how to shortcut your way to trust and the six words that are the beginning of the end for any organization. Let’s get into it. It’s the 7th episode of the 1st season of Discovery, Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.
Burnham is settling into a routine on Discovery. If you remember, she committed mutiny on her last ship and was booted from Starfleet. Discovery rescued her transport shuttle and Captain Lorca invited her to stay on board as a science specialist. Despite wanting to serve her sentence for her crime, she is finding life on the ship to be really satisfying. She’s proud of the ship’s massive contribution to the Klingon war. “Because of us, we are winning.”
She also shares that Lt. Stamets, who recently became the navigator for the ship’s unique spore drive – and by navigator, I mean he gets plugged into the drive itself and is integral piece of the machinery in it. She shares that his personality has been changing quite a bit and they are seeing parts of him no one knew existed. She also lets loose that “some of my fellow crew are more interesting than others,” meaning she’s starting to get sweet on Ash Tyler.
She wants to stretch, socially, but just doesn’t know how to. She wants to connect with her crew, but can’t step out of her comfort zone. “But tonight, I will face my greatest challenge so far.”
It’s a party on Discovery! <Music> A bunch of the crew are dancing, drinking and having a good time. Tilly, Burnham’s awkward, allergic to everything roommate is in her element! She’s drinking, flirting and living it up! She tries to get Burnham to go talk with Tyler, but Burnham’s all business; she can’t loosen up. Tyler pops up on a table and offers a toast to those that have fallen in the war. This is a great look at a bunch of soldiers in the middle of a war letting off steam.
As Tyler starts to talk to Burnham, they’re both called to the bridge. On their way, the literally crash into Stamets and Dr. Culber. “Why would you apologize for a random act of physical interaction?” Umm…yeah. This is not the Stamets we’ve all come to know. “Lately he’s been, um, different.” The spore drive interactions are really affecting him.
On the bridge, they’re tracking an unidentified life form. “It’s a space whale.” They’re an endangered species and they are required to transport it to a facility, so Lorca has it beamed on board. They start scanning it and some weird dude in an andorian helmet steps out and starts blasting everyone in the cargo bay! They’re going down and he’s making way through the ship. They trap him between some force fields and Lorca hails him. “Did you miss me as much as I missed you?” It’s Harry Mudd! And he is pissed!! He says he’s here to learn what makes Discovery special and that once he does, he has the Klingons lined up to buy it from him! He says this is all about revenge. “You robbed me of my dear, sweet Stella.” And then it gets weird. “I’m going to kill you as many times as possible.” He clicks a button, and BOOM! <<Disco end credits>> That’s the series. It’s a wrap!
Or is it?
<<Music>> It’s a party on Discovery…wait, didn’t we already do this? We get a Reader’s Digest version of the party scene we watched last time. On their way back up to the bridge, this time, instead of crashing into Stamets, he rushes around the corner and gets right in their faces. “I can’t slow down!” Culber intervenes as he’s sounding a lot more like the Stamets we used to know. As Culber takes him away he yells that this all starts with a Gormagander.
They get to the bridge. They’re tracking the unidentified life form, just like before. “A gormagander.” Burnham and Tyler give each other a look as Lorca gives the order to beam it on board. They both protest and insist on going down to the cargo hold to check it out. “I don’t give a damn. Just get it done.” I love Lorca here! He knows he has to do this thing, doesn’t care about it, and as far as he knows, this is all just a little bit of nothing. This is what authentic leadership looks like sometimes!
They go down to intercept whatever may come. The creature is reading as sick. Turns out there’s a shuttle inside the gormagander!! Burnham reads a transporter beam from it and then the ship goes to black alert and the spore drive activates.
Mudd is waiting at the drive when Tyler and Burnham bust in. If you remember in Choose Your Pain, Ash Tyler shared a prison cell with Harry Mudd on a Klingon ship. Mudd says he knows the drive system is what makes Discovery special but he doesn’t know how to operate it. Stamets comes from around a corner and phasers Mudd to the ground. “As days go, this is a weird one.” He explains that they’ve repeated this period of time a bunch. The drive overloads, the ship explodes and we’re back to the party.
This time, Stamets barges onto the bridge, interrupting Lorca and explains they’re caught in a 30-ish minute temporal loop. Burnham thinks he’s suffering from the spore drive stuff but he finishes her sentences and says exactly what she says. This gives him the moment to grab her to come along with him while he explains everything that’s been happening. He’s figured that Mudd is using some technology to loop time so he can learn everything about the ship. That last piece he’s missing, that Mudd is missing, is Stamets. He’s the piece that plugs into the drive and navigates it and Mudd doesn’t know that. He sees they’re almost out of time so he asks Burnham to share a secret with him so he can shortcut to trust in the next time loop. She whispers in his ear and he says, “I’m sorry.”
Mudd captures Lorca and has him take him to his private office, you know, the room with all his weird weapons and stuff. The one he kept Ripper in. He plays with a bunch of Lorca’s collection and threatening him. We then get a montage of 4 of the 53 times he’s killed Lorca so far. Then he blasts him again, bringing the total to 54. And…yep! We’re back to the party.
This time, Stamets gets straight to Burnham at the party and just lets loose, “You’ve never been in love.” This, understandably, goes awkwardly, but he explains how he knows that and why he said it, and she’s on board to help. Things don’t go as planned, but they are able to share some personal stories and collect. Stamets tells the story of how he and Culber met and fell in love. Then they run out of time, and the party starts off again.
Stamets shortcuts to trust again, gets her on board, and she dances with Tyler. They want to see what he knows about Mudd that can help them figure out how he’s looping time. He said he bragged in prison about robbing an impenetrable, Betazoid bank. He was able to master all the systems using a time crystal. In this, Burnham shares that she’s into Ash and they kiss. Kinda sad, really, because they’ll probably forget all of this, but, still, pretty cool.
They update Stamets. Mudd beats them to the bridge and lays it out. “Yes, Captain Mudd. Captain Mudd??” He beams Lorca to the brig and then shares these little, purple, balls that he got from Lorca’s lab. Supposedly the most painful way to die. He tosses it at Tyler as they make it, and it slowly disintegrates him. Ash Tyler is dead! Mudd threatens Saru, and, weirdly, Stamets cuts him off “I can’t watch you kill any more people.” And tells him everything! He tells him that he’s the missing piece of the spore drive, how it works, and everything. Makes no sense to me. He and Stamets go to the spore drive while Burnham and Tilly meet at the gormagander. They figure out that the time crystal is on the ship in the space whale. This gives them something, but they need to get the timeline to reset again and be sure Stamets knows everything. They’re not sure how to go about it, though, since Mudd gets control of every critical ship’s system every time. But Burnham has a plan.
She goes to Mudd and says the Discovery is great, but the Klingons would much rather have her. “I murdered T’Kuvma. I’m Michael Burnham.” Salivating, Mudd sees the value here. She quickly grabs one of the purple things and swallows it, dying. Upset, Mudd resets the timeline.
We get the super quick Reader’s Digest version of events this time. Stamets and team make some modifications to the bridge and are doing computer stuff on the computers. It all comes to a head on the bridge when Lorca welcomes Captain Mudd. They explain to him that they know everything. Knowing Mudd’s success is a certainty, they bargain for the lives of the crew, trading the ship, Stamets and Burnham for them. And he agrees! He sends the coordinates off to the Klingon vessel just as they leave the 30-minute window, meaning Mudd cannot reset the time stream. This is it. No going back. What happens now happens.
The Klingons message that they are beaming over. Mudd takes Stamets and Burnham along with him and they start poking the bear. “It wasn’t about Stella at all. It was always only about you.” They used Discovery’s archives, a non-critical system, to learn all about Stella and her super rich Dad, Baron Grimes. Her Dad, it turns out, put out a reward his Mudd. They rewired the Captain’s Chair, another non-critical system, so when he sent the ship’s coordinates, they went to Baron Grimes instead of the Klingons. And just when he learns this, the transporter brings them in. “Harcourt!” Baron Grimes says Mudd can “finally make an honest woman of Stella.” They beam out to live happily ever after.
And speaking of happily ever after, even though Ash Tyler and Michael Burnham don’t remember their relationship from the time loops, good ‘ol Stamets told them all about it! They ride the turbolift together, awkwardly.
Star Trek Discovery does a lot of things, and one of those things is definitely taking itself very seriously. This episode is an absolute breath of fresh air. It’s fun, interesting, has real stakes and advances some key character arcs. I loved this episode when it first came out and I still really enjoy it.
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When I saw they had cast Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, I was skeptical. I mean, the Mudd we know from the Original and Animated Series is quite a bit different than Dwight Schrute or even Bill Hudley. And I am your biggest fan if you know that role!
But he is perfect in this role! So much fun! He adds a real edge to the TOS version, but that’s what we do now. He is doing something unthinkable here! He’s stealing the most powerful weapon in the known galaxy, really, and selling it to the Federation’s enemy. I mean, wow! But even with that, even with killing Lorca some 56 times, it’s a really fun time! That sounds terrible, but he’s great.
Trek has never been great at music. I mean, like the themes and stuff are epic and amazing! But I mean the music the characters listen to. TNG was full of these performances and concerts of people playing pieces that were from Earth and well over 500 years old. And then when they toss in popular music, it’s the Beastie Boys and stuff like that. In this episode we get Wyclef Jean singing a song that, at the time in this episode, would be 259 years old. And this at a party they’re trying to unwind at! You’re telling me there hasn’t been anything in the last even 50 years that would rock harder than a nearly 300-year-old tune? Like, to put this in perspective, that would be like us listening to music from 1763! Partying to Haydn’s 12th Symphony! I mean, I get it. They’re making TV for us, now, but, I don’t know. Takes me out of the magic.
But let’s talk about how cool this episode was! The trope of a time loop is well explored in Star Trek. The incredible Cause and Effect from TNG, Coda from Voyager and Future Tense from Enterprise are great examples. I really liked this approach, though, because it was used by a super criminal to do impossible things! Mudd is living in a video game! He just has a save game set at the party and knows to quit before the boss cutscene starts!
And the ending was so TOS! Funny way to catch the bad guy, making jokes in the transporter room. So good! The whole episode just had a fun feel and tied really well into future Original and Animated Series episodes.
The team on Discovery is absolutely brilliant and wildly effective at their jobs. And while that was how they were able to pull off the con at the end, the thing that enabled them to do all of that was trust. Trust takes a long time to build, but there are times you have to shortcut your way to it and Stamets does that here.
And the episode ends with a huge drop of wisdom from Michael Burnham. She started the episode questioning her place on the ship, even though she was growing comfortable there. But she ends realizing that you have to break out of your routine to really find your place. I’m going to talk through two concepts out of that. The danger of being comfortable, and the six words that are the death knell for any organization.
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Is there anything more valuable than trust? With it, nearly anything is possible and without it, well, without you are in a bad way. This isn’t just a work thing either. Trust extends into every aspect of our lives. We talk about trusting our co-workers, our boss, our spouse, our children. We trust different news agencies, different brands. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re listening to this episode because you have a level of trust in me. One of my favorite examples of the importance of trust is driving. I mean, the government puts paint on asphalt and we trust that everyone will honor what that paint means. Think about that! The only thing that stops our roads from just being a mess of stopped vehicles is trust that we will all pay attention to paint on the ground. Incredible. Trust is literally the basis of everything.
We naturally have a default level of trust for people. This varies person to person based on their experiences and culture. Let’s call that default level 1. That level is then influenced and changed by countless factors. Let’s use this example.
You just told me about your friend that lives in San Jose named Yusef. Before you told me about Yusef, my trust level for him is 1. You just told me about him, so it bumped up. You said he’s a friend, so it bumped up again. Then you said he lives in San Jose, so it dropped. I may also have implicit biases based on my assumptions with his name being Yusef. And then there are approximately 18,462 more factors that are going to influence my initial trust level with him.
So, you’ve told me about him and my trust level for him is at 6 now. And if your mind is somewhere in the realm of table-top roleplaying, we’re on the same page! We’re building trust stats here!
Fast forward a few months and Yusef is in town. We get coffee with him. Based on interactions with him, my trust moves again. Let’s say he was super cool to the people working there but he was way snobby about his coffee. I started at a 6 and after this I’m at a 7.
Now, at the same time this is happening for me, it also happens for him. He might not think that highly of our mutual friend. He may despise podcasts and he thinks people that just order coffee, black, are uncultured yokels. So while I have him at a 7, he me at a -3.
But, for this example, I’m going to say he has me at a 5.
Now, we end up working together. As we interact, our trust levels fluctuate but are generally growing. We’re at a point where we are comfortable letting the other person do their tasks and neither of us are really re-checking the others work. A good place to be, yeah?
But now, let’s say I know something that no one else on the project knows. Like, I have a friend at a competitor, and they let slip something that will decimate us. But the thing is, I can’t compromise my friend, they’ll face criminal charges for what they shared, and our response needs to be extreme. Yusef and I are sitting in the 15-ish trust range, a super good place, but in order for me to get him to agree to the things that need to happen, we really need to be closer to like 30.
So to totally age myself and go way geek, this problem has a THAC0 of 26 and we’re only rolling a 20 sided die. We gotta get those bonuses up or we have to level up. And we don’t have time to level up. That means we need better bonuses that will make us the equivalent of a 30 trust.
I really hope you’re sticking through this analogy. I’m loving it!
The way to get to that trust is to find a shortcut. Now, I want to be absolutely, crystal clear on one point here. This is not a strategy for building, gaining or rebuilding trust in the long-term. It is not sustainable. This is something you do in emergency situations only.
In this episode, this is Stamets and Burnham. If you remember their relationship in Context is For Kings, they were easily at like a -8 trust level; and that was 4 episodes ago. They are still working to build on and develop trust. But Stamets has a 30 plus trust situation on his hands here. He needs to get there right away. So, after going through the exercise of explaining the situation to her, he asks her to share a secret. If you watch that scene, he has to go through a lot of explanations to get her to listen and take him seriously in the first place. Once he’s done that, then he can actually talk about an action plan. So his shortcut to trust isn’t about getting all the way to solution, it’s about cutting through that initial part when he’s convincing her to listen.
Now you don’t need to go out and start asking the people around you to share their secrets. But what you can do is learn what is important to them, how to appeal to them. By authentically lining up with the things that are important to them, you can shortcut some trust levels.
So, for me and Yusef, I know that social justice is supremely important to him. So when I try to shortcut to a higher level of trust, even temporarily, that’s what I’m going to appeal to. ‘What I’m asking may sound and feel weird, but hear that this is because we can advance this initiative, or make this impact. If we don’t do this, we’ll lose it all. I know that I’ve been focused on our deliverable schedule but that changes now. Our only focus is social justice and this weird and wild thing I’m asking you to do is necessary for that.’ I appealed to what matters to him. I gave up something that matters to me in place of his thing. And the final critical part is to follow through. After this, I have to actually make social justice my primary focus.
Shortcutting trust is a gamble. It either pays off big, like it did for the Discovery crew, or it can be devastating. I tell Yusef I’m going to change my practice but then I don’t…that will bring my trust level down exponentially. So use this only as a last resort.
And speaking of devastating, let’s get to the six words that mean the end. But first, let’s listen to what Burnham said to close the episode. “Sometimes the only way to find out where you fit in is to step out of the routine.” The routine. Oh, having a routine and just living in it can feel so good. And that’s a good thing, for a minute. We only grow and develop when we stretch outside of our comfort zones, so we don’t want to stay comfortable for too long. But what that doesn’t mean is going from 0-60 on something just to break your routine.
Burnham started the episode wanting to be more social but knowing how. Through about 56 time loops, or 28 hours, Stamets progresses her through a series of experiences that move her out of her comfort zone. The result is the start of a maybe romantic relationship between her and Ash Tyler which, arguably, without the Harry Mudd stuff, might have never happened.
So what are you doing now that’s comfortable and routine that might be holding you back from something you want? Maybe you need to take on that stretch assignment at work, or take a different route to work or school, or maybe it’s trying to work from home if you’re able. What small change can you make right now that might change your perspective in things?
Ok, I’ve made you wait long enough. 6 words. 6, little, tiny words that are both the worst and the best possible thing to ever hear. Ready? Ok. Here they are: That’s how we’ve always done it. That’s how we’ve always done it.
I used to work as a lean practioner. Those were fun times. Swoop into an organization, tear all their process up, help them stand new ones up and then move on! My thing was running kaizen events, or rapid process improvements, or RPIs. These were usually 3-4 day events where I’d facilitate a team of subject matter experts, policy experts and the people physically performing the work to map out a process and then improve it. We’d go step-by-step and determine what was adding value and what wasn’t and then cut out the non-value-added steps. It was a blast!
I’d kick sessions off by establishing ground rules for the group, drafting our community agreements. My favorite one, and one that I insisted on, was that the moment someone said a process or a step existed because that’s how they’ve always done it…that gave me permission to change or eliminate it!
Why do you enter the data into that field? So it can feed this calculation over here. Why do you copy that data over here too? So it’s in that report. Why does it need to be in that report? Because our admin looks at it. Why does the admin look at it? To be sure it matches what’s in the first field. Why do you check to see that it matches? Well…there’s almost always a pause here…well, that’s how we’ve always done it. Bam! Just cut out a whole process chain because we’re not going to copy anything into a report that no one does anything with.
You’ll notice, also, that I used the 5 why’s problem solving technique to get here. You can learn more about that in the Starfleet Leadership Academy episode on DS9’s Things Past.
Now, if they had said that this other report got repackaged and sent off to some compliance board or something like that, ok. Then we see if there’s a way to automate the data feed or something. But those six words, that’s how we’ve always done it, send one, clear signal: we don’t know why we’re doing it, we’re just doing it. If you have a team of people just doing things for the sake of doing them, you are well on your way on the path to complete and utter failure. So, be sure you and the people you work with know why they are doing things.
Had Burnham just continued doing what she had always done, she likely would have slipped away, becoming ineffective in her role, and very unhappy with her life.
I want to give a shoutout to David for his recent, 5-star review of the podcast. In his review, David said that “the examples drawn out in Star Trek were there all along, but it has taken someone to demonstrate them and, in doing so, bring something unique to Trek and leadership discussions.” Thank you, David!
If you haven’t already, please rate and review the Starfleet Leadership Academy too! Send me a screenshot of the review and I’ll give you a shoutout on an upcoming episode.
You can send that to me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast and on all the social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Time Crystal, a k i n.
Quick programming update. At the time of this recording there are 10 different series of Star Trek and there are three that are not plugged into the random episode generator – still looking for a good name for that. But we have everything except The Animated Series, Prodigy and Picard in there. Well, today that changes! Just before recording this, I added the Animated Series to the generator! I watched a few of the episodes here recently and I think there is plenty for us to learn from them. Prodigy may find its way in there, depending on how it progresses and, as of now, a few episodes into the second season of Picard, well, standby on plans for that one.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time…. <<ERROR>>
Well, the Computer just sent me a message, and, the next episode of the Starfleet Leadership Academy will be the 50th episode review. 50 episodes! I ran a poll in our Discussion Group and on the SFLApodcast twitter on ways to celebrate that, and, according to the Computer, you want a deep dive into one of the Captains. Well, I am here for that!
A few weeks ago, I participated in the Captain Picard Week podcast festival that Strange New Pod hosted. I was a guest on the Trek Untold podcast and I hosted my own episode as well – you can find that here, in the Starfleet Leadership Academy feed or on my YouTube channel. That episode looked at Captain Picard and what makes him stand out as a leader.
So, given that you want a deep-dive, and that I haven’t touched the series Picard here, the 50th episode review episode will be a review of the entire first season of Picard!!
Now, don’t worry – it won’t be a 5 hour-long podcast! But, in the arc of the season, there are some powerful lessons in the outcomes and consequences of leadership decisions. So I’ll talk through the plot points of the season and then we’ll look at former Admiral Picard and learn leadership lessons right alongside him.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!