Startup trek, episode 5: Where No One Has Gone Before

Season 1, episode 5: “Where No One Has Gone Before

Lesson: don’t disregard employees’ input just because they’re junior

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.

A pompous scientist from the Federation (Kosinski) claims he’s coming to the Enterprise to run some improvements that will improve warp drive speed. Everyone detects that he’s full of shit, but only Will Wheaton (who’s a kid and not technically part of the crew) picks up that it’s Kosinski’s assistant who’s actually creating the incredible effects on the ship. He tries to tell Riker, who ignores him.

The assistant ends up being an alien who calls himself a Traveler and can navigate through time, space, and concepts using the power of thought. He travels to find savants throughout the universe. He identifies that Wesley is one such savant when it comes to the technical operations of the ship, and implores Captain Picard to encourage this talent to develop in Wesley. The episode ends with Picard naming Wesley the title of Ensign, which allows him clearance to be on the bridge and learn from the crew. Riker also admits that Wesley tried to tell him about the Traveler’s powers and that he was wrongly dismissive.

There’s often a tradeoff in company roles between execution and strategy: the higher up that people move in the org chart, the more time they tend to spend in meetings, managing other people, and looking at the big picture. Because promotions are associated with power and monetary gains, it’s easy to lose sight of the value that comes from being on the ground floor as an employee. These people are often masters of the details of their domains. And those at the top depend on those beneath them to do most of the real work.

Hierarchies are useful, for sure. They provide order and shortcuts on who to go to for which issues. But they also create a lot of bullshit power-tripping and Kafka-esque hurdles in the way of good information getting where it needs to go.

When I was a low-level employee at startups, I had plenty of moments where I wondered what the hell the board or the executives could be talking about on a product or problem without me there. I was the one living those things. I wished those mysterious “higher ups” would include me, but I didn’t feel like I could ask them. When there are power dynamics in play, it can be scary as a junior employee to speak way up the chain. I actually think you get rewarded for doing that more often than not — leaders tend to respect leadership behavior in others — but it isn’t comfortable. Thus when a junior employee does speak up, like Wesley did, the higher-ups should give it the appropriate consideration.

Now that I’m an investor, I not only miss doing that kind of detailed work and creation myself, but I like to spend time with those people to get a sense of how the business is really going, or to get more honest feedback on someone they’ve worked with. Often a high-level exec will give you a less transparent take on a current or former coworker on the same employment level than someone beneath will. And of course you need to weigh all the information you get carefully, biases and all, but it’s usually a useful perspective. I should do it more, but frankly it’s almost as weird to go down the chain than up it. I may not know who the right employee is on a topic or product area, and I don’t want to make his or her boss think I’m subverting them.

To all the lower-level startup employees out there reading this: don’t be afraid of the chain of command.

Next up: season 1, episode 6, “Lonely Among Us.