Everything I Know About Business I Learned In The SCA: Part 1
The Society for Creative Anachronism is a bizarre, wonderful, ridiculous, multi-faceted organization full of colorful pageantry and even more colorful characters. I joined it when I was 16, and spent the next decade or so deeply involved. Though I don’t play in the SCA as much as I used to, many life lessons from that time still permeate my thinking.
It’s taught me a lot of good lessons about how humans work, both individually and in groups. The lessons carry over well to the business world. In part 1, we’ll look at lessons for the ‘grunt’: the individual contributor, trying to have positive impact on the company they work for.
(A side note: I stole the basic structure of these essays from a wonderful book called “Mob Rules: What the Mafia Can Teach the Legitimate Businessman”, by former mobster Louis Ferrante. I highly recommend buying a copy.)
(If you’re a SCAdian, feel free to skip this part; or read on, if you want to learn my biases.)
The purpose of the SCA is to recreate the “best parts” of the middle ages — any time before 1600, but in practice it’s largely centered around some vague conception of 1200–1500 era Western European cultures. Folks do research to the extent they want, from “I saw a guy wear a tunic like this” to “I’ve earned my doctorate in the study of medieval medicine, and my persona is based precisely on a barber-surgeon from the College of St. Cosme in 1493”; some groups unify under a specific place or time or both (“we’re Vikings!” “this tavern is in Calais, in 1412; bring an appropriate persona”), some groups around an activity (“we bake bread!”), some just for the people they like to hang out with.
The SCA is many things to many people, but one of the key elements for many is the part where folks put on real armor and hit each other full force with rattan (bamboo) swords. That’s the part that hooked me, and where a lot of metaphors come from.
One hit to the head or torso will ‘kill’ you, at which point you fall down and wait for that combat to be over. Then you get up and fight again. (I die! I live again!) A hit to an arm or leg disables the limb, so you might end up hopping around for a while.
Crucially, fighters are responsible for ‘calling’ their own shots — i.e., it’s up to me whether you hit me hard enough to ‘kill’ me — leading to a self-reinforcing culture of honor and mutual respect. (Sometimes it’s the other thing, but overall, what I said.) There are more nuances, of course, but that’s the key part.
Sometimes these fights are one-on-one, sometimes a melee that can be five-per-side or a hundred; sometimes just for practice, other times for tournaments and prizes, other times in immense wars like Pennsic, where four thousand combatants may show up for the big Field Battle.
The most prestigious tournaments are the ones held every six months to decide who the new rulers will be — someone fights in the list, and if they win, they are then scheduled to be the next King or Queen, reigning alongside their chosen consort. Monarchy only lasts six months, and you can’t win twice in a row, which keeps things changing, and also means lots of tournaments.
There are a large number of Kingdoms, but I’ve lived most of my life in the East Kingdom. In my first group, emphasis was on melee combat — working together in small groups that become part of larger groups, so that we could win points at Pennsic War. The tactics emphasized individual leadership — if you didn’t see a commander around, congrats, you’re the commander for right now; try to achieve the goals set up at the beginning of battle. (Other kingdoms may work differently; regional variation exists. But that’s where I’m coming from.)
Fighting is only one of the Big Three activities, the ones that get you peerages —Pelican for service; Knights, Masters of Arms, and Masters of Defense for fighting; and Laurel for arts/sciences. This “holy trinity” (no one calls it that) emphasizes the diversity of the Society. You’ll see some lessons from all branches represented below, though this first chunk is heavily fighting-focused.
Part 1: Lessons For The Grunt
When fighting in a group, if you die, die loud. “GOOD SHOT, M’LORD!” is a typical cry. This is both courteous to your opponent, and safer— it’s likely that if your opponent didn’t hear you die, they will hit you again, harder, presuming that you felt the first blow was insufficient.
But it also lets your teammates know that the situation has changed, and they can’t depend on you any more.
In business, this is equally important. If you fail, fail in a way that lets folks around you react. Don’t fail silently, in secret, for months, until someone finds you lying at the bottom of a ditch surrounded by TPS reports. When you’re stuck, say something; when you mess up or fail, it’s best to let others know sooner rather than later, so that the company as a whole can recover. This looks better on your record, too, as others come to respect you as an honest worker who is willing to take ownership of problems and work toward solutions.
(One thing that doesn’t translate well to business: when you die, die defensively! Cover your body with your shield, and prop your helmet up with your weapon. That way you won’t get twisted up if you become the fighting platform for a three-hundred pound super-Duke in eighty pounds of plate mail. Perhaps the equivalent here is a more metaphorical CYA: keeping a paper trail when things are going wrong.)
See a gap, fill a gap
The shield wall above works great until gets penetrated. Charges, or unusually proficient spears, can poke a hole, letting the opposition flow through. Suddenly, attacks are coming at the Shields from all sides, and they quickly end up dead. This is why it’s crucial to step up when you see a gap forming — preferably before the opposition can. Even if that means a polearm jumping in to die horribly, that might be enough to mend the gap until reinforcements arrive.
If your teammates have died loud, this is easier—you hear the gap forming, and reorganize to adjust. Importantly, you only jump in when your presence will heal the gap — jumping into a gap that’s too big is just going to get more people killed.
In business, this becomes the counter too over-specialization. There are times when you just need to jump in and work on something, even if it’s outside your field. But you should be ready to jump out again when reinforcements arrive, and think carefully about whether you need to regroup, first.
Hear an order, repeat the order
In case you haven’t figured it out, communication is an important part of tactics. Battlefields are noisy: so when you hear a general order, it’s a good idea to repeat that order. Loudly. This lets others know what’s going on — and it’s a way to prevent conflicting orders from disrupting a group. If orders weren’t repeated, they might only be heard locally, and then some people would follow them, and some wouldn’t.
Occupy Wall Street codified this as The People’s Mic: prevented from having amplified sound, they created the Mic Check ritual, which was basically this: someone would ask for a “mic check”, and all the people around them would shut up and say “mic check”. This cycled until the entire crowd was listening; people near the speaker then became their “microphone”, repeating the speaker’s words in unison. It worked well, and it drove home that part of the emergent movement’s commitment was to raising up lesser-heard voices.
In industry, this means encouraging teams to speak coherently. Whether it’s a heartbeat meeting like a team stand-up, or a physical artifact hanging on the wall that helps everyone understand what the group is working toward, communication enables team coherency, and it begins by simply repeating things so everyone can hear and understand.
Regroup THEN re-engage
The opposition has broken through! What do we do?!
We charge at the gap piecemeal! Each one dying as soon as they hit the line, felled by a half-dozen well-aimed spear shots! No, that’s not it.
So, your shield wall crumbled. This always happens. The broken survivors made a judgment call and ran. This is fine. You’re alive. Now comes the tricky part: regrouping with your allies so you can once again become an effective fighting force.
In my old group we’d pick a rally word before melee, something obvious like “COKE!” or “PEPSI!”, to help you find allies. It sounds dumb, but when you’re wearing a full-face helmet with tiny slots for vision, in a mass of violently surging bodies, surrounded by more thwackings and crackings than you shake a stick at, it can get a bit hectic. You yell COKE!, other people repeat the order (“COKE!”), you run toward COKE!, and before you know it you’ve got five or twelve people together. Then it’s a matter of how well you recreate a formation from what you’ve got left, before you get right back at it.
In business, this is also critical. When Shit Happens, it’s tempting to jump in and fill that gap — but usually it’s best to coordinate first. Even a quick five-minute meeting can help avoid stepping on each other’s toes. Even a fifteen second meeting. (“Pat, I’m going to try restarting the server while you’re finding the bug; Jane, see if you can track down the source of that DDoS.”)
A Lesson For Another Day
That’s it for today: stay tuned for part two, “Lessons For The Squad Leader”, including such gems as “Skill matters — but so do numbers”.
And if you liked what you read, for goodness sake, clap a few times. It’ll make me feel better, and maybe we’ll wake up that lazy Tinkerbell!