Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Is it Time for Mutiny? (hbr.org)
123 points by lando2319 on Apr 10, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments

In my company there was recently a successful case of mutiny where an incompetent project manager was removed from a project and subsequently made to leave the company.

Long story short, the guy was making stupid technical decisions (some of which were incredibly harmful to the project), he was unable to complete his tasks within a reasonable timespan, he was dictatorial and argumentative with other developers despite lacking technical expertise and a plethora of other issues. A few developers got together, went to his boss, told him about the situation (basically what I wrote above, though in a more tactful way), managed to convince the boss that the guy is a major liability and a risk to the project and succeeded in removing him from the project. The project is now successful once again.

It was an incredibly risky move in my opinion but it succeeded because the devs were organized, disciplined and tactful and presented their case to the higher ups in a rational and reasonable manner. If you're dealing with a situation like this, it helps to stay calm and try to not come off as a moaner/potential power grabber or something worse. It's risky but it can be done.

Fantastic example and it sounds like it went well.

What about if "guy" == "son and "boss" == "father"? Any tips? :)

Find another job. Not just with "son and father" but also with genetically unrelated cronies.

that is an awesome example. there is a similar modern case in the book. a mutiny in a company and an entrepreneurial venture in a market space have many similarities, parallel risks and potential rewards.

Reminds me of the Mutiny scene in Band of Brothers.


awesome connection - hadn't heard of that mutiny scene before

>It's a rarely studied era

More accurate: 100 years ago it was an intensely studied era, as the West struggled to understand what had allowed it to conquer the whole world. But it is an era that has gone out of fashion. It is not now widely studied.

But even now, the subject is not unknown. The person who did the best comparison of modern entrepreneurs and the old sea faring culture was Ted Goranson, in a small pamphlet called "Whale of a Tale." It is tragic that this pamphlet is now out of print. It used to be that you could find a copy on Amazon, but now it seems to be gone. It was only 25 pages, and did a brilliant job showing how the old laws and cultures of the seafaring nations became the basis for the modern understanding of entrepreneurs.

I understand that his "whale" story was incorporated into the book he eventually wrote:


I have not read the book so I can not vouch for it.

In his pamphlet, Goranson did a great job of arguing that whaling ships were the worlds first Virtual Agile Enterprises. Very insightful reading.

that's a pretty good pamphlet, thanks for sharing. but unfortunately, age of discovery seafaring ventures and whaling ventures were very different indeed. the former where driven by discovery and intensely entrepreneurial. the latter were driven my mercantilism and commercial routines and more industrial i.e., less entrepreneurial. you'll learn far more about the implicitly human dynamics of coordinated upward defiance (mutiny) and entrepreneurial action studying the age of discovery. that's what mutiny and its bounty does. whaling wasn't part of the age of discovery, as you imply (btw it belies your point that the age of discovery was intensely studied). whaling came later, with england, which was about 100 years behind spain and 200 years behind portugal with regard to seafaring. that being said, english mercantilism and its traditions generated the largest empire in world history. but large bureaucratic empires are not really what we're talking about here; we're talking about agile entrepreneurial ventures.

A ship (or fleet of ships) on a voyage of discovery goes thousands of miles away from any court or police presence or indeed from any prospective allies or enemies who even speak the same language as the people on the ship.

That single strategic factor makes stories of mutinies dramatically interesting, but it also leaves me puzzled (even after reading the article at hbr.org) as to why the author of the article at hbr.org expects his book or his article to shed much light on situations in which all parties have recourse at any time to a judical system with a strong centuries-old commitment to the preservation of the rights of property and its duly appointed "agents" (i.e., the managers of the corporation).

ADDED. Well, yeah, for a group of employees with a bad boss to go over the boss's head to try to get the boss removed has some resemblance to a mutiny on a ship, but why rely on this rather tenuous connection between mutinies on wooden ships and "modern employee mutinies"? Why not directly study cases when in this day and age employees tried to get their boss removed? Because reading about mutinies on wooden ships is more fun? Because it makes for drama that can be converted into page views?

ADDED. Another huge difference is that for an employee to leave the ship during the voyage means being stranded 1000s of miles from civilization, which is a much bigger deal than walking away from unvested options or the chance of a pension.

Exactly! Complaining to the boss's boss is a very different process than slitting the captain's throat in the middle of the night and throwing him overboard. I'm not sure how one sheds any light on the other.

sounds like you need to read the book. history will teach you many lessons. In old seafaring ventures AND in modern firms leaders undertake actions that violate shared values. in the historic cases the values are more basic (safety, food) to the human condition than they are in firms today (socialization, esteem). Mutinies on historic age of discovery ventures were extremely sophisticated and subtle and the physical environment brought it all down to basic human social dynamics. why not look at firms today? try it. (a) firms are all different from one another and you can't compare cases - the ships were suitable similar. (b) can't get reliable data - people today will lie to you because they are biased, whereas on the ships the primary account journals are richer and more objective. finally, citing the judicial system strains credulity as there is so much members can do to depose leaders with it completely under the radar.

As the last sentence in the article states, I believe the modern-day form of mutiny is brain-drain. Ships were closed systems with limited means for dissatisfied crew members to leave. The business world, on the other hand, is an open system.

>The business world, on the other hand, is an open system.

Depending on the country. There is probably an interesting relationship between the openness of the business system (how easy is it to quit and get a different job) and how much people feel the need to fight to reform their current job.

I know that in Eastern Europe there is still a culture that feels that past a certain age it is difficult to find a new job, and so one must stick with one's current job, and mutiny if the leadership is very bad. (To some extent, that attitude is everywhere, but it is much stronger in some areas of the world. The English speaking nations seem to lead the way in assuming that quitting and hiring and firing should all be fairly free.)

Let's say a "friend" of mine works for a company of about 100 people. There would be clear lines of demarcation between departments, management, and responsibility but that is not what ownership wants. Instead they run a flat system where the patriarch (of the family that owns the company):

* bypasses all "managers" to assign tasks direct to the employee

* never has a meeting asking for suggested fixes, just what he thinks he should do

* will not support any directives not thought up by him

This is not standard "every office" has this paranoia. My friend has a long history of employment and they know the difference.

The problem is that they grew to care about the rest of the staff. My friend fancies himself the protector and even for a time was |---| close to heading up company operations. Nevertheless, it never happened.

My point is that the company is ripe for just such a mutiny. People are unable to do their jobs effectively and it's caused such a turtling effect that nobody wants to stick their neck out anymore.

But a mutiny wouldn't help, would it? Would it?

All my friend can see is more divisiveness separating the ownership from the employees who are already treated as a line in the expense ledger. If the owner could, he'd do everyone's job and he'd do it better than they could.

A mutiny would do nothing more than to reinforce that he thinks people have a bad attitude, as opposed to realizing one exists because of the situation.

Everyone where my friend works want to see the company continue to succeed. But what incentive is there for people to care when you are treated as if your input is meaningless?

Interesting comment, you are thinking too much "inside the box" though. There is the kind of mutiny (which is common in Silicon Valley) where a strategic chunk of the "crew" (aka the employess) believe in the goal but not the management and so they leave as a group to re-create the same enterprise they are in, but with a better (for them) management structure.

This sort of strategic mutiny is made possible in California by its employee friendly laws which make "non-compete" clauses unenforceable and ownership claims over work the employee does outside the office difficult.

In the case of a small company, strategic mutinies like this can be fatal to the original company because often times expertise is concentrated into a single individual. When management is aware of that, it is sometimes possible to 'mutiny in place' where a meeting with management is held where the choice is provided to change or potentially lose the entire company. Such mutinies have a somewhat more checkered outcome of the ones I've been aware of (two succeeded and three "failed" in that the strategic group ended up walking out anyway). In larger companies a group of 10 - 15 folks can walk out and cause pain but not a mortal wound to the parent company.

Couldn't agree more. Unfortunately for the situation stated, the startup capital involved is more significant since they are an online retailer in a very popular, but very expensive hobby.

In this case, I think a mutiny is far less likely because the valuation of talent is far less than its true worth. In this case, the staff just needs to win back their own confidence that they are good enough to find a place where they may be appreciated more as opposed to teaching an old dog new tricks.

Yes the traitorous 8 forming fairchild is a classic example from SV's past

A corporate mutiny needs to be able to appeal to someone in authority to remove the problematic employee/manager. If the problem is the owner, you have no one above them to appeal to - your only hope is to convince the owner to step aside or suddenly transform from as you describe a very active role to a very passive one. The chances of success here sound incredibly low.

great comment. mutiny was viewed extremely differently in the age of discovery, even positively. seafarers were extremely clever about it and so were leaders. it is possible to depose authority in a setting like you describe but not via the current dominant view or what it means to depose authority. a mutiny, done very strategically, can be constructive. but it needs to flow from the culture of the organization in which it occurs.


Recently an outside corporate executive from a competitor was brought on board and the first thing he marvelled at was the lack of any sort of culture the place had. To him, it felt more like a gas station than the hip place he had come from.

The company is in a very "young" niche (extreme sports retail) so to see something more akin to a 70's office pool blew his mind.

The key difference with corporate "mutinies" and mutinies at sea is that on a ship your mutiny needs to take control of the ship to succeed. Life without the safety of the ship poses significant existential threat. It is often better, and less risky for modern would-be mutineers to follow the example of the traitorous eight and just leave as a group and do their own thing.

Also, a mutiny gathered steam inboard a ship because poor management of ship and resources was life threatening. A lot of folks in a poorly managed company still live a comfortable lifestyle and take home a large paycheck (cough Yahoo! engineers pre-Mayer) so have little incentive to join a mutiny which might jeopardize that.

actually in both settings you have an example of shared values being affronted. on a ship the values concern safety and food. in a firm the values concern socialization and esteem. in both settings, leaders undertake actions that violate shared values. so the mechanism that stimulates mutiny in both settings is identical. moreover, it is indeed possible for mutineers to take control (subtle control, over weeks or months) of a venture, department, or firm.

"it is indeed possible for mutineers to take control..of a ... firm."

I think it's important to make a distinction between the typical infighting of corporate politics, in which one organization (or leader) wins out over another, resulting in a round of layoffs and re-orgs where one of the leaders comes out on top, and a mutiny, in which those subordinate to an ultimate leader of a firm (CEO) take control.

In the scenario of a mutiny on a ship, this is done by force. In the scenario of the modern public corporation, the CEO is subordinate to the board of directors, and I'm struggling to come up with an example in which the subordinates of a CEO displaced that CEO. Certainly not by force, and almost never by doing an end-run around the CEO to the Board of Directors, except in the case of fraud/violations of corporate policy - which I don't really consider a Mutiny, but more of a reporting of violations to the Board of Directors, in which the Board makes a decision.

I agree with the parent - It really is very, very rare (still trying to think of an example) in which anything more than a departmental mutiny takes place. The CEO's job is usually quite secure (until the Board decides otherwise) - it is much more often the case that those individuals simply leave and go form their own venture (The traitorous eight)

actually in both settings you have an example of shared values being affronted.

Strictly speaking, yes, but certain values are much more likely to lead to mutiny if disrespected. I'd like to think most managers would get deposed/abandoned pretty quickly if they disrupted their employees' access to food and safety.

Over a period of several years at a large corporation I tested different approaches to "benign" change as I was watching dark clouds duke it out at the SVP level above us. The way to move things was to propose an opportunity that was infectious (aka the person pitching it could see benefit to passing it on) and to spread it widely fast, so it works like a trend everyone is talking about, rather than a one sided push. If everyone thought it was their idea, things moved.

The organization seemed to work like an organism - every new idea was treated like a foreign body. Rightly so, because when you have that many jobs at stake, the wrong idea can get the whole business sick. The projects that went through acted like a virus in that environment... until they reached the political cloud.

At levels below VP, we operated as a relative meritocracy. At levels above that, power was limited, so for someone to win others had to lose. If you wanted to push an initiative above that level, you had to bet on the right SVP. At that point you start seeing them play out the House of Cards mutiny style in action: the "Piss sideways to avoid splashing and to lessen the noise" kind. Needless to say, I left to do a startup.

Sometimes if mutiny isn't possible, the mutineer takes another tack. Henry Singleton was an engineering and financial wizard at Litton, but he was not in the running for CEO, so he left with a cadre of Litton's best people and started Teledyne. Over the years, Teledyne grew much faster than Litton, bought many companies, and took large positions in other companies' stock. At its peak ownership, Teledyne had about 30% of the common shares of Litton, leading to many sleepless nights for the Litton executives.

Related ... for good reasons, a scrum team explicitly has the option of rejecting one of the members of the team.

(edit) presumably that includes the scrum master.

A real mutiny would be rejecting the product owner!

MIT offers "How to Stage a Revolution" http://web.mit.edu/~21h.001/www/

Just started reading it yesterday. I'm looking forward to reading about high stakes on the high seas.

"It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy." - Steve Jobs

I've seen more corporate mutiny attempts in a few years than most people do in their lives. If you want mutiny, you have to divide power against itself. Power wants to unite. It wants the competition to be between it and the outside because that's the unfair kind that it can always win. Creating competition within power forces them into fights they might actually lose. They don't like that. So it's hard.

The problem with deposing bad leadership is that it usually likes being bad, because it's more fun for such people to be arbitrary, capricious and mean than to actually hold themselves responsible for making good decisions. You're going to have to find a "good guy" executive to lead the fight and, often, there aren't any. They've all been driven out, and bad guys or apathetic people remain (most corporate execs aren't "evil" in the sadistic sense, but merely apathetic and corruptible.)

Effective corporate mutinies don't come from rabble-rousing. They come from executive turmoil. You have to create a Red Team and a Blue Team and set them against each other in an all-out war with no quarter and existential stakes. Warning: you'll probably lose your job even if your side wins.

Usually, successful corporate mutinies lead to the winning executive contingent becoming powerful, but their supporters (including those who started the mutiny) being the thrown-aside "useful idiots". So that's another problem with it.

I love the idea of corporate mutiny, but I've also seen enough to realize that it rarely works. It's better to just let brain-drain take care of it (and be part of the drain, too).

I've seen a number of mutiny attempts - some were famously successful, some worked out exactly as you would guess a "mutiny" would when their leader discovered.

In one mutiny, during a pretty significant re-org/layoffs, part of our organization had been sold to another (perceived to be inferior) company - the majority of the organization (that hadn't been laid off) - was just happy to still have a job, but a select group of technical employees decided (under the direction of a strong ring leader) - that they would not go to the other company. The ringleader was able to get five or six key technical employees to mutiny with him, and that would have been sufficient to jeopardize ongoing operations. His demands were met, and they were able to stay with initial company. No retribution ever occurred, and they had several successful years as employees.

Another attempt at clear-cut mutiny that I've seen, was a technical leader who was not fond of his manager, reach out to a competing organization (In a clear cut Red/Blue scenario) in the company, and volunteered to "take all his employees over" to that organization. The manager, for whatever reason, forwarded the email to the technical leader's manager, and that technical leader was then terminated the next morning for "insubordination." - Over the next two to three months every single member of that team resigned their jobs in protest, causing disruption for the next several quarters at the company. Mutiny both failed, and caused great disruption to the company.

The OP article is pretty good - it captures pretty much all of the elements that make for mutiny, and the circumstances in which it can be successful, and how it takes place.

I saw a preemptive counter-mutiny once that ended badly...

One person was leader of a newly formed team, and a kind of star programmer (that actually delivered). That person started to bypass the most direct boss, and talk directly to the CEO, frequently.

So we have a CEO that like the "victim", and a person between CEO and "victim" that want to get rid of the "victim" because he is a potential threat.

Then "victim" has some health issues, and start to code much slower... the "boss" attempts to fire him, but CEO rescue him.

Then "boss" awaits for CEO go some months later to a meeting, asks "victim" to show his finished project (the deadline was still next week, but "boss" claimed he could review now), declares it as failed, and fire him in a very public way, forcing him to exit the building with all of his stuff immediately and leave all his credentials and keys behind. Also "boss" stealthly sets up some e-mail filter, so "victim" cannot mail the CEO.

Other employees realized what happened, and most of them quit (Even several ones that had nothing to do with the "victim")

"boss" gambled, he was the favourite of CEO, and he knew that a public firing could not be undone by the CEO, because the CEO would not do anything that looked like a public punishment... Indeed, CEO did nothing, except watch his ship almost sink (it did not sunk, they could hire another team after about a year and a half...)

Early on in my career I was working for a consulting company at a parent company (the actual end-client) - we were based in the office as a small team of about 10-15 people.

The boss of the team decided that there were good fees to be had, and so went to key players and tried to bid for the contract direct to the client under his own banner, in effect trying to form a company and go into competition with his current employer. The plan was to stitch up the contract for the second phase of the contract by underbidding, and pocket a portion of the massive fees being paid by the client to the consulting company.

He came to me with an offer of more money if I threw my lot in with him. I agreed to do so, $$$ flashing in front of my eyes.

Of course someone leaked the entire deal to the consulting company management and we all got sacked on the spot and I learnt my lesson which is to be very cagey about these types of things. It didn't worry me about losing the job, I wasn't into it much anyway, and I did actually get paid out a notice period, which was generous on their part (perhaps it was go-away money). But at a more crucial phase of a career it could have been very damaging.

excellent comments. it does rarely work. those mutinies for reasons similar to why entrepreneurial ventures fail. success rate is about the same. secrecy, strategy, timing. an idea that is defensible. established elements are threatened by it. try to crush it. risk, etc.

the top 1 percent own 40 percent of U.S. wealth, the bottom 80 percent own just 7 percent of America's wealth https://www.businessinsider.com/inequality-is-worse-than-you...

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact