Why Kirk Beats Spock at Innovation

by Jeffrey Phillips

Why Kirk Beats Spock at InnovationThere’s a mistake being played out in your organization when it comes to staffing innovation projects. You are likely staffing them with a bunch of “Spocks”, people who know a lot about the subject and have deep expertise. While this may look like a dream team, I can assure you that staffing a bunch of Spocks is not helpful and can be harmful.  You need at least a few Kirks in the mix to create a balanced team capable of generating interesting innovation.

For those of you born before the TV Show that started it all, James T (for Tiberius) Kirk was the commander of the Enterprise, a spaceship out to “boldly go where no one had gone before”. Spock was the chief science officer, a Vulcan who is (supposedly) devoid of human emotion and who makes all decisions based on logic and reason. Kirk and Spock make a great team because they complement each other. Kirk makes decisions based on his emotions, his instinct and his gut. Spock counters with the reasons why Kirk’s planned actions are “illogical” or don’t fit the data. Kirk experiments, creates problems with impulsive decision making and usually wins the day by doing something Spock (and Kirk’s adversaries) didn’t expect him to do. Kirk demands more than his people and his ship should be able or willing to offer. Kirk rejects the rules and tries to apply his own rules to any situation. And yes I know there were other spin-offs and other Star Trek series and movies, but they pale in comparison to the original.

Why this is pertinent to innovation

I suspect if we look long and hard enough, every science fiction tale has insights for innovation. In this case it is evidently true. Kirk and Spock represent the manifestation of the two sides of our brain – the left side, analytical and rational, scientific, and the right side, creative, impulsive. The problem in many organizations is that we overly emphasize the scientific, rational and logical at the expense of imagining new unexpected or unanticipated products or services. The scientific approach seeks to break down the problem into small morsels and solve for each small incremental solution, always keeping in mind what is “logical” reasonable and possible. Your competitors, at least the competitors you understand and know from your industry, also do this. They seek reasonable, rational, logical solutions and technologies to existing problems. The gap in this thinking is that your unlikely competitors, the new entrants, those with nothing to lose, those who seek to disrupt the market, don’t care about logical or rational. They don’t care about the existing order – in fact they’ll be happy to disrupt it. Their actions on the surface may seem, well, illogical. Why would anyone give away software for free? Who would create a website with a revenue model based on ads? What seemss logical to us is just what seems familiar or reasonable in a given context, not necessarily in all contexts or under all conditions.

Why Kirk Beats Spock at Innovation

The Spocks in your company want to approach innovation as a science. They want to examine all the data, review all the technologies and make the most logical decision possible. Their ideas are likely to be very well defined, very reasonable and often very incremental. The Kirks of your company think differently. They want to understand the problem, want to create unusual solutions that may defy existing logic. They recognize that it may be necessary to suspend disbelief for a while in order to get to the right solution. They work from instinct, from their gut and may not be able to justify their approaches to the Spocks, or worse, to the executives.

Balancing Kirks and Spocks

Given that Kirks find it hard to justify their outlooks and approach, it’s rare you’ll have a team full of Kirks. In fact, it’s often unlikely that you’ll have any Kirks on an innovation team at all, because innovation looks risky and uncertain and dangerous. Who better to staff an innovation activity than a bunch of Spocks, who demand data, expect to be able to predict all of the outcomes and are scientifically based? But the world according to Spock (had to do it) doesn’t exist. The world is far more unpredictable, capricious, fickle than Spock expects. The world shifts in its expectations and demands, and what was impossible only yesterday is currently completely possible. What was unthinkable yesterday is now an accepted reality. Five years ago the US was completely dependent on foreign oil, and the amount we imported each year was growing.  In the next decade we may become an EXPORTER of oil and natural gas. Things change, and change quickly.  Kirks get this, but may get it wrong. Spocks understand it but discount it.

Your innovation teams will have more Spocks than Kirks. That’s understandable, but can become a real limiting factor if the whole team is Spocks. You need some Kirks to make the activity more instinctual, more illogical, more messy. Without Kirks your innovations will be practical, safe, predictable and ultimately very incremental.

However, to create something interesting, with real value, to disrupt the status quo, you need some Kirks. And while you are reading this and thinking, wait, was Jobs a Kirk or a Spock, I’ll offer this: Jobs was probably the rare being who could be both. While he ran Apple like a Spock, he understood the markets like a Kirk. You don’t have to be both to be successful, but you need to understand what value each offers, and right now Kirks are undervalued for innovation.

image credit: star trek

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

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  1. Instead of framing an innovation discussion as “Kirk beats Spock,” I have found it beneficial to consider other phrases such as:
    – The interplay of Kirk and Spock
    – The synergy that results from Kirk plus Spock
    – Spock shapes Kirk’s orientation, Kirk shapes Spock’s orientation

    Instead of highlighting the balancing aspects of the relationship between Kirk and Spock, consider the interaction of Kirk and Spock with others. Innovation emerged when Kirk and Spock interacted with others in their network (such as the crew, colleagues from Star Fleet, new friends, and old villains) to produce unexpected value.

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