March 04, 2015

Recently I’ve been looking for some music animations for my little daughter and discovered Eric Herman and his brilliant and edifying pirate story.

These kind of conflicts actually happen pretty often in real life. Different teams, different businesses, different industries but the same 3 factors in different combinations.

Factor 1 — No Criteria

So Bluebeard said, “Since we’ve nothing to do
Why don’t we paint our new pirate ship blue?”

Redbeard spoke up, saying, “Aye, but instead
wouldn’t ye rather we painted her red?”

Blackbeard said, “Blimey! You’re both off the track.
Let’s paint it something more handsome, like black.”

Pirates made an almost classical mistake – jumping directly to what and omitting why. Why paint the ship in the first place! If we don’t know why, we don’t have any criteria to select a good solution. Hence alternative solutions people come up with – something we should benefit from – actually become an issue per se. Smart people can always prove superiority of their idea. A few such superior ideas in the team are the perfect firewood for conflict.

First, align the goal. Then specify success criteria. Only then discuss the solutions.

When facing such conflict a leader is tempted to pursue one of the obvious strategies.

Above the conflict

A leader acts as a moderator, not interfering with the conflict and letting people settle it among themselves. This strategy works if all your team members are essentially leaders. Otherwise this may become a never ending story. People may interpret this as your weakness, inability to make a decision, which is the responsibility of a leader.


Leader combines all solutions into one compromise. This works by making everybody equally unhappy. Almost always this is the least optimal solution.

Decision by Authority

A leader makes a decision himself and uses his authority to enforce it. This is a quick solution that may be used in critical situations if communicated properly. Otherwise it kills proactivity and engagement. In a worst case scenario a leader may foster an opposition inside his team.

Instead a leader can use the following technique.

Stop any discussions. Return to why and align the goal. Choose the criteria. Evaluate options. Repeat with stricter criteria until only one option is left.

But let us return to our pirates. Actually the outcome would not have been so disastrous if the ground had not been prepared by…

Factor 2 — No Vision

So Bluebeard said, “Since we’ve nothing to do”

Pirates had nothing to do. Actually I don’t think they really had nothing to do. You know, there are plenty of things to do when you are a pirate. What they rather lacked was the vision of future, the understanding of where they were going. And without vision people don’t know what to do and what their priorities are. Thus they will work on tasks of their own preference. This makes it quite difficult to align the goal.

Have a vision. Communicate it to your team.

And finally to make a conflict worse – our pirates were up tight and demoralized by…

Factor 3 — No Wins

Seaward they scudded and skipped on the breeze
But couldn’t find treasure to plunder and seize

Pirate team was not successful for some long time. And people need a success story to relate to. Without it morale and engagement go down and people start to question their team membership. After all nobody really wants to have a part in failure.

Plan your small and big wins. Win! And celebrate.

Normally you plan to have the most important things done first. But what if that important thing is too difficult? Sometimes it makes sense to start from a less important but easier part, so that your team can accomplish it and get its taste of victory.

Thus for pirates it turned out badly. But a pragmatic leader could have helped them. Recall this pirate story and 3 factors when you face a conflict in your team. And remember – a pirate without treasure is like a monkey without a spatula!

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