Ever since I heard of Conway’s Law, I was obsessed. It states that “organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations“.
But I wondered, could this be applied to people – not just systems? I did my best to find a group of people I could analyze, in order to test my theory. So, obviously, I chose a good representative sample – fictional television Starship Captains.
Methodology: I selected half a dozen television shows from the past fifty years which featured a spaceship and watched each entire series. Oh, the things I do for science.
I noted every detail from Lexx, Blake’s 7, Babylon 5, Star Trek the Next Generation, Farscape and Battlestar Galactica. The shows were in many ways hard to compare. Blake’s 7 (for instance) was an obscure, low budget British television show from the late 1970s, whereas Battlestar Galactica was a high budget, prime time show from the modern era. Lexx had a strong humorous streak, but Babylon 5 attempted to take its self quite seriously for the most part.
What did I discover, oh loyal readers (yes, both of you)? Clarity of purpose directly correlates to authoritarian captains. This came something as a shock. My natural impulse was to believe the opposite – I mean, if everyone agrees on what must be accomplished, a captain seems hardly necessary, let alone a strong captain.
Below are the Captains, as ranked by authoritarianism:
Battlestar Galactica: Commander Adama. It was pretty clear what people on his ship wanted to do from its first appearance – save humanity from the evil cylons. His management style was confrontational and direct. He wasn’t afraid of lining people against a wall to be shot or throwing them in the brig. Of all the captains, he is the one I’d be most afraid of upsetting. Upsetting the Captain and getting busted down from Senior Chief to Private in the course of 60 seconds? Yeah, that can happen on his ship.
Star Trek the Next Generation: Captain Picard. One of Picard’s jobs was to protect the Federation, but he didn’t have one singular enemy to unite against. In fact, he spent many episodes conducting research and helping other people with their problems. For most of the series, he led a tight ship and certainly expected his orders to be followed, but he never seemed to pull a gun on his crew, or even raised his voice too often. While the crew didn’t have a singular purpose, there was relatively little in the way of conflict between the purposes the crew shared. Can one fight the Borg AND study gaseous anomalies? Why not? Adama wasn’t afraid of getting into the boxing ring with his crew, but the most Picard did was fence (and in fairness, no one in that match got so much as a scratch).
Babylon 5 – Captain Sheridan. Captain Sheridan was an interesting character to study – mostly because he changed so much over the course of the series. At first, it wasn’t really clear what his purpose was. He appeared very much a soft figure, often looking for consensus from his senior officers and attempting to use diplomacy whenever possible. As his purpose became clear (I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers here – it really is a good show), he became much more direct and confrontational, not only taking on a more authoritarian appearance, but also a more authoritarian set of actions. Sheridan of season two would meet with his staff to figure out what to order for lunch. By season 4 he had little problem ordering those under him to go on suicide missions to make sure no one asked if he washed behind his ears.
Blake’s 7: Roj Blake. Blake represents an interesting break in the list. While he is the title character in the series, he and his crew aren’t aligned on much at all – in fact, there really isn’t much to firm up his captaincy – he’s not the strongest, the smartest or even the most intimidating. He and his crew are escaped criminals who happened to takeover a ship. Each crewman has different opinions on what they should do. Some want to run from a corrupt government, others want to fight it. Some want to become wealthy criminals while others want to explore. Blake does his best to steer the direction of action and relies on discussions to convince others of his righteousness. His crew – and sometimes even he – questions whether his mission is justified (or even possible). Discussion of mutiny occurs fairly often, especially at the beginning of the series. Blake never uses force to compel his comrades – in fact, only once in the series does he even order another party to “take his station”.
Lexx – Captain Stanley Tweedle. One of my favorite unknown shows, Former security guard (4th class) Stanley Tweedle found himself at the helm of the Lexx, a powerful planet killing warship, along with a crew of a love slave, a robot head, an undead assassin and a cannibal. It is without surprise that each had a different idea in mind about what they should accomplish. Though many episodes focused on the mundane – satisfying their earthly desires of food and companionship, there were often arguments about whether to satiate their curiosity or run for safety, as well as whether they should fight for the good of mankind or simply live a life of comfort. Although Stanley was able to maintain his captaincy due to his possession of the key to the ship, he never forced his views onto his crew mates – in fact he often found himself being overruled by them.
Farscape – Commander Crichton. Farscape was great in that it was never really clear who was in charge. Each party wanted something different. Most characters wanted to go home to their respective planets (each far from the other), two characters were interested in stealing money while others were obsessed with the concept of honor. The crew was composed of priests, scientists, warriors, spies and revolutionaries. Because there was little binding the group, no character really took control or barked orders. In fact, very little progress was made by any of them over the course of the show.
As odd as it sounds, each captain accomplished the miraculous – whether it be learning to create wormholes (Farscape), saving humanity (Battlestar Galactica) or even destroying an entire universe filled with angry robots (Lexx) – and each “captain” was perfectly suited to his role. In fact, I would argue that moving any of them (even those relatively close on the Conway Starship Captain spectrum) would have proven disastrous – would Picard be willing to sacrifice his crew during a mutiny? I think not. Could 4th Class Security Guard Stanley Tweedle organize a group against the Borg? Not a chance.
The advice I would give after conducting this study? Understand your environment before trying to lead, and consider the possibility that the ideal strength of a leader (or manager) might vary directly (not indirectly!) with the clarity of purpose this his group holds. If one wishes to become a powerful leader, one must work to ensure that a clarity of purpose exists. Alternatively, those who wish a sinecure job should ensure that those below him do not have much that they wish to accomplish in common with one another.
I’m willing to conduct much more research in the following months… maybe something about what the color palate of cartoons can tell us about linguistics.