A good friend of mine has been watching Black Sails (for those of you who don’t know, Black Sails is a prequel to Treasure Island and is being aired on the Starz Network) and he commented at how similar the pirate structure was to a Scrum team. Of course, being the Agile Coach that I am (Agile 24/7), this got me thinking and so I decided to do a little research just to see what parallels can be drawn from a band of pirates and an Agile team.
A pirate crew was very much a self-organizing structure, all crew members got an equal say in decisions. Officers were generally elected including the captain and the officers. Almost all decisions were made by election or the crew voted to delegate decisions to an individual. The crews were generally cross-functional, but some specialist skills were in short supply and those crew members with technical skills were highly valued, but generally crews were expected to pitch in and perform multiple roles.
A captain was elected and his role was to set vision and direction. The captain would typically be a single voice and he ultimately became responsible for the success or failure of the project. He would choose the next target or destination and would decide how to respond to navigation hazards that could plan around. There were some perks associated with the job but generally loot was divided equally amongst the crew. A captain may get 1.5 or 2 shares. Successful captains would likely be re-elected to their position but unsuccessful ones may not be so fortunate. There was a distinct lack of authority in this role outside of navigation and strategic decisions.
Crews would also elect a quartermaster. Their job was to ensure the ship ran well. He understood the process and would do his best to coach the crew into keeping the ship running at its optimal performance. But the quartermaster did not have authority over the crew beyond this. Pirate crews were made up of runaway slaves, deserters from armies and ships or fortune seekers, but many were not skilled sailors or fighters and most had a very strong aversion to authority and discipline. Quartermasters were first and foremost coaches. They would encourage the crew to learn the necessary skills and to keep the workflow effective. Quartermasters were likely seasoned sailors with lots of experience and the ability to understand how a ship works and how to coach the crew to do it. However, unlike a formal Navy, where discipline could be used to enforce order, a pirate crew didn’t do this. If a quartermaster struck a sailor, they risked being marooned as a consequence.
All crew members had responsibilities and were held accountable by their peers, and all understood that the crew stood or fell on its own, so anyone not pulling their weight or letting the crew down was a liability. While there were officers, the officers were organizational necessities not authority figures, and their role was more about communication than control. Discipline was most definitely not enforced by officers.
The pirate code: Is this perhaps the earliest documented team-working agreement? Each crew had and documented their code and held the other members of their crew accountable to it. The code contained how decisions were made and what decisions were delegated. For example, they decided how loot was divided or how the team interacted with each other. It was clear that in most cases, it was a flat structure and that roles were temporary and were elected.
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