3 Ways To Deal With A No-Win Situation

If you’re a Star Trek aficionado, then not only have you heard of the “Kobayashi Maru Scenario” but you can recount it easily to others–it’s a no-win situation cadets encounter at the Starfleet Academy. How we deal with these situations in real life is crucial.


If you’re a Star Trek aficionado, then not only have you heard of the “Kobayashi Maru Scenario” but you can recount it easily to others.

For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the Kobayashi Maru Scenario is a no-win situation cadets encounter at the series’ Starfleet Academy. In it, the cadet is in command of the Federation ship, responsible for rescuing another Federation vessel (the Kobayashi Maru) from attacking Klingon Warbirds. If the cadet chooses not to save the ship in distress, it will be destroyed with all hands. However, if he goes to the ship’s aid, he will precipitate an all-out war with the Klingons. Furthermore, if the cadet attempts the rescue mission, he not only finds himself being unsuccessful in saving the Kobayashi Maru but he and his crew end up dying in the attempt.

The goal of the simulation is to test the cadet’s character and presence in the face of an impossible situation and certain death. However, one cadet, James Tiberius Kirk (the central character of the Star Trek series) refused to accept the no-win situation and reprogrammed it so that he could defeat the Klingon Warbirds.

While few of us live lives as exciting or dangerous as that of Captain Kirk, in our business and personal lives we all face no-win situations. These could include bosses who are impossible to work for, companies that are in a hopeless downward spiral, or jobs that are a terrible fit. The question that confronts us then becomes, “what course to take?”

There are three broad options: Retreat, wait, or advance.

Many of us in the business world, trained as we are to always be driving hard, are reluctant to withdraw from a fight. However, as wise general Sun Tzu once said, “Therefore, the art of employing troops is that when the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him; with his back resting on hills, do not oppose him.” I was in a job once in which my boss and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. The situation got increasingly negative and it became clear that it would not improve. And since I could read an org chart, I knew if there would be a winner, it wouldn’t be me. So I chose to “retreat” by moving to a different position with a better management team, one that could see and use the value of my skills as well as being on the same page as me in terms of work style and beliefs. To successfully retreat, one must accept that some situations are irredeemable and it’s a better use of your time and energy to move on to bigger and better things.


Another option, again difficult for those of us who are used to always working hard to make progress, is to wait for conditions to change for the better. Take the situation above; another option I could have opted for was to wait and see if the boss would move on to other things. It can also work in other situations, such as a business experiencing tough times, by waiting to see if things turn around. This can often be a viable approach, but one must be careful. By not taking a active approach (retreat or advance), you are at the mercy of events. You must perform due diligence to test the chances of things working out for the better. It’s also critical that you have a backup plan in case your delaying strategy fails.

Attempt to Advance
If, like Captain Kirk, you refuse to accept losing a no-win situation, you can put it all on the line to try and achieve victory. But, by definition, a no-win situation will take a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears to conquer. You really need to think through, even if you do win, will it be worth the cost? And don’t forget, there’s a high probability you may lose, which could be devastating. Although Kirk was able to reprogram the Kobayashi Maru scenario so he would win, as a result he was put on academic suspension and forced to face a trial for his actions. It was only by chance that he saved his career; his trial was put off by an attack on a Federation planet, which started a war in which Kirk redeemed himself. Fortune may not favor you so well.

So these are your options. Consider the odds, time, effort and potential payoff, then choose what you think will work best for you. By doing so intelligently, the better are the chances are you will “live long and prosper.”

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[Image: Flickr user James Vaughn]


About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo


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