Steve Fenton

Don’t worry about The Cargo Cult

Green Island, 1944

One of the most famous tales in Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman must be the story of the Cargo Cult. The story concerns a group of people who, due to a war, had an airbase planted nearby. They saw all of the airplanes arriving with lots of amazing stuff on board, so when the airbase was later abandoned they set up an immitation airbase with a fake runway with fires lit along it and a wooden control tower with a man sat in it wearing pretend headphones made out of wood, with bamboo canes for antennas. They thought if they immitated what people at an airbase did, it would result in airplanes landing full of amazing stuff.

This cargo cult metaphor is very common when it comes to companies who want to “do agile”. These companies might be under pressure from agile competitors, so they rush to adopt all of the motions they see in agile organisations – without actually ever being agile. You will find that all the same roles, procedures, and bureuacracy that was present before the organisation donned the coconut headphones, but evidence of the benefits you would expect from increased agility are absent.

But let’s not be too worried about this problem. It is okay that reports of failed “agile adoption” are increasing and it is fine that some companies will never actually be agile. If a company can serve its obligations to customers and the wider community without being agile, that’s fine – and most importantly – if a company gets displaced by an agile competitor, that’s fine too. It will take some time, but the natural advantage of concepts like Agile, Lean, and Holocracy will mean these companies will overtake their command and control competitors and the result will be a more humane and socially responsible future for business.

There is no need to rush adoption in companies that aren’t ready. You can’t strong-arm Anchor Draggers Inc. into modern organisation methods, and by “modern” I acknowledge that there is a one-hundred year gap between evidence and change when it comes to business. The all-the-rage books on how to motivate people trace back to phychology that was well understood back in the 1930s and written into management books in the 1950s (but that still hasn’t been installed in many mainstream businesses). The economics will force late-adopters to make the required changes, or it will eliminate them (and there are more revolutions yet to be discovered that will lead to even better ways of working).

So don’t allow impatience to stress you out or damage your health. The glacier is moving downhill and we need to accept that breaking our backs trying to push it to move faster helps nobody. Our effort is better spent ahead of the glacier making the pathway as smooth as we can.

Green Island, 1944. Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Written by Steve Fenton on