What 21st Century Organizations Can Learn From 18th Century Pirates

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar January 04, 2018

Matt Perez, founder of the Mexican IT company Nearsoft, introduced us to a fascinating idea. He is inspired by pirates of the 18th century!

What, you might ask, can we modern Rebels learn from century-old pirates? What did they do to keep crews of misfits aligned, engaged and motivated? And how can these ideas possibly help us today? Well, more than you might think!

The extraordinary and effective habits of 18th century pirate crews are described by Alex Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips in their book ‘The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity From Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters, And Other Informal Entrepreneurs’. This blog is based on their work.

Born out of frustration

The golden age of piracy holds a fascination for many. Like many other rebels, pirates weren’t born as such. They were ordinary men, but frustrated with the status quo.

Clay & Phillips: “Pirates were often former merchant ship sailors who sold their labor for money. They had no vote, were rarely given a voice, and had no ownership in the ventures. On merchant ships, crewmen faced violent discipline at the hands of the captain, whose goal was to satisfy the interest of the land-based vessel owners.

They had no vote, they rarely were given a voice, and they had no ownership of the ventures.' 21st century organizations? Nope, the breeding ground for pirates in the 18th century.

It was the nature of life on board merchant ships that inspired pirates to take on the establishment—to hack it and change it for the better. They understood from their own experience how the hierarchical structures on merchant ships left crews feeling dissatisfied and disempowered.”

So, what did these former merchant sailors do? They turned the system upside down. Pirates operated with a set of best practices based on distributed ownership, equality and democracy. They would be very welcome in some modern day, but traditional, organizations!

1. Distributed ownership

Clay & Phillips: “Pirates wrote constitutions that served as their foundation of governance. These constitutions were democratically formed and required unanimous agreement before any expedition set sail, allowing seafarers to decide whether they wanted to adopt them or go their separate ways.”

Pirates operated with a list of best practices based on distributed ownership, equality and democracy. These would be very welcome in many modern day, but traditional, organizations.

Each man had an equal vote. A great example is from the governing constitution of the pirate ship of Bartholomew Roberts, aka Black Bart, one of the most successful pirates of all times:

Article 1: ‘Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.’

Clay & Phillips: “Their governance structures managed to align the interests of these disparate groups of rebels, turning them into cooperative and cohesive groups that were ruthlessly effective in their work. Bartholomew Roberts’ crew, for example, independently seized more than 400 ships in just 3 years – 1719 to 1722.”

Similar practices of distributed ownership and decision-making are in place at Dutch law firm BvdV and at various organizations that have adopted the “organizational operating system” Holacracy.

Andrew neel 103247

2. Democracy

The crew of the pirate ships held real and distributed authority. Sometimes the captain was democratically elected. But, even after being elected, the ship’s leader was just another voice among all the others.

Clay & Phillips: “The most powerful office on the ship was the common council, a group composed of every single man on the ship. This council held an unrestricted right to depose the captain and other leaders, with its decisions on all matters sacrosanct.

Meetings were held regularly to decide on such matters as division of provisions, or on whether to attack or let a target be. Every pirate on board had a say in almost every decision that could impact the enterprise.”

Recently we saw something very similar in Switzerland when we visited Bucket List company Haufe Umantis. There, they elect the leaders democratically every year. And in other progressive organizations we learned that employees have the power to replace leaders who don’t perform to their liking (e.g. Ner group FAVI).

3. Equality

Clay & Phillips: “In all aspects of life aboard a vessel, crewmen enjoyed the same social privileges as the captain and his officers. A captain faced deposition should they even try to secure a better way of life on board. Their lodging and provisions were typically the same as those of ordinary pirates.

Flat pay structures were designed to diminish the material inequalities that could sink the enterprise. By more or less equally splitting seized treasure, pirates created motivated crews imbued with a sense of ownership, empowerment, and the willingness to continue in their plunder.”

Raise the flag

It’s interesting to note the similarities between the pirates’ way of organizing and the progressive Bucket List organizations we’ve visited. The practices described above could be valuable improvements to the ways in which many traditional organizations still operate.

Rraise the flag, challenge the status quo, and draw inspiration from what pirates did centuries ago. It might just lead to some surprising treasures

Matt Perez showed us how in the way they are organized at Mexico-based IT company Nearsoft: raise the flag, challenge the status quo, and draw inspiration from what pirates did centuries ago. It might just lead to some surprising treasures.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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