Anecdotes for Project Managers: Cargo Cult

Another anecdote that is really working miracles is Richard Feynman’s story about Cargo Cult. I have to admit that I’m telling my own version. I’ve researched it on my own and massaged it a little bit to focus on the point I’m trying to make.

The situation where this anecdote works best is at milestone meetings, at larger companies: large companies have processes, even for project management. Project management processes typically focus on special milestones with special deliverables and a range of bored senior managers who have to take the decision.

The other day, I started one such meeting by telling the following story:

In the sixties, anthropologists started researching Micronesia, those many, many islands in the Pacific.

What they found astonished them: On many of the islands, there was a very special cult: the shaman of the island, wearing a funky wooden headdress, would go into the temple. The temple has a huge totem pole on top. Inside the temple, there is a little altar, and the shaman would go right to the altar. There, he’d start drumming on a little scepter.

The anthropologists concluded that this must be a pretty old rite, because it was so widespread, and travelling was slow in the primitive boats.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The actual background of the story doesn’t date back more than 20 years:

In the second world war, the Americans and the Japanese were at war with each other, and they used the islands in Micronesia as airbases. Somehow, they figured it’s much more fun to make war with each other than with the then-primitive Micronesians. So they bribed the Micronesions with mirrors, chocolate and glass pearls. Eventually, the war was over. From the perspective of the Micronesians, that meant the supply of chocolate, glass pearls and mirrors dried up. What do you do in such a culture when the gods don’t give what you want? – You go to your favorite shaman… He in turn does what he saw in action when things were still the way they should be: he put on a headset, went into the radio shack (with a huge antenna on top), went to the desk and tried to use morse code to request more supplies.

It doesn’t work. He was missing something. He was missing almost everything. The electricity, the radio transmitter, the morse code. He hasn’t understood what it’s all about. But his imitation of the ritual was perfect.

“… so let’s have this meeting in a constructive atmosphere, without cargo cult. Whether we like the current process or not, people had good intentions when they came up with it. While some or all of it may seem like a burden, it’s worth a look behind the scenes. What was the problem they tried to solve? Do we solve it? Can we offer a smarter solution? But all that works only if we don’t play cargo cult ourselves and blindly follow the rituals. I’ll promise that I try to understand the intentions behind the rituals, and I suggest you all attend in the spirit of this meeting, too. Then we all won’t end up mistaking a desk for an altar.”

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