Pirate Teams

A few months ago I saw a meme floating around contrasting a good agile team with a group of cowboy coders. Their chosen metaphor was a nautical one. The good agile team was the navy (age of sail style) - disciplined, focused, effective, working together for a common purpose. The bad team was, of course, pirates - rough, undisciplined, attacking stuff at random, scary but ultimately ineffective.

I looked at that, and knowing a little something about pirates (real ones, not the Long John Silver/Jack Sparrow/Captain Hook type Hollywood ones) it didn't quite ring true. In fact, if you look a little deeper, the age of sail navy is actually quite a good metaphor for traditional organisations and pirates actually make a great agile team. Since this is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, heave to for a moment ye scurvy dogs and let me explain.

Let's start with the navy. In the age of sail, the captain was in effect the lord and master over the ship, with power of life and death over the whole crew. Discipline was harsh, arbitrary and brutal. The crew was expected to do their job and nothing else. Stepping outside your assigned role was subject to harsh punishment. In fact, even the act of making a navigational observation, unless you were one of the officers, was considered insubordination and was punishable by hanging. This was to ensure that the authority of the officers was unchallenged. Only they knew where they were.

The captain's orders from the admiralty were absolute and had little room for any discretion. Outside the officers, the crew often had no idea what those orders were. Orders could be as vague as "sail around and harass enemy shipping" or as specific as "go and attack x harbour on x day". Failure to execute orders, even for the captain, was punishable by court martial followed by dismissal or death. Even retreating from battle when outnumbered was grounds for court martial.

Rewards were very unevenly distributed. Wage disparity was high and bonuses - prize money from the sale of captured ships - were particularly unfairly distributed. The prize money was divided into equal shares. The admiral of the fleet got one share, despite generally never having taken part in the capture, the sub admiral in charge of that particular squadron the capturing ship belonged to got a share as well (again, usually no active participation in the capture). The captain got a share. The officers shared one share and the crew shared one share between them. On a large ship with a crew of around 750, that meant the men received 1/750th the bonus their captain received. The admirals and captain grew rich, the crew had some beer money. If you think about it, the admiral's automatic share of everything one of their many captains did, makes the old navy look a lot like a pyramid scheme.

If you take away the flogging and death by hanging, does this bear any resemblance to any of the large organisations you have worked for? Absolute hierarchical authority with punishment for failing to meet poorly defined, arbitrary goals. Unequal share of reward. Little knowledge in the ranks of the organisation's true position or purpose?

Let's compare that to their ancient foe - the pirate. By contrast to the navy, pirates were almost democratic in the way they operated. Their captains and other officers were not the tyrants of Hollywood imagination but were elected by the crew and held their post by the crew's consent. A captain that displeased their crew could be voted out of office.

Pirate crews operated under a document that was known as "The Articles Of Agreement" and and it set out the contract between the captain and their crew. Each member of the crew had to sign (and agree with) the articles to be accepted into the crew and to take part on its activities (OK...there were cases of people with valuable skills being forced to sign the articles and become a pirate, but by and large it was voluntary). Actual article documents are hard to find as they were often destroyed by the crew before capture, as anyone who had signed the articles was, in effect, confessing to being a willing member of a pirate crew and could therefore be summarily hanged (unless they could prove that they signed under duress...and many crews had a ritualised element of duress, like a man standing beside the document with a bared cutlass in their signing ceremonies, so everyone could claim to have signed under duress). Nevertheless some survived - here's one from The Revenge under Captain John Philips in 1724 -

I. Every Man Shall obey civil Command; the Captain shall have one full Share and a half of all Prizes; the Master, Carpenter, Boatswain and Gunner shall have one Share and quarter.

II. If any Man shall offer to run away, or keep any Secret from the Company, he shall be marooned with one Bottle of Powder, one Bottle of Water, one small Arm, and Shot.

III. If any Man shall steal any Thing in the Company, or game, to the Value of a Piece of Eight, he shall be marooned or shot.

IV. If any time we shall meet another Marooner that Man shall sign his Articles without the Consent of our Company, shall suffer such Punishment as the Captain and Company shall think fit.

V. That Man that shall strike another whilst these Articles are in force, shall receive Mosesā€™ Law (that is, 40 Stripes lacking one) on the bare Back.

VI. That Man that shall snap his Arms, or smoke Tobacco in the Hold, without a Cap to his Pipe, or carry a Candle lighted without a Lanthorn, shall suffer the same Punishment as in the former Article.

VII. That Man shall not keep his Arms clean, fit for an Engagement, or neglect his Business, shall be cut off from his Share, and suffer such other Punishment as the Captain and the Company shall think fit.

VIII. If any Man shall lose a Joint in time of an Engagement, shall have 400 Pieces of Eight ; if a Limb, 800.

IX. If at any time you meet with a prudent Woman, that Man that offers to meddle with her, without her Consent, shall suffer present Death.

OK... These would never pass muster in today's HR department but compared to the navy this was positively enlightened. This is essentially a social contract for the crew. It covers essential things like safety (no uncapped pipes), good conduct (no striking, no gambling, no stealing). Not because these things are morally wrong (they are pirates after all) and but because such things disrupt the unity of the crew and cause discord. It covers job performance (keep your arms clean and ready), remuneration and even disability pensions. The crew were expected to obey commands but the captain was expected to make commands responsibly (civil command) and the crew were entitled to refuse commands they felt were not reasonable.

Even remuneration is handled fairly. Every man on board gets one share. the captain gets an extra half share. That's it. He gets one and a half times what every other man on the crew gets. Not 750 times more.

The pirate articles are an example of a two-way social contract between leadership and the crew. I have written about these before as something that is vitally important for true high performing teams. With a bit of modernisation (after all, marooning with one small arm and shot is so 1700's) the pirate articles could be the basis of a great social contract for your team.

And who doesn't want to be a pirate! Arrrrrrrrrr! Ahoy there ye scurvy Dogs!