Applying lean thinking to project work offers some challenges that are not faced in steady-state lean operations such as manufacturing. One of those challenges is that our teams are mostly temporary, and we don’t have the luxury of taking a long time to get to a high level of team performance. We need to build fast-launching teams.


The story of how Roberts achieved such success as a pirate provides a valuable lesson for those wanting to build fast-launching teams in project work.





In the book (and later the film) The Princess Bride, Dread Pirate Roberts, as the name suggests, was a notorious pirate who was as loved by his crew as he was feared by other seamen. He had a reputation so fierce that ships surrendered their bounty without a fight – a pretty good life for a pirate! The story of how Roberts achieved such success, and was able to maintain his position for decades, provides valuable lessons for those who set out to build fast-launching teams.

When Wesley, our story’s young hero, explained to Buttercup, his longtime love, that he was actually the Dread Pirate Roberts, something didn’t add up. Buttercup knew that Roberts had been terrorizing the sea for decades, but Wesley had only been away for a few years. There is no way Wesley could be the notorious pirate. Or was there?

Wesley went on to reveal his secret. Wesley’s ship had actually been captured by Roberts five years prior. Roberts had taken Wesley as his prisoner and put him to work as cabin boy. Over time, Wesley and Roberts developed a close friendship. Roberts taught Wesley all he knew about the pirate life – how to run a ship, how to maintain a fearsome reputation, and how to manage a crew of dangerous misfits.

When Wesley was ready, Roberts made him an offer. At its next stop in port, the pirate ship would release the entire crew. Only Roberts and Wesley would remain. Together, they would recruit an entirely new crew before embarking on their next journey. However, to the new crew, Wesley would be known as Dread Pirate Roberts and Roberts would serve as his cabin boy. As the “follower” Roberts would reinforce Wesley’s authority as captain, and make it clear to the crew that he was not to be questioned or challenged. Thus, overnight, Wesley had gained the respect and power that Roberts had apparently taken a lifetime to develop.

When they reached the next port, Roberts left the ship and went on to a comfortable retirement. Wesley adopted a new cabin boy, and continued as Dread Pirate Roberts with no one ever suspecting the substitution had taken place. Wesley had no idea how many times this transition had occurred, but he knew that when he was ready to retire, he had a way to ensure that Dread Pirate Roberts would live on.

While the story of Dread Pirate Roberts is amusing, it illustrates an important point. Followers are essential and must be part of any plan to create effective teams. Additionally, if you don’t have the luxury of building team performance over a long period of time, the role of followers should be deliberately planned and executed to support your leadership and model proper behavior for others. In our consulting business, we are often faced with the challenge of helping a team leader gain the trust and confidence of her project team, as she tries to instill effective behaviors in a short amount of time. One of the techniques we use is that of the effective follower. By helping the leader’s boss or other key team members understand the importance of following, we can quickly boost her effectiveness and the effectiveness of the team. The leader models the behavior, for example, that we expect reliable commitments from each other, and that statements like “I hope to” or “I should be able to” are not acceptable.

When she hears this type of fuzzy language from the team, she declares, “that doesn’t work here. I need a reliable commitment.” If this is all that happens, it’s easy for team members to roll their eyes and underestimate the power of this shift in team language. However, when a respected follower joins the effort, the team starts to see this is not just the desire of a single person, it’s a norm that must be followed.

When the follower asks for clarification on the concept, the leader has a chance to explain it for everyone. The team sees the follower asking for and accepting advice from the leader, and her influence with the team is immediately doubled. When the follower starts emulating the behavior of the leader, the movement gains momentum again. When one or two additional team members get on board with the new behaviors, the team has reached a tipping point. Very quickly, the team has adopted a new way of thinking and talking about getting things done. A new norm has been established and team members expect it from each other and teach it to new members. This new norm can be maintained with little effort, and new team members readily understand how this team has decided to behave. The group has become a self-managing team that expects certain things from its members.

Identifying followers and helping them understand the importance of their roles is the first step. Don’t leave it to chance, or just assume that your key people will fill this role successfully by default. Make sure the leader and follower agree on the objectives and be deliberate about how you’ll get there. Try becoming a follower for one of your subordinates. The approach works whether you’re helping a CFO get what he needs from the board, or helping a new foreman gain the confidence of his crew.