Insights all Leaders Should Take to Heart from The Pirate Paradigm at NASA

In business, we often label renegades and rebels as troublemakers — individuals who have to “get with the program” to align the organization both internally and externally. Research at NASA, however, suggests we need renegades more than we think.
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In business, we often label renegades and rebels as troublemakers — individuals who have to “get with the program” to align the organization both internally and externally. Research at NASA, however, suggests we need renegades more than we think. Far from being obstacles to the work at hand, renegades can offer powerful ways to revitalize and shift organizations into the future.

This new group at NASA created the “Pirate Paradigm” — values that challenged the established culture, and some of which echo modern agile principles:

  • Don’t wait to be told to do something; figure it out for yourself.
  • Challenge everything, and steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism, opposition, rumors, 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 organization; outsource as much as possible.

By shaping action that went beyond the established conservative culture, their values allowed innovation of essential mission control capabilities for NASA. The Pirates’ motto was “build a little, test a little, fix a little,” and their practices included:

  • Regular short-cycle milestones to encourage continuous improvement and experimentation.
  • Results orientation.
  • Cutting out bureaucracy.
  • Encouraging personal accountability and responsibility.
  • Challenging convention, while operating in a large, rule-bound hierarchical organization.
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