Book Excerpt: Think Like a Privateer, Not a Pirate

May 15, 2020

Steve Jobs once said it’s better to be a pirate than to join the Navy. In this metaphor, pirates refer to startups, built by nimble teams that are optimized to prototype, test, and improve new ideas. Jobs compared large organizations, which are slower to bring new ideas to market, to the bureaucratic Navy.

However, innovators don’t have to choose between crime on the high seas or a life of rank and regimentation. Tendayi Viki, a former Director of Product at the educational publishing company Pearson and a Partner at the consulting firm Strategyzer, suggests that there’s a third option: thinking of yourself as a privateer.

“There’s this distinction between pirates and privateers. … 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,” Viki said in a recent interview. “[S]o what you really want to be…is a privateer. You have to recognize that your job is to build a bridge between innovation and the core business.”

Viki’s newest book, Pirates in the Navy, presents a compass to guide professionals through the treacherous waters of corporate politics to innovation wins.

In order to chalk up wins, Viki advises people to start small. Work with the allies who are already on your side. And if you get an early win, celebrate it, but don’t get distracted — there’s still work to be done.

“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 in a repeatable way,” Viki explained. “You want to move from one-off projects to become much more successful in establishing an ecosystem for innovation.”

In this exclusive excerpt from Pirates in the Navy, Viki discusses how to capture momentum from early wins and identify the early adopters for innovative ideas.

Start Small

A lot of innovators that I have met are impatient people. By the time they start working together, they are already fed up with their company. They know something needs to be done, and they just want to jump in and get started. And they want to do everything all at once.

I have worked with intrapreneurs that try to launch new products in multiple divisions, change the hearts and minds of leaders, host a ton of events and run workshops to train everyone in innovation skills. Intrapreneurs that work in this way are the most stressed out people I have ever met. They are spread too thin and are having little impact on their company. 

I have also worked with intrapreneurs that are way too focused on changing the minds of their strongest detractors. I called these people “the crazy ones”. They are picking fights with their detractors in the hope of convincing or defeating them. You often notice the scars they have on their forehead from banging their heads against the wall. In my whole career, I have never met an innovator who has won that fight.

There is a better way to turn detractors into allies. Show them the value you are able to create for the company, and attract them to your movement. The only way to show this value is to start small by working closely with people within the company who are already on your side.

Early Adopters

Detractors can make intrapreneurship feel like a lonely pursuit. However, this feeling is totally misguided. In every large company I have worked with, there are people that want to innovate at every level. There are product teams that are eager to use lean startup methods. There are also leaders who get it and are looking for allies to work with to drive innovation within the company.

These people are your early adopters. They are the ones that will work with you straight away. They will tolerate your mistakes and root for your success. But how do you find them? Within lean startup, Steve Blank defines an early adopter as a customer who has a problem, is aware of having that problem, has been actively looking for a solution, has tried to put together a solution themselves, and has or can acquire a budget.

The same principles apply to your search for early adopters within your company. The majority of the work I have done has been commissioned by leaders who:

  1. Understand that the world is changing and their company is not well suited to adapt to emerging trends.
  2. Are acutely aware that their company has a deficit in the innovation capability needed to survive in the future.
  3. Have been actively looking for solutions — which is partly why they have reached out to me.
  4. Before they started talking to me, they have already sponsored some internal innovation activities (e.g. hackathons or idea competitions).
  5. Have the resources to invest and are prepared to make a time commitment to innovation.

Leaders and teams with these five characteristics are the ones you are looking to start working with; not the detractors. These people are your allies — and you don’t have to do the hard work of convincing them. The biggest benefit of working with early adopters is that it allows you to get some early wins.

Early Wins

A key part of changing hearts and minds is talking to people. But talking without action is cheap. The trouble with most intrapreneurs I have met is that they can’t stop pontificating. They believe so strongly in what they plan to do that they want to talk about it endlessly. The problem is that they are talking about what they plan to do — rather than actually doing it.

Working with early adopters allows us to start doing the work, get early wins and build our credibility within the company. So our focus should be on helping our early adopters leaders and business units succeed at whatever innovation projects they are working on. When we work on these projects with early adopters our focus should be 100%. We should not get distracted by “more interesting” projects within the company. Our job will be to help drive these projects to success. And when we get that early win — celebrate like crazy — in public.

Keep Focused

After getting an early win, celebrate like crazy but don’t get distracted. You may now be a local hero inside the company. You will now be getting asked to give presentations to leaders about your success and the lessons learned. You will be invited to lunch meetings, to be a judge at hackathons, and write articles on the company blog. Depending on the magnitude of your success, you may even be getting press and media attention.

Please don’t get caught up in the buzz around your early win and forget there is still work to do. It’s time to leverage the positive buzz around your success and build a repeatable process inside your compan