Thursday, September 01, 2005


No-Win Scenarios

A couple of weeks ago, I caught Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on TV. I have it on DVD, so I could watch it any time I want, but there is something about randomly finding something you like on TV that makes it special.

One of the major plot elements is the "Kobayashi Maru" scenario: a simulated Starfleet training exercise in which a cadet is placed in a no-win situation. The scenario is supposed to be a test of character, evaluating how a young officer would deal with certain defeat, but we learn that young James T. Kirk found a way to win. The viewer is left to decide whether Kirk's solution was resourceful out-of-the box thinking, or just plain cheating. Kirk defends his actions by simply saying "I don't like to lose."

The movie resonated with me because I myself have recently been placed in what seems to be a no-win situation at work. There is a problem with one of our deployed systems that has been a serious issue for several months. The people who understand the system best have been unable to figure out how to address it. So I've been brought in, and despite my complete ignorance, I'm expected to solve the problem in a few weeks.

I can already see that I won't be able to make any headway on this assignment. I'm going to disappoint the project manager, the head of software engineering, my boss, and most importantly, myself. It's not reasonable to expect that I'll be able to fix this problem that others can't, but I'm going to feel bad about it anyway.

Like Kirk, I don't like to lose. So I'm looking for ways to "change the conditions of the test" so that it is possible to win, or at least to not lose. The most obvious solution is to get myself unassigned from this task, but I'd consider that a surrender. Another obvious solution is to make sure all the blame gets placed on someone else, but I don't like that.

The solution I usually choose in no-win situations is to just dive in head-first and give it everything I have. I'll still lose, but the self-righteousness and self-pity that comes with overwork dulls the pain a bit. The problem with this solution is that when I've done it in the past, I've burned myself out and quit my job soon thereafter. I'm not ready to quit this job yet, so I'm going to resist the temptation to choose this solution.

I still don't have a solution, but I'm looking for ways to get the problem redefined into something that may actually be solvable. This problem has existed for several months, and as it has been heatedly discussed over and over, it has become this monstrous set of complaints and suggested solutions. I'm not sure anyone even remembers what the original symptoms of the problem were, or all the things they've done to try to fix it. I hope there's a simple problem in there somewhere. If I can make things a little bit better, that may be enough.

In the meantime, I'll keep lying awake at night, writing blog entries at 4:00 AM.

By the way, if you are a fan of The Wrath of Khan, make sure you visit

Maybe one of the problems is that the people most familiar with it are too close to see the obvious answer... It's often helpful to bring someone new in from outside who does have any preconceived ideas about the problem. That said.. your best way out might be to suggest a solution that.. while successful.. will take more effort than they want to give to it. It sounds like they want a quick and easy solution.. if you can't give them that... give them something you know would work... but one they are not likely to do.
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