Monday, April 18, 2016

The Kobayashi Maru

Having recently received this IDEO book and tearing through it, I've been thinking on the role of ethics (or if you like, professional responsibility) in the work of innovation. 

A quote in the book from Coe Leta Stafford, Design Director at IDEO Palo Alto, stands out:
At first glance, it appears that ethics and creativity have nothing in common; one is constrained and the other unbridled. And yet, ethics is the insider handshake to a world of unexpected delights and creative starting points. The secret to getting others to share their secrets is to conduct yourself with the utmost respect.
My wondering is: as we seek to build empathy and design change to innovate education, what role do ethics play?

Last Friday, I was in a meeting with some teachers and some representatives of Steelcase, looking at certain design thinking facets that we might use in our work. During one of our thinking exercises, I asked our facilitators if we could do it a different way, and then said out loud: "Kobayashi Maru." Three people in the room laughed out loud, and it was a sure way to know who else was a Star Trek fan (and perhaps a bit nerdy).

Since then, I've been thinking about that Star Trek moment. During his learning at Star Fleet Academy, James T. Kirk re-programmed a no-win computer simulation to avoid an ethical dilemma known as the Kobayashi Maru. Some called Kirk's actions cheating; others "original thinking."

I wondered if anyone out there had ever written about this scenario in a business ethics sense, and behold, I quickly came upon an article in Forbes. The author, Janet Stemwedel, focused a lot on big picture thinking:
Not every ethical decision requires grappling with a dilemma. Indeed, most of the time good ethical decision-making before there's a crisis can bring good consequences all around, heading off a moment downstream where you have to choose which stakeholder gets stuck with a dramatically bad outcome.
Of course, there's always the issue of the ethics of Kirk in reprogramming the simulation to avoid losing. Stemwedel writes:
Young James T. Kirk reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru because he didn't grasp the point of the simulation. Kirk thought it was a test of whether in the circumstances you could succeed in saving everyone. On that basis, he thought the circumstances were unfair (since there was no way to save everyone), so he changed them.
In fact, the Kobayashi Maru was meant to find out how the cadet responds when it becomes clear that you can't save everyone -- and that your best efforts may have created a situation where you can't save anyone. It's a test of character, and one that wouldn't work if the cadet knew ahead of time that this was the point of the test.
The real test of the Kobayashi Maru is not how you respond in the simulator, but how you go on from there. Do you recognize that the universe may present you with situations your knowledge and powers are inadequate to address? That logical and ethical formulae can only get you so far? That sometimes the least-bad is the best you can do? Does this realization put you off the ethical responsibilities that come with leadership, or do you use it to adjust your expectations of how being a leader might feel in extreme situations?
If we think of Kirk's "original thinking" as innovation, what might we glean? Are we sometimes so focused on the solution that we don't see the problem in all of its fractal components? And like any complex system, changing one part may have significant, unforeseen impacts on others. It's not linear. 

Kirk may have been the only cadet to ever beat the Kobayashi Maru, and he certainly never liked losing. But he robbed himself of learning something early in his career that ultimately, he had to learn much later through the death of a friend.

As we lead this complex work of innovation in educational systems, we need to mindful of the unforeseen consequences and head off that unfortunate downstream moment as best we can. We also need to conduct ourselves with honesty, transparency, and respect at all times. There's an old adage, "it's easier to beg for forgiveness than seek permission." However, as the IDEO book states, where ethics are concerned, you "[s]eek permission, not forgiveness."

Join the conversation...
What ethical issues do you see in the work of educational innovation? How might we best deal with them?

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