What you should know: I am currently working for Orbit Cloud Solutions as Cloud Advisor, but any posts on this blog reflect my own views and opinions only.

As the digital landscape continues to evolve at an unprecedented pace, businesses are adopting new trends, technologies and methodologies to keep up. Picture a company redesigning their office, adding ping pong tables and assuming it’s now more startup-like. Or consider an enterprise trying to mask a traditional matrix organization by adopting the so-called Spotify model. Or the adoption of SAFe (scaled agile framework) as a common way for legacy organizations to introduce some agile flair without actually having to really change much of the way the current organization is working.

While the intent to evolve is commendable, the adoption of these practices can sometimes be superficial – a classic case of cargo cult behavior: adopting the latest trends in name only, without truly implementing or understanding their fundamental concepts. It’s like painting stripes on a horse and calling it a zebra.

In a previous post, I gave an overview of four types of cargo cults in tech and how to spot them in the wild.

  1. Affectual cargo cult: Here, enterprises adopt trends like Agile or cloud computing because they are the buzzwords of the moment. They are drawn to the concept, but lack the understanding of its practicalities.
  2. Value cargo cult: Organizations comprehend the value of a technology, say AI or big data, but lack the necessary know-how to harness it effectively.
  3. Means-end cargo cult: Enterprises implement technologies to achieve specific goals without fully grasping the practices involved.
  4. Traditional cargo cult: This arises when enterprises attempt to introduce new practices, while still clinging to old habits, thereby creating a stumbling block.

Once identified, dismantling cargo cults is akin to untying a complex knot. It involves rolling back superficial changes, fostering a culture of genuine innovation, and steering the ship towards meaningful progress. Leadership plays a crucial role here—after all, it’s not easy to admit to having bought a zebra-painted horse. But true agility and innovation come from introspection, learning, and a dedication to continuous improvement, not from ping-pong tables and bean bag chairs. So, the question is how to get the stripes off that horse.

Affectual Cargo Cults

Starting with Agile methodologies, we often see organizations adopting Agile practices as a trend or hype – a clear example of an affectual cargo cult. They implement stand-ups, sprints, and scrums without truly understanding the principles of Agile, leading to a superficial application of the methodology that does not yield the expected results.

Addressing an affectual cargo cult in Agile methodologies involves a comprehensive shift from mere implementation of practices to a deeper understanding and adoption of Agile principles. Initiating this change calls for robust education and training of all team members, ensuring they comprehend the fundamentals that underlie Agile. Concurrently, teams should cultivate a culture of reflection and adaptation, allowing them to improve their processes continuously based on insights from their experiences.

Leadership plays a critical role here – by embracing Agile values and principles, they can set a compelling example and provide the necessary support for the transformation. Simultaneously, an adjustment in the performance metrics to measure not just the adherence to Agile practices, but also the value delivered, the responsiveness to change, and continual improvements will further encourage authentic Agile implementation. Patience and persistence are key – dismantling cargo cults isn’t an overnight task. It demands consistent effort to transform habits and mindsets, ultimately leading to a genuine and beneficial adoption of Agile.

The key strategy to dismantle this type of cargo cult here is education. Leaders should ensure their teams fully understand the principles, cost, and effort involved in implementing a new technology or practice before deciding to adopt it. It’s also important to evaluate whether the new technology aligns with the organization’s strategic objectives and current capabilities.

Value Cargo Cults

Next, consider Cloud Computing. The trend of moving to the cloud has swept across many organizations. In a value cargo cult scenario, a company might embrace the idea of flexibility and scalability that the cloud promises, but without a deep understanding of how to effectively manage and secure a cloud-based infrastructure.

Overcoming a value cargo cult in Cloud Computing requires a shift from being lured by the glossy promise of the cloud to understanding and managing the intricacies of the cloud landscape. It starts with a comprehensive evaluation and planning phase. Companies need to understand their specific needs, constraints, and readiness for the transition to cloud. They should undertake a thorough assessment of their applications and data, determining which are suitable for the cloud and which might require special attention or should remain on-premise.

Education is once again crucial – ensuring IT teams are well-equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to manage and secure a cloud-based infrastructure. This includes understanding the shared responsibility model for security in the cloud, where both the cloud provider and the customer have specific responsibilities. Additionally, governance and control mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure cost management, performance monitoring, and compliance in the cloud environment. Lastly, organizations should also consider partnering with experienced cloud consultants or service providers who can offer guidance and support during this transition and beyond. By focusing on these aspects, companies can move beyond the superficial allure of cloud computing and genuinely leverage its potential for operational efficiency and business growth.

The strategy to dismantle the value cargo cult involves deepening the understanding of how to operationalize the values of a chosen technology or practice. This could involve bringing in external expertise, providing more training to staff, or even partnering with organizations that have successfully implemented the practice. It’s also crucial to communicate these values effectively across the organization to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Means-end Cargo Cults

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data are not immune to these cargo cult behaviors either. An organization might be drawn to the potential of AI and big data, investing heavily in data collection and machine learning algorithms. In a means-end cargo cult situation, they could be striving to achieve specific outcomes like predictive analytics or personalized customer experiences. However, they might fail to properly understand or implement these technologies, leading to inefficient models and poor insights.

Combatting a means-end cargo cult in AI and Big Data demands an organization to dig beneath the surface of impressive potential outcomes and cultivate a comprehensive understanding of these technologies. Key to this process is developing a solid data strategy before jumping headfirst into implementation. This strategy should include clear objectives, a data governance policy, a plan for data quality management, and a roadmap for scalability.

Moreover, it’s imperative to invest in talent. The organization should ensure they have the right mix of data scientists, data engineers, and business analysts who can not only manipulate data and build models but also understand business needs and communicate insights effectively. Training programs should also be instituted to improve data literacy across the organization, making everyone more informed and responsible users and interpreters of data.

Another critical aspect is to set realistic expectations. AI and Big Data projects often require significant time and resources, and it’s important to acknowledge that results might not be immediate. By focusing on long-term value rather than short-term wins, organizations can prevent misguided efforts and wasted resources, truly harnessing the power of AI and Big Data for business growth and success.

This type of cargo cult can be addressed through a more rigorous approach to goal setting and performance measurement. Organizations should clearly define what outcomes they expect from a new IT practice and establish metrics to track their progress. They should also invest in understanding the best practices around the chosen technology or methodology, and consider piloting it on a small scale before a full-scale implementation.

Traditional Cargo Cults

Lastly, many organizations have long-standing IT practices that might not align with newer methodologies. As an example, this traditional cargo cult scenario can be seen in companies maintaining legacy systems while trying to implement DevOps practices. The old habits co-exist with the new, often hindering the full realization of DevOps benefits.

Tackling a traditional cargo cult, particularly when attempting to implement DevOps alongside legacy systems, calls for a delicate balancing act. First, it’s essential to understand that DevOps isn’t just a set of tools or practices, but a culture of collaboration between development and operations teams. Instilling this culture often demands a shift in mindset that could be challenging, but is crucial for the successful implementation of DevOps.

As for dealing with legacy systems, a piecemeal strategy often works best. Identify parts of the legacy system that can be gradually replaced or modernized without disrupting business operations. This approach, also known as the Strangler Pattern, allows organizations to progressively transition to newer technologies while mitigating risk.

Training and skill development for team members to handle new DevOps tools and practices is a must. And importantly, there should be an acceptance that the shift to DevOps is a journey and not a race. It’s a process that takes time, involving continual learning, iteration, and improvement.

Remember, the goal is not to abandon the ‘old’ simply because it’s old, but to ensure that all practices—new and old—work synergistically towards better productivity and faster delivery. It’s about selecting the right tool for the job, even if sometimes, that tool might be a legacy system.

To avoid this cargo cult, organizations should periodically review their existing IT practices to identify any heritage that may be hindering their progress. They should also foster a culture of continuous improvement and be open to changing traditional practices that no longer serve their needs. This might involve investing in new technologies, retraining staff, or reorganizing teams to better align with new methodologies.

A look in the mirror

The best way to dismantle a cargo cult is of course to avoid establishing one in the first place. As a final thought, ask yourself this: Are you chasing trends that lead to cargo cults, or are you shaping them?

Could it be that the very architects of the tech industry — the CEOs, CIOs, CTOs, and CDOs — are unknowingly promoting cargo cult behavior? Are they too caught up in the game of trend-chasing, unwittingly leading their organizations down a path of superficiality? This is a controversial notion, but one worth considering.

Perhaps, the responsibility of fostering genuine innovation falls not just on the implementers but even more so on the decision-makers. If those at the helm fail to understand the true essence of a trend or tool, can we really expect the rest of the ship to steer in the right direction?

In a world where technology trends evolve at breakneck speed, it is easy to get lost in the noise. But we must remember that true innovation is not about keeping up with the Joneses, but about finding the best path forward for our organizations — even if it means going against the grain.

As leaders, technologists, and businesspeople, we must strive to create an environment that values understanding over imitation, substance over style, and innovation over trend-chasing. Only then can we hope to avoid the pitfalls of cargo cult behavior and steer our organizations towards genuine, meaningful progress.

So, here’s the challenge: the next time you encounter a new trend, don’t just jump on the bandwagon. Take the time to understand its principles, assess its relevance to your organization, and implement it thoughtfully. Get the zebra, not the striped horse.


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