Season 1, episode 14, “11001001”
Lesson: ask for forgiveness, not permission
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
You’d think Picard & co would be wary of outside experts tasked with the vague goal of “improving the ship,” given that they’ve already had issues with that (see episode 5, “Where No One Has Gone Before”), but instead they allow a race called the Binars on board to do some sort of upgrade. The Bynars speak to each other in binary code and process information extremely quickly. Yet when they use English to speak with the Enterprise crew, it’s clear they’re anxious about something. They go on to generate a woman in the holodeck to distract Riker, and ultimately the captain too, in what ends up feeling a little like a setup for a ménage à trois. Side note: we will see the “distracting woman in a red dress generated by a simulation” concept 11 years later in 1999’s The Matrix.
While Picard and Riker are hanging in the holodeck, a fake warp containment field breach forces the rest of the crew to evacuate, letting the Bynars fly the ship to their home planet. Turns out the whole thing had been a ruse to let the Bynars upload their race’s important data to the Enterprise temporarily until they could download it back. Picard asks the Bynars why they didn’t just tell the Starfleet what was happening and ask for help; they say they worried they’d be denied and decided to act first and apologize later.
“Ask for forgiveness, not permission” is such a startup cliché that it pains me to use it as this episode’s lesson. But damn it; it’s good advice. The Bynars’ entire racial history was at stake, so they went to extreme lengths — subterfuge, deception, almost dying — to preserve it. Starfleet probably would have approved their plan had the Bynars explained it, but “probably” isn’t “definitely,” and they didn’t have time for error. Couple that pressure with the species’ propensity for binary thinking — black and white, yes or no, do or do not do — and you understand their actions.
Startups are the perfect environment in which to do first and reflect later. That’s especially true the smaller/earlier/more chaotic they are. If you want to ensure that something gets done, do it yourself. Don’t waste time going through the proper channels, getting approval, and overthinking it. Startup founders (at least the effective ones) tend to be doers themselves. They wouldn’t be where they are without a tendency to take action, usually in the face of incomplete data. Thus if you’re earlier in your career at a startup, and you’ve got a choice between forgiveness later or permission first, go for the former. Maybe your manager won’t like the outcome, but they should respect that you tried. That’s entrepreneurial.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t work at (or found) a startup if you’re looking for a ton of process around how decisions get made. The world is dominated by big, glacially-moving companies; go work for one of those. And say hi to Bill Lumbergh while you’re there.