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The Decline of Star Trek and Its Implications for Requirements Management

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Every junior-high school English student knows what classical plot structure looks like: you introduce the characters and a problem confronting them, then the conflict increases leading to rising action, which continues until the protagonists, using their talents, skills, and energies, overcome the antagonists/source of the conflict at the climax, then falling action, followed by the conclusion. For whatever reasons this structure has shown itself to be highly successful in all forms of story-telling, from ancient Greek theater to modern blockbuster movies, when it is done correctly. However, structuring your plot incorrectly, or abandoning the classic structure altogether, is to court disaster.

Take Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry’s masterpiece of 1960s science fiction television drama. Roddenberry has been quoted often as having sold the original series (TOS) to prospective network buyers as “a Wagon Train to the stars.” For those of you too young to know, Wagon Train was another television drama set in the American West frontier. Westerns were very popular during the late 1960s, and I think Roddenberry’s use of this particular idiom to describe his idea for a science fiction drama was a way to convey that the writing for his series would follow the classic plot structure that the Westerns did, just in a different setting/time.

But before we go to that different time, the 23rd Century, let’s jump back to the 5th Century B.C.  In ancient Greek theater, where the classic plot structure was introduced to Western culture, even here a pernicious element entered the fray. The plot device of deux ex machina, literally “god from a machine,” made its appearance. This silly plot device entailed the introduction of the characters and central conflict, consistent with classic plot structure, as well as the rising action leading to the climax. However, with deux ex machina, instead of the protagonists overcoming the conflict’s source/antagonists with their efforts and talents, some Greek god would be craned onto the stage and, using their divine powers, set all of the issues aright. This dopey device was recognized at substandard, even in ancient times. This recognition didn’t stop its use, however.

Now let’s jump back to the 20th century. TOS’s episodes were mostly written using classic plot structure, and were highly enjoyable, save when the writers swerved into overly preachy social commentary. Twenty-one years after TOS was cancelled, Roddenberry was back with Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). However, in the intervening years Roddenberry came to see himself less as a producer seeking to entertain audiences, and more as some kind of visionary with special insights in to how the future should unfold. Unlike TOS, TNG often abandoned classic plot structure in favor of deux ex machina, with the “god” Communication craned into the story to set all aright: all that conflict we’ve been experiencing for the first 49 minutes of the episode? It was all a big misunderstanding, don’t you know, rooted in some base human instinctive reflex. While the special effects in TNG were vastly superior to TOS, the writing was, in my opinion, vastly inferior, which is perhaps why TOS’s Enterprise is on display in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space museum, along with the Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 command module, while TNG’s Enterprise, well, isn’t

What’s all this got to do with requirements management, you ask? In reviewing some of the literature addressing issues central to requirements management, the theme of better communications is often invoked. Not to criticize, but my take is a bit different. Requirements management is to IT project management what scope and configuration control is to construction or hardware PM. In these arenas, there’s a natural but subtle source of conflict in establishing the scope baseline: the customer is rewarded for allowing a certain vagueness in the scope documents by having the latitude to “move the goalposts,” or surreptitiously add scope without increasing costs.  The contractor is rewarded for imprecision in the scope baseline by delivering a cheaper product that fulfills the most basic interpretation of the contract terms. With both parties thus motivated, the problem is NOT in the communications themselves, meaning that improving the communications will not necessarily help remediate the most common problems encountered in requirements management space.

In my opinion the most common issues in the requirements management arena are rooted in a reluctance to abandon those business devices that allow greater latitude in the managing of projects, even if those devices depend on a certain deviousness. That’s the enemy that must be overcome, using our talents and energy, and waiting for the communications god to get craned onstage to set everything right is a futile pursuit.

Posted on: August 18, 2013 10:16 PM | Permalink

Comments (1)

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Wonderful piece, although at the risk of exposing my geekier side, the change didn''t stop at TNG.

As we moved into the later incarnations, and other SF followed similar routes, the whole "solution at the end of the episode" went completely - and that was a relief for us! No longer did we get the message that with technolgy and enough determination, any problem could be fixed, without doubt, within a desperately short timescale - if Scotty can completely reconfigure a starship within that timescale, why couldn''t we fix one single bug that was holding everything up?

Great though it was, TOS had much the same problem as TNG - the inevitability of a perfect resolution within a short time (just through a slightly different mechanism). Only when we got to DS9, Voyager etc, and to Babylon and BG, did we get situations which had no good solution - only a least worst one, and which might take several series to sort out even to that imperfect conclusion. A lot better analogy for the real world.

I should add that other genres of TV are available - and have followed much the same path. In the early days it was all single episode resolution, but now, we have story arcs lasting series.

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