The Starship of Theseus

This framing of the Starship of Theseus has been on my mind for a little while, and I finally decided to write it down. Basically, in a marketplace with any sort of selection pressure, organizations vie to both retain their identity (what makes them the organization) and adapt to changing conditions. A possible path to resolving the tension of these two opposing forces – stay the same, yet evolve – is aptly described by the “Starship of Theseus” analogy.

In FLUX issue 51, we had this really nice riff on the Ship of Theseus experiment. If every part of a ship is eventually replaced, is it still the same ship? Or something entirely different? 

The “Starship of Theseus” kicks the experiment up a notch. What if, in addition to replacement of parts as part of the routine maintenance, the process must incorporate improvements?

In this metaphor, the ship is seen as a collection of capabilities. Some of these capabilities are transient and some essential. Transient capabilities can be substituted for other, different capabilities without affecting the distinguishing quality – the “shipness” – of the ship. Conversely, essential capabilities are those that constitute this quality. Exchanging them for another capability means destroying the Ship of Theseus.

For instance, we can confidently state that the hull, crew quarters, and navigation are essential, while the material of which the hull is built or its particular shape are transient. Yet some capabilities that we thought of as essential are revealed to be transient in due time. We might believe that the proud sails of the Ship of Theseus were its essential capability for many generations. When the vessel is finally fit with the powerful steam engine, we recognize that the sails were transient.

To keep the ship afloat and continuing to fulfill its purpose in the changing environment, we must continuously replace its obsolete transient capabilities with more technologically advanced alternatives, while preserving and maintaining the full efficiency of the essentials. If we are successful, the steam engine is replaced by a diesel one and later, a nuclear reactor, while the hull graduates to steel, with aluminum not far behind.

Technological progress guides our understanding of what the essential capabilities are. And conversely, this understanding is guiding the evolution of the ship. A repeatedly, doggedly asked question: “What are we really about?” spurs the transformation. We resolve the tension of “stay the same while evolving” through a dynamic inquiry: the answer to this question changes over time.

If we initially thought our particular “shipness” was about the number of masts and a distinctive figurehead, we revise our answer as we adapt. And a couple of millenia later, it is the spirit of frontier exploration – the unchanged essence of our ship – that compels us to take the vessel to the stars.

Here’s my guess. Intentionally or not, any large organization that perseveres through time follows the pattern described by the Starship of Theseus story. And I wonder: would such an organization benefit from leaning into this pattern more consciously?

First, this dynamic nature of the inquiry tells us that we do not have to know the ultimate purpose of our ship. Put it even more forcefully, we must not try to have the essential capabilities captured and solidified, for an organization that knows with certainty what it is about has already sealed its fate. It will never get to orbit, let alone see other galaxies.

Second, we might be better off viewing a portfolio of our capabilities as something that will evolve over time. At any given time, we also might want to have a good sense at which capabilities are essential and which ones are transient. This sense would need to be grounded in an understanding that the essential/transient breakdown will change over time.

Third, it would have to be our collective responsibility to think in multi-year timelines. We must dream of starfaring even when we’re still powered by sails. Unlike a static vision, the vision formed as the question – “How will we go to the stars?” – can adapt to the changing environment in productive and inspiring ways.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: