The Pirate Ship as Organizational Model

29 May 2012 at 1:02AM Leave a comment

Over on the CrashDev blog, Chris Devore has penned an article with stunning insight. His point in “The Pirate Ship as Organizational Model” is one that should be enjoyed and considered by my former boss Nathan, my dear friend Hooligan, his former boss Harry, and others who have felt the fun and excitement of a start-up turn to the dross and pain of corporate politics.

Devore is contemplating the perfect company to work for. He admits thinking it might be related to size, but

The Queen Anne’s Revenge by LegoFor me, the best possible circumstance is a company that’s somewhere on the spectrum from unformed idea to Pirate Ship. As soon as it passes from Pirate Ship to Going Concern, it stops being fun for me and I need to start over.

This, of course, got the attention of your humble editor, who is a student of historical pirates. What is the spectrum that includes pirate ships as an organizational model? Devore goes on to explain [emphasis mine]:

Since Pirate Ship is a technical term only to me, let me explain. An organization is healthy as long as its survival is sufficiently in doubt that each employee feels a primary responsibility to ensuring the survival of the firm, and a secondary (or lesser) concern for their own position within the hierarchy. The vitality of this “us against the world” mentality depends (to a greater or lesser extent) on the prospect of treasure somewhere on the horizon (i.e., it cannot be sustained in organizations where the prospect of treasure has dimmed to the point that jumping ship and taking a risk on a new captain and crew seem like a better bet). But it can if, despite remarkably long odds, a plurality of the crew believe that a rich prize might still be lurking beyond the next atoll. The scale at which this condition ceases to exist is conditioned equally by the nature of the opportunity being pursued and the quality of the leadership at the helm.

As soon as an organization reaches the point that its survival is no longer in doubt (or that the average participant no longer feels that his or her individual contribution is material to its survival), corruption begins to seep in.

Wow. Devore has exactly nailed some of my experiences in the high-tech world. The times that were the most intense, most fun and most rewarding were when everything was on the line. It was us against the world – we were in a Pirate Ship.

I like how Devore’s friend Donald DeSantis clarified this in his blog post:

Pirate ships combine an “us against the world” mentality with a hunt for treasure. This crucible of chaos and ambition somehow allows unstructured groups of mercenaries to complete complex tasks without killing one another (very often).

This is a key point. Highly motivated and highly talented are competitive. Once the big win on the horizon is captured and accounted for, the talent that thrives in that environment will be gone, or will start to engage in internal politics and mistreating others.

One key to happiness, then, is the awareness of internal attitudes.

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Entry filed under: Corporate, Random Musings, Work. Tags: , , , , , , .

For Memorial Day 2012: “Angel Flight” How Not to Get a Job: Cell Phone Follies I

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