Let’s be Pirates… or Privateers

I’ve written a lot about self-organization lately and how difficult it is to garner the right ‘amount’ of self organization.

An interesting side-note was brought to me at a dinner conversation in a dark and shady tavern by sea, illuminated by the flickering light of the candles while the sea roared on the cliffs and a chilly wind… oops … sorry… I got carried away.

The side-note has to with pirates though. Or, more to the point, with privateers and how self-motivation and extrinsic motivation can go hand in hand.

It has often be quoted that the real pirates of the Caribbean where amongst the first in modern times to have democratic organizations. For example the captain – although master over life and death during his tenure – was actually elected and the loot – pardon me, the prize) – was divided fairly (not evenly!) amongs those who participated in the venture.

But there is another aspect that I failed to see earlier. From what my friend told me, one of the reasons for the demise of the once great armada was the utilization of small independent, autonomously acting, self-motivated units. Privateers. Though historically this was certainly not the only reason the idea has a strong resonance with me and it nicely ties in with a lot of modern management approaches.

  • The privateers did what they loved to do. (The love for the seas amongst sailors is proverbial. And privateers – unlike the official Navy – were not in the habit of pressing people to service) => Purpose
  • The better they were, the more rewarding hires were available and the higher the compensations were => Mastery
  • If the results of their actions fitted within the Letter of marque the privateers were at liberty to do whatever they deemed necessary or helpful. (No dress-code, no imposed rules on how to change the guard etc.) => Autonomy

When I look at Privateers this way, they really have a lot in common with modern teams – although they usually had a way more grim work than our teams have nowadays.

Nonetheless the autonomous teams overthrew their centrally organized counterpart by a huge margin. Despite the fact that they were heavily outnumbered. I see some similarities with modern organizations.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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