Cargo Cults are an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, because they derive from a collective misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the world, brought about by simplistic beliefs.
One example of cargo cults can be found in the Melanesian Islands of the South Pacific, where, during World War Two, the islanders were invaded by the Japanese and then liberated by the Allied forces. Both occupying armies were far more technologically advanced than the society that hosted them. On both occasions, the islanders were exposed to the advanced technology, and the alien culture and philosophies of their visitors, which altered their world view. They benefited for a while from them. Both the Japanese and Allied forces gave them manufactured goods such as clothing, tents, food and other commodities, which expanded their consciousness and increased their collective wealth.
When finally the war ended, and the Allied forces departed, the islanders were left with an interruption to their new found wealth. They attempted to regain this wealth by creating replicas of many of the iconic technologies their visitors had used. For example, they created landing strips and aircraft from straw or made wireless radios from coconuts. They attempted from their collective memories to fashion their society into the image of their technologically advanced visitors. Some staged marches and parade drills using sticks to represent rifles, and painted military style insignia on their bodies to make them look like soldiers. They tried to recreate a set of circumstances that they believed would attract the wealth back into their communities.
So what does it all mean?
The cargo cultists had the unimportant surface elements right, but did not see enough of the whole picture to succeed. They bought the cake based on only seeing the icing, with no idea about the cake supporting it. They understood the form but not the content. There are lots worshippers of cargo cults in business and education – leaders who understand what for example, Agile, does but not how it does it and most importantly, the purpose behind it. Therefore, they cannot make purposeful decisions when implementing it. They implement the shell of the concept without fully understanding the Culture required to support that shell.
I’m in the process of making sense of the real purpose of Government Digital Service Assessments, User Research and Agile, rather than externalizing them or turning them into some sort of quasi-religious belief system. I’m conscious of the dangers of Cargo cults and pitfalls behind understanding the purpose and meaning of each of the terms, such as “Retrospective”, “Show and Tell” and “Stand Up”. I’m conscious of the power of names and how dangerous using common parlance to describe processes can be, because people often apply a dictionary definition of the words, rather than understand the meaning and purpose behind the name.
So I figured that I’d dust the old blog off and do a bit of writing in order to make sense of it all.
More to follow…..when I’ve figured out its purpose.
I just found a very cool reading list from Paul Maltby – should keep me busy…..