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What is the Pirate Ship?
The Pirate Ship is a workshop format to help team come together and grow as
high performing teams.
• It is based on a well known and accepted normative model of work groups
• It incorporates classical tools such as Visioning, SWOT, Stakeholder in a play
concrete and playful setting which enhance the meaningfulness
• It uses game storming and visualization as a facilitation technique to enhance
energy and cooperation
With the Pirate Ship you can help the team…
• Establish who they are
• Understand why they exist
• Collaboratively create a team vision
• See their stakeholder needs
• Formulate a mission
• Discover and celebrate what success looks like
• Create a roadmap
• Map out what…
The work group model
The Pirate Ship metaphor is loosely based on the normative work group model
formulated by J. Richard Hackman in 1987.
Here’s a list of important sources
• J. Richard Hackman, The design of work teams (1987)
• Peter Antman, Tillsammans (2015)
• Roger Swarz, The skilled facilitator (2001)
• Starhawk, The empowerment manual (2011)
• Ron Katzenbach & Douglas Smith, The wisdom of teams (1993)
• Patric Lencioni, The five dysfunctions of a team (2002)
• Lyssa Adkins, Coaching agile teams (2010)
• Christopher Avery, Teamwork is an individual skill (2001)
Facilitation & vizualization
The facilitation and visualization format(s) are inspired by the following books.
They are a good source to more deeply understand how to facilitate the
• Dave Gray et. al., Gamestorming (2010)
• Luke Hohmann, Innovation games (2006)
• Sam Kaner, Facilitators guide to participatory decision-making (2007)
• Have lots of post-its and pens.
• Have A4 or A3 and color pens
• Try to prepare avatars for all team members and bring “kladdlera”
• Paint a pirate ship, some reefs, and island (with groups of people), and a rising sun.
This workshop will be about us/you as a team.
We will use a pirate ship and its crew as a metaphor for teamworks.
You are the crew on the pirate ship. You are out on a mission. Striving to increase the treasures on the
secret visionary dream island.
- There are lots of variations possible here. Try tell a story. I often asks how we can see that it’s a pirate ship (jolly roger flag), what kind of mission
pirates have and then connect that in a more friendly manor on how the crew tries to enrich the lives of the peoples on the island by collecting gold, or
by some other activity.
Introduce the metaphor
Do you want to be part of the crew?
Place your self on the ship.
Reflect on where people placed themselves.
Who are outside the ship? Managers? Stakeholders?
Who are we?
Depending on your current need the format is possible to use in a number of scenarios.
• Do the team understand what they are meant or want to achive? -> Vision.
• Do they need to formulate why they exist? -> Mission.
• Do they need to visualize what they have achieved? –> The gold coffin.
• Do they need to map their strengths and weaknesses? -> Anchors, Winds and Reefs.
• Do they need to improve on their way of working together? -> Team Charter.
• Do they need to define or understand or set milestones? -> Find the Ships.
• Do they need to get a sense of external expectations? -> What do the chief want?
• Do they need to formulate improvements and activities they need to do? -> Improvement backlog or Activties,
You do not need to do them all!
You can do them in the order that fits you!
Go with the metaphor – Improvise!
What do you as a facilitator want to achive?
A vision is a statement of how the world will look after a team or organization have achieved its goals. There are ample evidence
both in the literature and from my personal experience that teams need a vision. I many ways: having a common vision is what
makes a group of people a team.
You want your team to illustrate the visions, since the vision should describe a state, and it’s often easier to do that in painting.
Remember that a vision can be both about a product or an organization. Often an organization and team need to have two
visions: one for what they want to accomplish in the world and one about their way of working.
There are a number of ways to do this. I often use the exercise On the cover.
You can also use the island metaphor
to do an exercise about the people
on the island (customers/
stakeholders) and their needs.
Say: In (for example) 2 years you will end up on the cover
of XXX magazine for what you have achieved as a team.
How will the cover look?
Here you can find the full instructions for On the cover: http://gamestorming.com/games-for-design/cover-story/
On The Cover
To celebrate and understand what we actually are capable of it’s sometimes good to collect
and remember all the things we have already achieved.
Paint a huge gold coffin.
Say: You have already achieved a lot of stuff together. Lets call them your gold coins. Write
down important things you think you have done together and lets store them in the coffin.
The Gold Coffin
The pirates have their Jolly Rogers flag. It states why they exists: we are here to rob you
and fill our coffins with gold.
Why do you exist? What is your mission? What should be on your flag?
The mission flag
1.Write post-its with verbs and nouns that capture why you exist. What are you going to do in the
2. In smaller group: inspired from the post-its, write a mission statement. “We exist to…”
(A formula that can be used is: “As TEAM we want to DO/CREATE so that we ACHIVE by using VALUES/METHODS”)
3. Gather around the board and try to merge the different mission statements
How do you want to change the world?
The crew is sailing the ship to reach their vision. But what strength and weaknesses do the team have? And are
there any external threats or obstacles?
Now you can use the ship metaphor to its fullest. Ask and make the participants write on post-it notes:
• The wind in the sail is what’s driving you forward. What are your driving motives or strength?
• The anchors from the ship is holding you back? What are they?
• The reefs in your path are obstacles, threats and competitors? Are there any?
Anchor, Winds and Reefs
If you are on a ship together it’s much easier to get along and achieve your goal if you are clear on what you expect
from each other and have some common rules. Even pirates had a Code of Conduct.
• What are your expectations on each other?
• Are there any rules or policy's you would like everyone to sign?
• Check for consensus for each suggestion. Any one oppose this?
• Dot vote on the most important rules. Save and illustrate the top 5.
Code of Conduct
The Pirate Ship can also be used to help drive a product backlog.
I usually say something like: how are you going to achieve your vision? What are you
You can think about these as the ships the pirates are hunting to steel their gold. What
ships are you hunting?
A healthy team need to take responsibility for it’s own performance. To be able to do this it
must have knowledge on what’s expected from it. I sometimes call it a fitness function.
A team might set or discover those expectations by them selves.
I usually ask a questions such as: what do you think your company (or boss) expect from
you as a team?
What do the chief want?
When doing an exercise like this one of the result is a deeper shared understanding. This might be
enough of an outcome.
I however often want the team to create an improvement backlog where they identify concrete
activities they want to do given all we have done and learned during the workshop.
It’s very important that each item have a responsible person, a driver, assigned.
If I have limited time or the team knows each other well I might skip some steps and create an improvement backlog more or less directly, once we know vision and ships
I might say (and write) something like: from what we now know we are going to gather improvements we need to make. I have already classified them in:
• Attitudes – it’s behaviour we need to change and upphold for a long time
• Organization – are structural changes we need to do
• Activities – are concrete stuff we need to do
Please write post-its.
Go through each note and assign someone responsible.
Activity, Organization, Attitude
Is that it?
It is a format and a metaphor. Try to use it and you will notice how the team runs with the metaphor
(if you are lucky, I have experienced teams that did not like the playfulness of the format).
Integrate your normal team workshop activities into the format and see what happens. Good luck!