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I started reading Joel Spolsky’s post about Management Teams earlier this week and nearly choked on my coffee when I saw this:
Very few company founders start out with management experience, so they tend to make it up as they go along. Sometimes they try to reinvent management from first principles. More often than not, they manage their startups the way that they’ve seen management work on TV and in movies. I’ll bet more entrepreneurs model their behavior on Captain Picard from Star Trek than any nonfiction human.
Coincidentally, I’d recently written a post about the strength of Pinterest’s customer support, which ended with this thought:
I often joke that when making tough calls as a Community Manager, I ask myself what Captain Picard would do (cotroxell can attest to this). I think this is exactly what Picard would have done.
When Spolsky lamented the tendency for inexperienced managers to invoke Picard, my mind immediately raced to my now-condemning blog post. Of all the captains on all the starships, why Picard? Why??
I figured I should probably read the rest of Spolsky’s post. As it turns out, Spolsky gets many of the big ideas right, but a lot of the details wrong.
As an anecdote to what he thinks of as top-down Picardian management, Spolsky proposes the upside-down pyramid:
Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line sales people as the top of the organization.
It’s an interesting suggestion, that by flipping everything upside-down you can solve many of the issues that top-down management inherently breeds. Management teams, he argues, should think of themselves more as Administration. Their job is to ensure that the real experts can do what they do best.
Spolsky then goes into how the University Department is an excellent example of the upside-down pyramid at work, where administrators support a core team of knowledge workers and enable them to do what they do best:
Think about how a university department organizes itself. There are professors at various ranks, who pretty much just do whatever the heck they want. Then there’s a department chairperson who, more often than not, got suckered into the role. The chairperson of the department might call meetings and adjudicate who teaches what class, but she certainly doesn’t tell the other professors what research to do, or when to hold office hours, or what to write or think.
But as anyone who has ever worked in a University can attest, this upside-down pyramid is paralytically inefficient, and more often than not leads to frustration within an organization. Not the greatest example, as many commenters were quick to point out. At the heart of it though, I agreed with the spirit of what Spolsky was trying to convey: do not stand in the way of your team’s abilities.
After reading the rest of the post, I kept returning to Spolsky’s opening analogy that looking to Captain Picard is a frequent mistake among rookies. And while Spolsky may be an expert on building companies, I just so happen to be an expert on Captain Picard.
The reason so many inexperienced managers might envision themselves as potential Picards is not because they think it’s important to know what chair you occupy in the chain of command, but because of how Picard relates to his fellow crew members. He is compassionate, always puts his crew’s needs ahead of his own, and leads without ego. Though he respects the rules of the world he lives in, he questions those rules rigorously and never accepts them at face value. He’s driven by a pursuit of knowledge and a desire to better the human race, not by a thirst for power or need for recognition. And when a painful or difficult decision needs to be made, he accepts full responsibility for the consequences.
In short, Picard is the very example of what Spolsky was trying to illustrate through his failed University analogue. He is the manager who leads by supporting others, and who does not stand in the way of his team’s growth and success.
And while Spolsky laments managers that become “ultimate decision makers,” he overlooks the need for an ultimate decision maker within specific contexts. In other words, sometimes you have to go into command mode in order to move forward, make tough calls, and get through the day. Or defeat the Borg.
When it comes to community management at least, there is no finer example than Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Every company would do well to pay more attention to Picard. If you’re not sure where to begin, I recommend Season 5.
[IT IS RUMORED THAT] in May, IDW are to publish a Doctor Who/Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover series. Featuring The Doctor, Rory, Amy, Captain Picard, Worf, Data, Geordie LaForge, Deanna Troy, Will Riker and the rest. And that this art, featuring the Doctor, Rory and Amy on the bridge of the Enterprise is a cover that will be used in the series.
The fact that this would be specifically the 11th Doctor meeting specifically the TNG cast has me very interested.