A brief introduction to the article: Many Agile and Lean practitioners who have been in the business for some time learn to differentiate between transformation efforts that are real and deep-rooted and those that are sincere yet superficial. Often practitioners will say amongst themselves that a transformation is the real deal or a cargo cult, and this article aims to expand upon the origins of the term cargo cult and why there are cautionary lessons for all of us involved in and advocate Business Agility and Adaptability.
When the aliens land, the very fact that they made it all the way from their part of the universe to our own will render us mute with amazement. It's likely they will have utilised materials we do not even know exist and bent the laws of physics in ways we had hitherto thought impossible. Their capabilities will appear godlike - something unexplainable, far beyond our scientific understanding.
It was Arthur C. Clarke who wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic, however, is just the word we use to describe the impossible made manifest, which, by extension, is only that which we do not understand. No one, of course, has ever seen anything impossible. The impossible, by definition, can never be made manifest.
In recent years, Business Agility has become such an A-list methodology that it has left executives and boards everywhere so dazzled by its possibilities; it is as if they were watching giant triangular lights moving at amazing speed in the skies over the Nevada desert. In their starry-eyed desire to replicate the magical effects of Business Agility, they have forgotten the importance of first understanding how and why it works. Demanding its company-wide implementation inevitably follows and then everyone is baffled as to why it isn't working.
Without understanding the mechanics or even the dynamics of something, you cannot adequately make it work. You can try to replicate a UFO by building something the same size and shape as the space ship that just landed in your back yard, but no matter how hard you try, the homemade version will never clear the roof of your house, let alone the solar system – unless it is built with holistic knowledge and precision.
The Origin of Cargo Cult
When the Americans joined World War Two in the mid 1940s a little-known phenomenon came to worldwide attention. America needed a strategic position from which to attack Japan, and several air force bases were built on several small Pacific islands to secure the perfect positioning of troops, aircraft and ships. Much of this construction was witnessed by awestruck native tribes, many of whom were still using stone arrowheads and spears to hunt. The technology of the Americans appeared to be nothing less than magic.
Through wide-eyed observation, the tribes noticed that the Americans did not partake in the kind of work they themselves did. They never made anything. Never hunted or gathered. And yet they seemed to have whatever they wanted brought to them with astonishing frequency by aeroplanes summoned from the clear blue sky. Unbound by the laws of reality the natives were accustomed to, the Americans apparently knew how to harness unseen powers and, in so doing, enrich themselves with an unlimited heavenly bounty.
Observation by the natives soon became an act of duplication and ritual. They observed the Americans marching around in formation wearing uniform clothing sitting behind upright platforms made of wood, moving small sticks in a very specific ways across very thin slices of tree. They climbed to the top of high towers and put coverings over their ears and talked into slotted boxes, with black vines trailing from them. These seemingly strange rituals somehow caused aeroplanes to swoop down from the sky and deliver food, resources, weapons and materials of intriguing functionality. Whilst the Americans remained on the islands, they were generous with their heavenly rewards. But before long, the visitors disappeared and, with them, all that precious cargo.
By then, of course, the natives had seen the show enough times to have learned the rituals by heart. They knew the ceremonies and all the required props. It was simply a case of performing the same rituals. So, they set about building planes from wood and vines and cleared land for runways to park on them. They built radio towers on high stilts and sat atop them with coconut shells over their ears. They carried sticks and marched around in clothes striped with paint matching the uniforms of the departed soldiers. They performed every detail, just as they had seen it done. But for some reason, the cargo never came again.
This strange phenomenon happened on many islands in the wake of the Americans. Tribes who had no contact with each other, nor even knew of each other’s existence were found to have formed the same ritualistic cults. Although this story may seem like a bizarre piece of anthropological history, it is only a particularly acute example of a very common, universal human failing. We all pursue desired results using cargo cult thinking from time to time. And when it comes to creating an Agile business today, cargo cult thinking is something we should all be aware of and, once we recognise it, make sure we eradicate it if we hope to succeed.
The fact is, if you do not understand why something works, simply going through the motions of implementation will achieve nothing of any real value.
Introducing software or re-naming teams and commanding them to be Agile will not an Agile company make. Business Agility’s most advantageous effects cannot be realised by performing the ritual of Agility. The path to success is the deep understanding, practice, expert engagement and a profound knowledge of how the effects of Agility and Adaptability will dramatically reshape your company to succeed in a marketplace that changes daily.
As the popularity of Business Agility is increasing exponentially, experts are now hearing more and more boardroom executives all over the world furiously demanding to know why it isn't raining cargo soon after implementing Agile and Lean methodologies.
Agile is not a plug-and-play methodology, truly effective models never are. If it's worth doing – and it is – then it's worth doing properly. Don't fall into the trap of being dazzled by the magic that can only lead to unworkable implementation. Back-engineer that UFO, learn everything you can about it, bring in the experts, then implement with confidence and the effort will pay for itself in spades.
Ask yourself the question: Do we really understand what we’re doing or are we simply going through the motions which, in the end, will not satisfy and certainly not sustain. Call us to discuss strategies to avoid the cargo cult trap and deliver the real deal.