A good friend of mine has been watching Black Sails and he commented at how similar the structure was to a Scrum team and so I did a little research just to see what parallels can be drawn from a a band of pirates and an Agile team.
They are self-organising and self-managing
A pirate crew was very much a self-organising 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 way of voting or the crew voted to delegate decisions to an individual. The crews were generally cross-functional, some specialist skills were in short supply so people with those skills were highly valued but generally crews were expected to pitch in and perform multiple roles.
They had a Product Owner
A captain was elected and his role was to set vision and direction, to be a single voice and he became ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the project, he would choose the next target or destinatation and would decide how to respond to navigation hazards that could be planned 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 unsuccessful ones may not be so fortunate. There was a distinct lack of authority in this role outside of navigation and strategic decisions.
They had a Scrum Master or Team Coach
Crews would 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 a ship running well. 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, 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. But unlike the 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.
The crew had individual responsibilities
All crew members had responsibilities and were held accountable by their peers, all understood that the crew stood or fell on it’s own so anyone not pulling their weight or letting the crew down was a liability. Whilst there were officers the officers were organisational necessities not authority figures, it was about communication not control. Discipline was most definitely not enforced by officers.
But the best parallel is that they had working agreements
The pirate code – 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, what decisions were delegated. How loot was divided. 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.
Pirates were generally forbidden from stealing, destruction, sexual assault, fighting, desertion, gambling or breaking up the pirate band. Some even mandated an early bed time!
Definition of done
This one in particular amused me, but the pirate code contained a definition of done for a Pirate. If a pirate earned 1000 pound then he may retire. If the pirate lost a limb they could leave the crew and would be given 800 pounds. (400 pounds if it was just a hand).
So are pirate crews agile? yes they Arrrgh !
5 thoughts on “Were Pirates Agile?”
Great article. I hope you don’t mind if I parrot some of your ideas.
Not at all
Hi John, very happy to find this interesting Blog. An excellent article. Great Job! We keep in touch. Warm regards from Barcelona
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But did the QuarterMaster have an endless supply of cake and biscuits?
Very interesting ! Rebels that do not like authority being the best example of advanced organisations ! I love it !