Cargo cult

If you don’t know what the term cargo cult means, you must.

The stylized version of the story behind the term goes something like this:

During World War II the Americans arrived on a Pacific island to build a supply station. On this island was a native population.  When the Americans arrived the natives watched the American’s actions with a great deal of interest.  The natives saw the Americans clear some land, build a runway and control tower, signal for something and suddenly, as if coming from out of nowhere, cargo started to arrive, plane-load by plane-load.  The natives were intrigued.  They wanted these same treasures of cargo from the heavens.  The rushed to their area of the island, cleared some land, built a runway and control tower, placed their high priest at the top of the tower with shells over his ears (to imitate headphones), waived their arms to signal to the skies and waited for planes to land with their cargo. No planes came.

The natives didn’t know what made the planes land.  In the absence of knowing why the American’s cargo system worked all the natives could do was mimic as best they could the actions they could see.  That wasn’t enough to get them the cargo.”

In organizations and in life, people try to imitate someone who has had a success, often to equal results as the natives in our story.

For example:

There’s a story about a team that visits a workplace known for improving business results through applying Lean principles.  At the successful business the visitors see a huge display board reading numbers of production output and cycle times.  Excited by their visit to a successful business, the visitors spend their bus ride home discussing where they should put their big display board.  Adding a display board, without knowing why the display board mattered in the business success is a present day example of the cargo cult.

Not knowing why the change effort worked, many are left with only more stylized mimicking to get them through until someone higher up cancels the whole change, or they personally lose the willpower to continue doing something that produces no gain.  For the work force, these failed attempts to make the planes land further prove that management doesn’t know anything about anything.  And, in some cases they are right.

I found the term by reading Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.  Feynman is apparently the first person to use “cargo cult” as an adjective.  Since I found it I’ve been using the term over and over again.  I wish I weren’t, but I see examples of “cargo cult” everywhere.

The guy who says he’s doing Lean, but is really only following the pitiful rituals in some cookbook-like Lean procedure manual.  “Now is the time to do the spaghetti diagram,” he says.  Ugh!  No thanks.  I think, “Stop waving your arms. They planes aren’t coming.” Or the woman who says she’s implemented Theory of Constraints, but has clearly failed to find any system, goal, or constraint to act on.

Cargo cult, as Feynman describes it, is important for those trying to drive change because too often people claim they are doing new things (e.g., Lean, Theory of Constraints) when really they are only wearing the trappings of the terms.  If you find yourself thinking of someone, “They say they are doing X, but they really aren’t,” chances are that person is in the cargo cult.

You could do a lot of different things to free someone from a cargo cult, but you’ll find no advice for how to do that here.  There are too many variables (e.g., your relationship with the person, the person’s relationship to reality) that matter too much to give sweeping, “Do this and not that,” advice.

Instead I’ll encourage you to read up on cargo cult.  Talk to a friend about it.  Try to find situations around you where someone (or even you) are in the cargo cult.

If you are in a cargo cult, get yourself out.  Find out what the causes are behind the successes you’re trying to gain by doing these actions.  Act on the causes, not on the surface behaviors.

If you’re not in a cargo cult, good.  Try to keep yourself out of one. Good luck.

If you don’t know what to do, post a question in the comments and we’ll see if we can work it out together.

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12 thoughts on “Cargo cult

  • January 1, 2010 at 5:01 am
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    The trouble with expecting people to identify which aspects of their lives they are living as a member of a cargo cult is that this is expecting a level of self-awareness and introspection that are exceedingly rare in Homo sapiens. We have a variety of mental processes to maintain our mental health that are designed to tell us we are on the right track, doing well, and everyone else is “messed up.” One of my favorite quotes that illustrates this well is by John Kenneth Galbraith – “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

    Happy new year.

  • January 1, 2010 at 11:08 am
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    I can see we are going to play the two sides of the coin most times. This will be fun. I agree that most people cannot see themselves in the cult and I totally agree that you need to find others who you’ll give permission to tell you when you are in the cult. When you’ve done both of those things you have increased the rate at which you can incorporate changes or new ideas into your life and not run yourself off a proverbial cliff.

  • January 1, 2010 at 10:46 pm
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    Yes, it’s true many people have difficulty distinguishing form from substance. Reminds me of the school pep rally where everyone’s fired up but you KNOW your football team stinks. I never could figure out how folks could do that!

    Anyway, any effort to ‘read up’ on this should surely include Feynman’s 1974 Caltech commencement address on ‘Cargo Cult Science’. I wish more scientists and engineers would read it, it might prompt more assumption-checking and save us from a lot of fanatical conclusions:

    http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.pdf

  • January 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm
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    Gordon – Thanks so much for the link to Feynman’s address. I’ve always seen excerpts, but never the full text (and I so enjoyed the photos of how animated Feynman was while speaking). I’ll be sharing the link with lots of people at work next week.

    Welcome to Engine-For-Change. Hope to see you back again soon.

  • January 3, 2010 at 10:51 am
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    The key points from Feynman’s speech for me were:

    There is one feature I notice that is missing in Cargo Cult Science.
    That is the idea … we never explicitly say what it is, but just hope
    you catch on … a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of
    scientific thought that corresponds to … utter honesty. Report everything
    you think that might make [your result] invalid [and] details that
    could throw doubt on your interpretation, … if you know them. … Give
    all of the information to help others to judge the value of your
    contribution, not just the information that leads to judgment in one
    particular direction …

    This long history of learning how to not fool ourselves … is … something
    we haven’t specifically included in any particular course … we just
    hope that you’ve caught on by osmosis.

    The first principle is not to fool yourself – an you are the easiest person
    to fool. … you should not fool the layman when you are talking as a
    scientist … bending over backwards to show how you’re [sic] may be
    wrong, always [publishing the results of your experiment], whichever
    way it comes out.

    The scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were definitely not practice the kind of scientific integrity about which Feynman spoke.

  • January 4, 2010 at 2:00 am
    Permalink

    I noticed two typos in the comment I submitted. Here is what I meant to type:

    The key points from Feynman’s speech for me were:

    There is one feature I notice that is missing in Cargo Cult Science.
    That is the idea … we never explicitly say what it is, but just hope
    you catch on … a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of
    scientific thought that corresponds to … utter honesty. Report everything
    you think that might make [your result] invalid [and] details that
    could throw doubt on your interpretation, … if you know them. … Give
    all of the information to help others to judge the value of your
    contribution, not just the information that leads to judgment in one
    particular direction …

    This long history of learning how to not fool ourselves … is … something
    we haven’t specifically included in any particular course … we just
    hope that you’ve caught on by osmosis.

    The first principle is not to fool yourself – and you are the easiest person
    to fool. … you should not fool the layman when you are talking as a
    scientist … bending over backwards to show how you’re [sic] may be
    wrong, always [publishing the results of your experiment], whichever
    way it comes out.

    The scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were definitely not practicing the kind of scientific integrity about which Feynman spoke.

  • January 6, 2010 at 10:59 am
    Permalink

    I also enjoyed reading Dr. Feynman’s address. His final paragraph struck me: ‘may you have the freedom to have integrity’. Wow. Just wow. I don’t live in that universe, and I never ever want to.

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