Cargo cults in IT

The end of WW II gave rise to a striking example of a causality problem. On small, remote islands, indigenous people encountered large numbers of military servicemen for the first time. As we, and others, landed ships on these islands, cleared jungles for runways, erected control towers and ran military drills the indigenous individuals observed newfound well being in the cargo our servicemen brought with them.

When the war ended, the military packed up their temporary bases and took their cargo planes with them. And with it went the newfound wealth of the native people. So, what did they do?

Well, they replicated the actions they saw taking place. They cut airstrips out of the jungle. They erected towers similar to the landing towers they saw. They executed military style drills. They carved wooden headsets to wear like the ones they saw servicemen wearing.

Since they didn’t understand the causality of the entire event – a war that led to need for new bases that led to airfields and cargo planes, they figured if they recreated the parts they observed they’d get the same outcome. Cargo planes ought to land and bring cargo. Of course, it doesn’t work that way, which is what makes the idea of a ‘Cargo Cult’ so interesting. We clearly see the logical problem in that situation.

When it comes to the corporate environment, however, we often fail to see our own Cargo Cult behaviors. We observe a great company, say Google, and we see that they have bicycles on their campus, so we buy bicycles for our campus. Or Facebook engages in hackathons so we start to do so too. But buying bicycles or performing hackathons is not going to make your company like those other companies. You are simply emulating behaviors that look like the other company without understanding the underlying culture that causes them to do these things. And as a result, you’re likely to get disappointing results from the mimicry. These companies aren’t successful because they engage in these behaviors. The companies are successful first and therefore may engage in these behaviors.

Which brings me took another point. We often look at older companies that fail and we observe that they don’t engage in these behaviors, and we use that as evidence that these behaviors are necessary to survive. But we can learn something from Mark Buchanan’s ‘The Social Atom’ on this point. In his book he demonstrates a ridiculously simple model that predicts the rise and fall of organizations, simply based on time and getting too big. You don’t need to model any behavioral stuff to get the effect as I recall. So, probabilistically, large old companies will decline even if behaviors are held steady. There will always be companies coming and going, and we will always be able to be selective and say “see, that company didn’t do X and they failed. We need to do X.”

If you find yourself saying that in the future, just remember that you may now be a card carrying member of a cargo cult.

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