Sometimes You Need to Violate the Prime Directive

Does Your Organization Have a Prime Directive?

Anyone who knows me and has been listening to my podcast or reading my blog post understands I’m a huge Star Trek fan. I can’t wait for the next series to come out. Star Trek Discovery sounds very exciting and interesting. My hope is that they’ll be able to continue the tradition of predicting the future and give us some cool new things that we may eventually be able to look forward to. Every series so far has been able to envision some new technology which fans can not only get excited about, but is also is able inspire new generations of kids to go into fields where they can actively create the future they see in the show: whether it’s the technology, the society, the diversity, or the inspiring vision of the individual against the collective.

When I was a kid I loved reading science fiction (and watching it, even though there was hardly any of it). I loved seeing that future. Like many people, it’s one of the things which inspired me to get into the business of attempting to imagine and build that future.

One of the concepts from the show which Gene Roddenberry invented was the Prime Directive. Basically, as humanity was quite advanced at the time of the show, there would be many cases where humans would come across civilizations which were not as advanced, could materially improve (or wreck) them, simply by exposing themselves to them.

This has its roots in conquering nations taking over less advanced cultures when they were exposed to them here on Earth, as Europeans did with the Native Americans, Mayans, and Hawaiians. Even though interference could be beneficial (for example, advanced Starfleet medication could stop an epidemic) no one could predict the side effects of contact, so all contact with less advanced species was forbidden.

The Prime Directive enforced a non-interference policy. Who are we to play God with less advanced cultures? It was a hands-off policy – even if you thought you could help a civilization in decline, you could observe but not interact. It was the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets.

The concept of the Prime Directive is so powerful, sometimes I even think that some people think it truly exists.

What’s Your Prime Directive?

Every organization has their own Prime Directive, stated or unstated. For most businesses, it’s to drive up profitability as much as possible. For others, it’s to drive revenue. In most cases, it’s financially based. It is to grow, expand, and create value for customers and shareholders, basically create value all around. In other, more enlightened firms, it’s about service, about serving the customer in the best possible way, and once that’s done, then the money will follow.

In the show, there were several times when whoever was running the ship, be it Kirk, Picard, Sisko or Janeway (Archer existed in a time prior to the Prime Directive, and some of those episodes foretell a future need for something like the Prime Directive) that they felt that they just had to break the Prime Directive. That the humanitarian need was so great, they felt that they had to. The need to innovate is the same.

In some cases, innovation goes up against your Prime Directive. Sometimes, to innovate, you may need to break your organization’s Prime Directive. You may need to ask for budget to develop something which has no clear immediate value. You may need to pull resources away from their jobs to attend ideation sessions where the great future value is generated by developing targeted IP. You may need to spend money developing a program which generates a ton of interesting and new ideas, without seeing the immediate benefit in new billion dollar businesses.

Typically, when the captain broke a Prime Directive, everyone agreed that, in hindsight, it was the right thing to do. Until you break (or bend) your Prime Directive enough to build and run an properly designed and managed innovation program, you will have no idea if there are any multiple million and billion dollar businesses out there, floating in your employee’s brain space.

Maybe, to move forward. to build the next phase of your company, you will need to violate your own corporate prime directive.

Key Next Steps:

  • Determine your organization’s Prime Directive. Look at Vision Statements, Mission Statements, then go beyond those to dig into your hidden Prime Directive. Your true Prime Directive.
  • State your Prime Directive
  • Determine how to design and define your innovation program to align with your Prime Directive.
  • If innovation does not align with your Prime Directive, get prepared to bend or break it
  • Understand the risks before you do
  • Go forth and innovate