Podcast: Why Corporate Innovators are Like Pirates in the Navy

June 16, 2020

In this episode, we wanted to find out, “Why are corporate innovators like pirates in the Navy?” To find out, InnoLead spoke to Tendayi Viki, who explains the metaphor in his latest book. 



This episode is sponsored by Cooper Perkins, the engineering practice that converts inventive ideas into innovative products. Check out their article on page six of our most recent issue of Pointers, InnoLead’s thought leadership PDF. In the article, you’ll learn more about how Cooper Perkins engineers navigate technology and product development. You can find their contribution and more at


Molli DeRosa: Hey! You’re listening to Innovation Answered: Essentials, a special podcast segment for busy innovators on the go. In each episode, we’ll break down an article or book excerpt with the author — and read it aloud for you. I’m Molli DeRosa for InnoLead.

This week, we chatted with Tendayi Viki, award-winning author and innovation expert. In his most recent book, Pirates in the Navy, Tendayi emphasizes the importance of seeking out early adopters in your company to start innovation projects, and staying focused on innovation goals all the way to the end. Let’s hear what Tendayi had to say about his ideas.

Can you tell me a little bit about your career background?

Tendayi Viki: Great. So I started my career as an academic, and then slowly moved into industry. I have a PhD in psychology and an MBA. So I was teaching psychology and organizational behavior at university for 12 years. And then I had the chance to go to work at Stanford as a fellow there. And that’s when I got into innovation and digital technologies. And then from that point on, I’ve just been completely obsessed with that. And that kind of leads me to where I am now.

Molli DeRosa: Why did you decide to write Pirates in the Navy?

Tendayi Viki: So Pirates in the Navy is interesting, in the sense that I came to the conclusion to write it when I started noticing that the argument with leaders about whether or not they needs to innovate… I think that argument is probing conclusively won right now. I think you’ll run into some leaders for sure that will say, “I don’t need to innovate. My company should just be focused on execution.”

And so once they agree that they need innovation to happen in their company, the question then becomes, “Okay, well, do it. How do we set up a practice? How do we build the right tools? How do we engage with leaders?” So Pirates the Navy is really written for intrapreneurs, innovators that are working inside large corporations to help them prepare for that right now moment. That moment when leaders go, “Okay, show us what you got.”

Molli DeRosa: How did you come up with the book titled Pirates in the Navy? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tendayi Viki: Pirates in the Navy is based on Steve Jobs saying that it’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy. [LAUGHS] Why Steve Jobs was saying that is because he was just arguing it’s better to be in a startup that it is to be in a large organization because startups move faster, and larger organizations are slow — the whole oil tanker versus speed boat conundrum that people are talking about all the time. But when large companies recognize that they need to innovate, then intrapreneurs that are working inside large companies become pirates in the Navy. That distinction is no longer something that can be made for them.

Molli DeRosa: You mentioned the importance of early adopters in your writing. Can you explain why you believe they’re so important?

Tendayi Viki: Yeah. So you know, the interesting thing about being a pirate and in the Navy is that you kind of working in an environment in which you have no legitimacy. So you’re talking about innovation inside the large organization, but you’ve never really done any innovation inside that large organization. You may have experience working elsewhere, you may have even worked and launched a successful startup. But coming into the company, it’s really hard for you to show that you have legitimacy.

And so what tends to happen with a lot of innovators that I’ve met and heads of innovation is they walk around the company with a PowerPoint deck. And they go on this sort of political campaign and trying to explain to leaders why innovation is necessary, and how they should get permission to do stuff. And so that whole conversation can just be really tiring and exhausting.

I find that in every large organization, there are always early adopter leaders. Leaders that get it that really want to get it done. And rather than spending all your time as an innovator arguing with your detractors, you can invest a lot of energy in just working with early adopters, and helping early adopters become successful, which also helps you get an early win, which then gives you the legitimacy inside your organization because you’ve proved that you can actually do the work.

Molli DeRosa: How can people keep themselves from being distracted by an early win?

Tendayi Viki: You know, I’ve met a lot of intrapreneurs that were successful with one thing, and it was a big success, and they’ve been celebrated. And that success can become a distraction. To become a successful pirate in the Navy, you have to really decide what you want. And what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to make innovation a legitimate part of how the company does business. So when we get an early win, we’re just trying to use that as a way to drive changes inside the company that allow us to be able to do innovation as a repeatable process in an ongoing thing almost as a career inside those companies. So the early win is like a one-off project. It’s not very different from other one of projects that have succeeded before. And you want to move from one-off projects to become, you know, much more successful in establishing an ecosystem for innovation.

Molli DeRoa: How do you think intrapreneurs can keep themselves from getting stressed out and stretched too thin?

Tendayi Viki: Entrepreneurs shoot themselves in the foot by acting like they’re Elon Musk, and they work in a company full of idiots. So they walk around with this huge ego talking about how they’re going to save the company from disruption. Like, doing innovation is hard enough inside large organizations without having people that are actually rooting for you to fail because you’re so difficult to work with. And so just a little bit of humility, knowing that you’re not sort of facing challenges that I found difficult to overcome. I think that’s actually really important.

And then the second thing is that, you know, not all pirates are the same. Even historically, right? There’s this distinction between pirates and privateers. And pirates are basically criminals, right? They roam the high seas. They are robbing. They’re killing. They’re looting. But privateers are different in the sense that they are pirates, but they’re pirates that are working for a particular country and going around looting the ships of enemy countries. And so what you really want to be is not just a pirate, criminal pirate, what you want to be is a privateer. You have to recognize that your job is to build a bridge between innovation and the core business.

Molli DeRosa: Is there anything else you wanted to add about Pirates in the Navy that you want listeners to know?

Tendayi Viki: When you see people that are working in innovation labs, working on projects that nobody inside the large company knows about. That nobody inside the large company is even expecting to scale. And then you hear them say stuff like, “Well, that doesn’t matter. You know, when we’re finished, we can just spin the idea out as a standalone company.” And just like, do you hear yourself? That’s crazy. Because if you’re working for a large company, it takes the whole company to spin something out. Now legal is involved. Corporate finances is involved. So there’s no way of hiding from the mothership. We have to figure out a way to reach the core to the mothership. And that’s the only way to succeed as pirates in the Navy.


Molli DeRosa: Now, let’s dive right into the book excerpt. If you’d like to follow along, visit

[Molli DeRosa reads the full excerpt of Pirates in the Navy.]


You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered: Essentials, a special segment from our podcast for corporate innovators. This episode was written and produced by me, Molli DeRosa. Editorial guidance was provided by our producer Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Tendayi for his insights. You can pick up a copy of his book right now on Amazon. We’ll have more special episodes coming soon, where we’ll be discussing and reading more articles from InnoLead, so you’ll never have to skim.

If you’d like to read more, visit our website. If you love this segment, be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcast. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.


Special thanks to Cooper Perkins for sponsoring this episode. Visit to learn more about creating innovative products for partners across industries.