How to Defeat the Kobayashi Maru Test

I’ve just finished a business trip across four countries and five clients. The clients were both large and small – like the countries, come to think of it – ranging from disruptive startup to global enterprise. When it comes to innovative, strategic uses of content, marketers can become frustrated with the weaknesses at either extreme.

For example, while startups may be lean, agile, and able to pivot quickly, they have more risk, placing fewer bets because their resources are limited. Legacy enterprises, on the other hand, while they have more places, more budget, and more people to try out new ideas, are slower to change. Content programs, with institutional momentum behind them, tend to stay the way they are whether or not they should.

Put simply, content teams in big companies and small companies operate by different sets of rules. The two extremes have this in common, though: Their rules constrain them. The people playing by those rules see no other way to play.

To get some perspective on rules, let’s look at the Star Trek universe of TV, movies, and novels. Starfleet cadets go through a training exercise called the Kobayashi Maru, a simulation. The cadet learns of a ship, the Kobayashi Maru, that’s in distress behind enemy lines in Klingon territory. The cadet is stuck between two evils: Either risk war by crossing the boundary to save the disabled ship (in which case the simulation is designed to result in Klingons destroying the would-be rescuers) or abandon the ship and leave its passengers to die. Either decision results in disaster.

A no-win scenario.

With occasional exceptions, this is how we see the content game in marketing, too. We accept the rules as they are. In a startup, we’re frustrated because we can’t hedge bets, scale quickly, and fund projects. In a global company, we’re frustrated because the enterprise is slow, siloed, and burdened with initiatives that no longer serve us well.

Either way, it’s a no-win scenario.

Ironically, each type of player wishes for the other’s scenario. And each may get it. Startups grow up (if they grow up) to become big, scalable, slow-moving enterprises. And enterprises survive (if they survive) by innovating and changing to meet the needs of the market.

So, what gives? If each set of rules creates a no-win scenario, how do some startups win by becoming big companies, and how do some big companies win by acting like startups?

Captain Kirk – the only one to ever defeat the Kobayashi Maru test – gives us the answer. He redefined the test to make it passable. He changed the rules of the game, reprogramming the simulator to make rescue an option.

We, too, need the question the game we think we’re playing. We need to realize that, in some cases, the opportunity to win lies outside the supposed rules.

One client I worked with on this trip confided in me that there was “no way” their management would accept content as a strategic piece of the business. She said, “We can’t break the rules we’re given.”  I asked, “What if you changed the whole game? Then, technically, you wouldn’t be breaking anything.”

As a company evolves – to become either more stable or more nimble – keep asking how you might change the game you think you’re in. You may not always win. Captain Kirk got caught and was disqualified. He also got a citation for original thinking. It’s original thinking that gives you the best shot at continuing to play. 

What game are you stuck in?

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
Robert Rose on LinkedinRobert Rose on Twitter


Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.