What Pirates do

Ann Stow
3 min readJun 1, 2021

… & don’t

Photo by lazarescu alexandra on Unsplash

A very quick one this time. A couple of things I wanted to share but didn’t quite get in when I was writing.

The first is the commitment made by the NASA Pirates, their manifesto, if you like — the Pirate Paradigm. This is simple: there is much in here to learn from, to adopt and help organisations thrive. Realise from this that it is not about being better for themselves, but making outcomes better for the organisation, and everyone in it. Not everyone thinks like this, there must be space and time for those who do (remember this was written over 50 years ago).

  • Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself
  • Challenge everything, and steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism, opposition, rumours, false reporting, innuendos, and slander
  • Break the rules, not the law
  • Take risks as a rule, not as the exception
  • Cut out unnecessary timelines, schedules, processes, reviews, and bureaucracy
  • Just get started; fix problems as you go along
  • Build a product, not an organisation; outsource (production) as much as possible

I would absolutely argue that each organisation needs their pirates and should create the right conditions for them to successfully exist…

To Unleash Your Pirates: the organisation should evidence and,

  • Embrace a culture of challenge and positive dissent
  • Provide your pirates with initial funding (remember reflection, and discretionary time??), executive sponsorship, and time for experimentation
  • Shield your pirates from bureaucracy and politics as they emerge
  • Publicise their early wins and give others the permission to follow their lead

So, that’s a great idea, get our disruptive creatives together, motivated and funded, this is likely to be a crucial way of working in the future. In many situations this requires a mindset change and some considerable strength of will.

But this isn’t about just challenging for challenges sake. People need to be able to rock the boat; but not so much they fall out!

Aha, I hear you say. I know people like that, they can be a real pain in the ass… Well, boat-rockers are one thing (for the record, pirates are boat-rockers); there are others (boat-sinkers) who have a negative effect on their working environment, peers and organisation.

See the table below (apologies for presentation): it is easy to think that they are the same, in reality they are actually very different & easy to identify.

To further the analogy; if all your boat-rockers turn into boat-sinkers your organisation is in a whirlpool — and that’s not a great place to be!

Please listen to your pirates and give them space to grow; boat-sinkers have something to say and their approach probably barely disguises another issue, but they do need to be encouraged to find new, constructive words (“we always do that, sigh”, becomes “why don’t we try this”).

I believe that Pirates need to be heard, through serious listening; if they are not allowed to flourish, they can get (sea) sick of rocking the boat and can become the boat sinkers. That is a waste, because in their energy generating possibilities there are sparks of a new reality, new ways of working, or being that would benefit the whole and not the few.

Note: The bullets and table above are from other writings on the NASA Pirates and boat rockers.



Ann Stow

Passionate about making organisations more human - one conversation at a time.