Corporate purpose

Be more pirate

The principles of piracy could help resolve modern day challenges

It was perhaps asking for trouble when Penguin Random House commissioned a business book entitled Be More Pirate: Or How To Take Over The World And Win.

The publisher certainly didn’t bargain for author Sam Conniff Allende forging a letter from its chief executive and fly-posting its London head office in luminous pink for a guerrilla marketing campaign.

The anarchic plan worked, however, propelling the tome into Britain’s top 100 bestsellers’ list by the end of launch day. Now Conniff Allende wants to foment ‘positive rebellion’ in British boardrooms.

Be More Pirate finds parallels between pirate legends like Blackbeard and Sir Henry Morgan and modern-day rebels ranging from Elon Musk to the mysterious founders of Blockchain.

Conniff Allende alighted on the idea whilst reflecting on his 15 years as co-founder and chief executive of Livity, a creative communications network which developed a youth culture specialism through allowing young people to use its offices for college work, entrepreneurial efforts, freelancing or work experience.

With 2,000 young people coming through its offices each month, it was able to advise clients like Netflix and Facebook on their attitudes on issues ranging from music piracy to social media.

Pirates were threatening the establishment because they operated sophisticated alternative societies that represented fairness, equality and justice

Now working as a consultant on purpose-driven strategy, advising clients such as Google and Red Bull, Conniff Allende began studying traditional piracy and was amazed to discover that the history of its ‘golden age’ was rewritten after Britain’s pirates were crushed in the 1720s and 1730s.

He explains: ‘Pirates were threatening the establishment, not because they were the drinking, marauding rascally rogues that they have since been painted as. It was because they operated sophisticated alternative societies that represented fairness, equality and justice and were formed by the millennials of their age in direct conflict with a broken, unfair establishment system.’

Contrary to popular belief, Conniff Allende says ‘golden age’ pirates were highly accountable to each other in a way mirrored by how modern-day ‘pirates’ such as Uber and Airbnb use peer reviews.

‘There wasn’t thievery on board pirate ships. Generally, there wasn’t bad behaviour between them. They had a pirates’ code and a spirit of co-operation in care for the wounded, injured and elderly in an organised system where everyone felt they had a say,’ he explains. ‘They were deeply responsible, well-run, sophisticated organisations. The real threat of pirates was that these deeply ‘uncouth’ men really represented a new way of doing things.’

In today’s world, Coniff Allende sees piracy as a way of breaking and remaking rules to make things better, fairer, or faster, using collaboration as a secret weapon to allow underdogs to beat the odds.

He believes this is even more relevant now than it was in the 1700s as ‘an overlooked generation of millennials faces a self-interested establishment, certain uncertainty, a broken system and redundancy on an industrial scale’. The challenge for large corporates, he says, is how they can engage with modern-day rebellion without seeing it as a threat to their modes of operating.

Among millennials, he sees an overwhelming frustration at the way things are, a desire to do things differently and a disbelief in the ability of big business to bring about change at anywhere near the required pace. ‘Pirates offer an opportunity to step out of permission-based change,’ he says. ‘A lot of the bright ideas for change within organisations end up going onto decks of slides and then slowly endure email threads that represent death by a thousand cuts.

‘Corporates should ask employees what rules they most want to break and then track those rules back to the C-suite, where they will find that much of what they do is about precedents, conventions, and habits. Then they should ask employees which ‘rules’ they want to re-make.

‘I call this professional rule-breaking. If you’re not nearly getting fired at least once a year, you’re not really doing anything that’s going to bring about change.’

Conniff Allende says that in this way, a team of five in a 5,000-person organisation can come up with a new way of setting budgets, a new framework for having meetings, a new discipline for briefing agencies or other innovations.

‘This produces good ideas which spread and don’t need to be signed off,’ he says. ‘You just tap into people’s sense of inner pirate, and they make it work with their peers.’ Conniff Allende has used this philosophy at Lego and Mercedes-Benz and has had 400 readers contact him, pledging to drive ‘modern mutinies’ within their organisations. A mooted meet-up of organisational pirates quickly sold out three times over and Conniff Allende feels it can become a global movement.

Corporates should ask employees what rules they most want to break and then ask which rules they want to re-make

Despite publishing the book, however, Penguin was not ready for Coniff Allende’s own mutiny. ‘I went to see the team there a couple of months before the launch and saw that the meeting room looked out onto six lanes of traffic,’ he explains.

‘I went back at night to measure up the window and got a quote for £1,700 for a large banner to be produced. Penguin’s CEO had asked me to give a talk to his leadership team, so I charged him £1,700, didn’t tell him what it was for and got the banner made.

‘I then bought yellow security vests and wrote myself a pretend permission letter from the CEO. I turned up with a step ladder and a massive vinyl advert with a logo of a penguin wearing a little pirate hat and installed it on the morning of the launch.

‘By mid-afternoon, it was trending on Twitter, helped by a tweet from Sir Richard Branson saying he really liked it.’

What did Penguin’s executives think of the stunt? ‘There were some very senior people who were very unamused,’ he admits. ‘But once the social media kicked in, I got a call from the CEO congratulating me for getting it into the top 100.

‘He was very good-humoured about the whole thing. I didn’t apologise to him. I was simply applying the rules in the book to my own campaign.’

Make up ideas
Get good at making things up responsibly, immediately and decisively. If we’re going to keep up with unpredictability, we need licence for mature but in-the-moment application of imagination.

Kill the business plan
Eschew a ‘century-old static format for structuring organisations for collaborative, adaptive formats that are regularly used and reviewed by staff, customers and stakeholders’.

View consumers as citizens
Think of people as citizens, rather than simply as consumers who can buy stuff from you. Move from thinking about ‘us and them’ to ‘we’.

Take happiness seriously
Make happiness in your workplace a need-to-have, rather than a nice-to-have. Make it a strategic driver for success, productivity and creative output.

Adopt a new work manifesto
Create life-work balances, rather than the other way around. Break the tyranny of emails, meetings and to-do lists.

Embrace true diversity to raise your game
Make diversity of thought, background, experience and understanding a driver of competitive advantage, creativity and productive cultures.