Cargo Cults: Copying Without Direct Evidence

Cargo cult can be described as the adoption of a technology or practice based on the observation that it has been used elsewhere, without understanding the motivation for its use elsewhere.

These practices were thought to be a feature exclusive to under-developed societies but now there is sufficient proof that it is used in modern societies, workplaces as well as in technology implementation. 

A modern workplace example would be when we create processes that have brought success to another team or company but there is no real proof that it is the best process we should be adopting. If Google’s Engineering teams use scrum methodology that doesn’t mean that it is the best option for your team’s project unless there is significant overlap of inputs and desired outcomes.

Cargo cults make the leaders implementing these practices arrogant and rigid since they have seen it succeed elsewhere. They are much less likely to accept change in spite of any evidence that disproves their stance. This bias is very prevalent in sports where a team strategising based on its opponent’s previous games would create rigid plans while completely ignoring variables like the strength & weaknesses of their own team, momentum of their opponents, individual non-recurring plays etc. This in fact cost Germany a place in the finals of the 2006 FIFA World Cup after they underestimated some variable factors in the Italian team.  

Dressing code is another modern example of cargo cult practices where a lot of tech startups advocate for casual dressing in their workplace because companies in their domain do so. But work culture, deadlines, team dynamics vary from company to company thus making these practices nonsensical. The same holds good for banking companies and the dressing code of their non-customer facing workforce. Why should they be in strict formal clothing when there is little to no evidence that it helps them do their specific job?

Cargo cults can also be seen in our personal lives with the most obvious being superstitious practices that involve imaginary forces. A primary cause for this is our gravitation towards the simplest answer - if you wake up late for work call 3 times a month it is easier to blame bad luck or timing but it is harder to look at patterns that are making you sleep late or possibly a diet that is making you lethargic. 


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Understanding and making rational choices that are customised to your life and organisation can be the difference between failure and success. Do what is right for you and take custom actions based on evidence rather than implementing blanket processes just because it worked elsewhere. 

Hope this mental model helps you make better process and belief decisions. Share this with your friends & colleagues if you found this useful.

Keep things rational. I’ll be back tomorrow.


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Sources & further reading: [1] [2] [3]