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Not Your Father's Wrath of Khan

Wrath of Khan

July 14, 2022

My all-time favorite movie celebrated its 40th birthday this year. Released in 1982, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” is — in my opinion — one of the best movies ever made. I won’t belabor the plot here other than to say one of the central points speaks to the character of the captain of the enterprise, James T. Kirk.

While at Starfleet Academy, Kirk takes a test that contains a no-win scenario — the Kobayashi Maru (you can google it — yes, there is a Wikipedia page on it) — a test he describes as a “test of character.” Kirk takes the test three times, and the third time, reprograms the exam so that it is possible for him to be successful.

In 2013, a remake of this movie was made called “Star Trek: Into Darkness” which is essentially a rebooted version of the 1982 film. There are some key differences between these two films, but the one difference I want to draw attention to is regarding Kirk’s reprogramming of the exam.

In both films, Kirk is successful in reprogramming the exam, but — and here is the key difference I am talking about: In the 1982 version, he is given a “commendation for original thinking,” while in the 2013 version, Kirk is court marshaled for changing the exam.

If you have seen these movies, you know how they end — one of the main characters dies saving the Enterprise and crew. The reason the test is referenced in the movie is because of Kirk’s belief that there is always a solution — no matter the circumstances. There is no such thing as “a no-win scenario” if you decouple yourself from convention and think creatively about a problem (as his first officer does) to think differently and ultimately save everyone. The same type of thing happens in the 2013 film, but the fate that befalls the roles are opposite, and it tracks a bit differently as a narrative.

So, what happened in the 31 years between these films? Why was the reaction in the second film different than the first to Kirk’s changing the test? I would argue that the way that we value innovation has changed in those years, and that strategy has become more risk-averse in the time between 1982 and 2013.

Risk in Strategy

Culturally speaking, I prefer the treatment of Kirk in the 1982 film. His behavior shows ingenuity and creativity, and rather than being punished, he is rewarded and can apply this type of thinking in situations where it means the difference between success and failure.

The treatment in the 2013 film would not encourage innovation. Kirk is punished (or on the verge of being punished) and it is unclear to me what he was to take from that, other than you shouldn’t hack into the school computer and change your grades Ferris Bueller style.

What am I driving at here? I would encourage you, as you develop strategies and work with your teams, departments or business units, to not accept “no-win” scenarios. Furthermore, I would also encourage you to reward true innovative thinking or non-traditional solutions to problems, as it will create more engaged, dynamic team members.

Chris Pine’s version of Jim Kirk is a fun, capable character. But William Shatner’s version is the stuff of Legend, and this is a large part of why that is true.

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Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.