In the buzzing hive of the tech industry, it’s common to see organizations always chasing the latest trends. Whether it’s the allure of „agility“, the appeal of a „startup-like“ office culture, or the promise of the „Spotify model“, these fads are hungrily devoured. However, this frenzy often leads to what’s known as „cargo cult“ behavior: adopting the latest trends in name only, without truly implementing or understanding their fundamental concepts.
For the uninitiated, the term “cargo cult” originates from the behavior of indigenous tribes who, after World War II, replicated military-style landing strips hoping to receive supplies – they copied the practices they saw without understanding the underlying reasons behind them . In the context of IT, cargo cult refers to a situation where an organization attempts to mimic the success of others without understanding the principles that made them successful in the first place. Picture an organization implementing a cutting-edge cloud computing solution based on microservices without understanding its architecture or requirements—this is a cargo cult.
The Dangers of Cargo Cult Behavior
The risk of such behavior lies not merely in their superficiality. It can actively undermine innovation and progress, spreading confusion and dissatisfaction within teams. Imagine a team implementing agile methodologies, yet still stuck in bureaucratic red tape. Or consider an organization that redesigns its office to look like Google’s in hope of attracting new talent, but retains a rigid, traditional corporate culture. These actions can lead to disillusionment, stagnation, and a loss of faith in leadership.
Cargo cults in IT are more than just organizational fads. They represent a dangerous dysfunction, often rooted in non-rational or irrational foundations, causing misconceptions and malpractices in the team. They occur when a team, either due to intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, unconsciously fails in their attempt to replicate the circumstances and success of others.
Consider a team trying to replicate a successful cloud-based infrastructure of another organization, without understanding the intricacies of its design, deployment, and maintenance. They see the success but fail to comprehend the underlying principles and practices that led to it. This is cargo cult.
In such cases, the danger is not only the superficiality of the implementation but also the underlying misconceptions that can lead to severe malpractices. A poorly understood and implemented cloud architecture could lead to serious security vulnerabilities, inefficient resource utilization, and ultimately, a failed attempt at replicating someone else’s success.
How to identify misguided initiatives
Identifying cargo cults requires a sharp eye and a sharper mind. The first step is to critically evaluate whether the implementation of a trend or tool has been done in letter or in spirit. Is the cloud computing solution being used effectively, or is it just an expensive ornament? Are agile practices truly improving workflow, or are they simply adding layers of unnecessary meetings? The true litmus test is whether these new introductions are adding value or merely complexity.
In the analytical framework presented in the paper, “Cargo Cults in Information Systems Development: A Definition and an Analytical Framework“ , the authors take a look at possible reasons for information systems development method implementation derailing and try to approach the root causes from an socio-anthropological perspective. They propose two dimensions for characterising cargo cults: rationality and motivation, each with two polarities, forming a matrix that helps identify and understand cargo cult behaviors.
Rationality refers to the level of rational thought involved in the adoption of a practice, methodology, IT architecture style, „way of work“ or new emerging technology. For the purpose of characterising cargo cult behaviors, this dimension only considers dysfunctional rationality.
- Non-rational implies that there was little to no rational consideration given to the method’s rationale. The adoption is not based on a logical understanding of its principles, practices, or potential benefits. Rather, it’s often driven by superficial factors such as trends, hypes, or an uncritical imitation of successful cases.
- Irrational refers to situations where an attempt at reasoning was made but it was flawed or incorrect. The organization has tried to understand and implement the method based on its understanding, but this understanding is fundamentally wrong or incomplete. This could lead to misconceptions, malpractices, and ultimately, a failed implementation.
Motivation relates to the underlying reason, whether it’s driven by the inherent value of the method itself or by the expected outcomes.
- Intrinsic Motivation denotes situations where a trend is adopted for its own sake. The motivation comes from within the organization, either because it aligns with its values, or simply because it wants to be part of the trend. Intrinsic motivation often reflects a desire to change or improve, but it can also lead to cargo cult behavior if the organization lacks a proper understanding of the method.
- Extrinsic Motivation refers to cases where a trend is adopted with a specific goal or outcome in mind. The organization expects that the method will lead to certain benefits, such as increased efficiency, improved quality, or reduced costs. However, if these expectations are based on a faulty understanding of the method, it can result in a cargo cult situation.
The paper’s authors provide a nice definition for cargo cults in their context:
„A[n information systems development method] cargo cult is a temporally delimited dysfunction that can have a non-rational or an irrational foundation. It leads to misconceptions and malpractices and can be both intrinsically or extrinsically motivated as a[n information systems development] team unconsciously fails in an attempt to replicate the circumstances and success of others.“
By combining the two dimensions, the framework identifies four distinct types of cargo cults, each representing a different combination of rationality and motivation. This provides a useful tool for diagnosing and addressing cargo cult phenomena in the broader IT context.
- Affectual cargo cult: Here, organizations chase trends and hypes without considering the real implications. They may adopt the latest technology – be it a cloud solution, a machine learning algorithm, or a blockchain protocol – because it is popular or exciting, without truly understanding its use case, cost, or the effort required for successful implementation. Here, the organization is intrinsically motivated and operates non-rationally. It jumps on the agile bandwagon, swept away by the hype and trend, without a clear understanding of the effort and changes required. Affectual cargo cults may not last long, given that the initial enthusiasm often wanes unless it evolves into a more reasoned approach.
- Value cargo cult: In this quadrant, organizations are genuinely motivated to embrace the values promised by a particular IT practice or solution. They may want the flexibility of the cloud, the insights from big data, or the responsiveness of Agile, but they lack the know-how to operationalize these values effectively. Here, the organization intrinsically embraces the values but lacks the know-how to effectively implement them. Their desire to adopt the method or technology is strong, but their understanding of how to operationalize these values is weak, leading to issues in the implementation.
- Means-end cargo cult: Here, organizations have specific outcomes in mind and they believe that adopting a certain IT practice or solution will help them achieve these. They could aim for faster product cycles with Agile, enhanced decision-making with AI, or cost savings with cloud computing. However, their understanding of the chosen practice or solution is flawed, leading to misinterpretations and malpractices. This represents an organization that is extrinsically motivated and operates irrationally. They have clear goals – faster deliveries, less documentation, better customer communication – and attempt to align the method or technology to achieve these. However, due to misconceptions and malpractices, they fail to properly implement the required practices.
- Traditional cargo cult: In this quadrant, organizations maintain some traditional IT practices even as they adopt newer solutions. These legacy practices, which might have been effective in the past, coexist with newer methodologies and often hinder their effective implementation. This could include keeping old mainframes while moving to the cloud, or adhering to water(scrum)fall development as they try to implement Agile. Here, the organization has adopted several practices but also retained some old habits that are not in line with the new paradigm. These traditional practices are often unquestioned, as they have been effective in the past. However, they may impede the efficient implementation and result in cargo cult behavior.
By adapting this framework to the broader IT context, we can diagnose and address cargo cult behaviors more effectively, leading to more successful adoption of IT practices and solutions. In my next post, I will show some more examples for cargo cults often found in tech and provide some strategies how to remedy them.