Have you ever heard of cargo cults? It is a very interesting manifestation of human behavior and one of the most incredible anthropological events of our time.
The cargo cult phenomenon
It has happened on many occasions, but the most famous manifestation took place right after WWII in the Pacific islands: Japanese and American soldiers built military bases on the islands and did not care too much about contacting the indigenous population (there was a war going on after all and they were soldiers not anthropologists).
Both armies sent supplies to their bases either by cargo planes or cargo ships. The indigenous people got familiar with the merchandise either via irregular contact with the soldiers or simply when supplies were accidentally dropped in the wrong place. The natives had no knowledge of industrial processes and could not fathom how those beautiful clothes and shiny objects were produced. It did not take long for them to classify these items as heavenly gifts – some of them were literally pouring down from heavens.
When the war ended, all the soldiers went home and left the bases deserted. The heavenly gifts obviously ceased as well – a very unfair predicament to the indigenous people of the region.
How could they resume getting those great celestial gifts? Simple! The local leaders – understanding that the gifts fell from heavens, because the white man executed complex rituals to invoke divine powers – came up with a great plan. If they could execute the same rituals themselves, it would only be a matter of time for the gods to see their needs and the supplies would be re-established.
It did not take long for the population of several islands to move to the abandoned bases and start reproducing – as well as they could – the daily routine of the soldiers. They built airplanes out of bamboo sticks and walkie- talkies out of coconuts and straws. They would guard the stronghold walls holding rifles made out of sticks and wearing helmets made of leaves. They were acting exactly in line with what made the gods give gifts away. That had to be the formula for success.
Ritual does not equal consequence
This might sound like a silly recollection of an historical event, but it teaches us a great lesson: we should never mistake the ritual for the consequence. You will never make a box of Coca-Cola fall down from the skies by holding a coconut contraption as a walkie-talkie.
If you think only the naïve indigenous people of the Pacific Islands long ago could be susceptible to a cargo cult, think again. We are bombarded by the cargo cult phenomenon every single day – both in business and technology.
Cargo Cult is happening all around us
Take Twitter, for example. When Twitter boomed, it was a matter of mere weeks for hundreds of similar services to appear: publish 12-second-videos, 1-paragraph-texts, 5-second-voice-messages – take you pick.
The rationale was that Twitter’s success had to be due to its 140-character- limitation. Copy the ritual and the gods will be pleased, right? Wrong. Twitter’s limitation was due to an actual technical limitation around the SMS platform – nothing divine.
The last two years have seen the growth of sites like Foursquare and other social games. It is logical to assume that entertaining people is a good strategy for increasing platform usage. But now the “gamification” fever is all over the place and tons of services are implementing badges, achievements and little golden stars without really thinking about the entertainment value. That is another cargo cult: add some badges and people will love it.
Let’s take the next example even closer to home: Angry Birds. Hundreds of games use similar mechanics hoping to be "the next Angry Birds”. And when the next hot game or service hits it big, lots of people will believe that by copying some gimmick they will reach fame and fortune.
Of course, there are cheap copies of everything, but the real danger is in truly believing that a previously observed consequence will be achieved by replicating a ritual or the 'cause'.
Copying others blindly is dangerous business
The danger here is to actually believe that the recipe for becoming as good as Steve Jobs, is wearing black turtle-neck sweaters. Or to believe that in order to create Google-like products, you 'only' have to give free lunches and allow 20% for employees to pursue personal projects.
There is a legend going on among entrepreneurs in my home country - Brazil - of a local CEO of a big corporation who visited Google once and was informed that they only hire employees with high academic degrees. When he went back to his office, he quickly and heartlessly fired all his employees who had not achieved at least PhD-level degree. This did not turn out well, as one can imagine.
Quit copying, start focusing
Building airplanes of bamboo won’t make supplies come from the heavens. You have probably seen all the Scrum/Agile implementations out there that simply do not work. Every Agilist knows that calling a process Agile won’t make it so. Having regular, protocol-only stand-up meetings won’t make communication flow. They’ll just get in the way. Believing that these rituals will make your product successful is a mistake. It is pure cargo cult.
What is important is to look for the right root causes for success in everything. Stop copying rituals for their own sake and focus instead on the core issues. If rituals emerge this way, they make sure that the cause and the consequence are properly connected to each other.