The Best Metaphor

  • 06 May 2018
  • 19 Mar 2023

A small group of almost-naked figures gathers at the edge of a rectangular jungle clearing. At the northern end stands their recently-completed spindly bamboo mast; halfway along one of the longer sides is a rickety hut on thin stilts. Running down the center of the cleared area, a strip of flattened sandy scrub, like a giants’ cricket pitch. Twenty metres beyond the southern end of the clearing, through the jungle greenery, is a strand of white sand, and then the sea.

One man walks across to the hut and climbs inside. He picks up the halves of coconut shells, joined together by a loop of palm rope, and puts them over his head. Bending over an old packing crate, he whistles, makes a few clicking sounds, and starts to mumble, unintelligibly. The group outside screw up their eyes against the bright sky, looking for anything bigger than a bird.

It doesn’t come that afternoon. Perhaps they made a mistake in their preparations. But perhaps it just wasn’t the right day. They’ll go back to their huts and discuss what went wrong and try again tomorrow. They know that one day, when they get it right, the cargo will come.

Cargo cults are millenarian, pseudo-religious beliefs, rituals and activities that were first described in late 19th Century Melanesia. And they’re a fruitful way of understanding many situations we find in business now.

When the peoples of the Pacific were confronted with Westerners’ seemingly unlimited supply of goods – or ‘cargo’, as they termed it – and having no comprehension of Western industrialisation, commerce and trade, they attributed the cornucopia to miraculous and other other-worldy processes.

An example of a gift exchange culture in the ancient Near East is famously mentioned in the Armana Letters (14th Century BCE). Burra-Buriyaš of Babylon scolds the Egyptian Paharoah, Neb-Kheper-Ra, for falling short of his giftly duties:

‘From the time my ancestors and your ancestors made a mutual declaration of friendship, they sent beautiful greeting-gifts to each other, and refused no request for anything beautiful. My brother has now sent me 2–minas of gold as my greeting-gift. Now, if gold is plentiful, send me as much as your ancestors, but if it is scarce, send me half of what your ancestors. Why have you sent me 2–minas of gold? At the moment my work on a temple is extensive, and I am quite busy with carrying it out. Send me much gold.’

In an era before a well-developed understanding of trade, an exchange of goods might frequently be described as an exchange of gifts.

At the time, many Pacific island societies were organised around gift-exchange, where the more goods a ‘big man’ could give away, the higher his status and the more obligated to him others became (a social arrangement reminiscent of gift exchange in the ancient Near East).

The sudden availability of a large amount of highly-valued goods, controlled and distributed by the Western strangers, disrupted the Melanesian gift hierarachy and provoked the emergence of cults devoted to accessing this extraordinary bounty. Some of the cults proposed that the cargo had been diverted by the Westerners but had really been intended by the gods for the islanders.

From the 19th Century onwards – and famously, after extensive contact with the West during the War in the Pacific – people around Melanesia invented rituals mimicking Western practices and they forged crude copies of Western objects, devices, buildings and machines. They made airstrips to welcome the planes carrying cargo, constructed radio masts and control towers from wood, bamboo, straw and palm. They built accommodation huts and office buildings, and mocked-up aircraft. They held parades and they marched, in a pastiche of the departed soldiers who had once supplied them with such highly desirable manufactured products

A well-known cargo cult is the John Frum Cult. John Frum was described by cult followers as an American World War II serviceman who would bring wealth and prosperity to the people if they followed him. Devotees built symbolic landing strips to encourage aircraft bringing cargo.

Richard Feynman was one of the first to use ‘Cargo Cult’ metaphorically and in disdain . He applied it as metaphor to Psychology and the Social ‘Sciences’, which he thought mimicked some of the practices of the physical sciences – they followed the outward appearance of science and the forms of scientific investigation but they were missing something. In the case of these softer sciences, he thought it was the integrity not to fool yourself and to report failure. I’d go further and say what was missing in Psychology was a coherent unifying plausible theory. Physics had classical mechanics then Relativity. Psychology had the nonsense of Freud.

The term ‘cargo cult’ is now applied in science and business to practices that have the outward trappings of a rational process successful elsewhere, but with a misdirected causal process. The metaphor is extremely productive. Once you understand that a practice is not evidence-based but is instead a set of free-floating habits with the superficial form of a rational practice you are able to understand why people behave in the way they do – and you start seeing cargo cults everywhere.

Take software development. The project manager who, attempting to remain relevant, tries to apply an Agile methodology with next to no comprehension of the development process or the rationale behind the practices. She might conduct some Agile ceremonies – just as a Melanesian islander built a radio transmitter made of wood and straw. With no conception of successful practices and behaviours, or their applicability, or ways of monitoring, or of proper remediation, or collection of data or grasp of statistics to analyse results and inform future practices. Burndown charts will be well beyond her Excel skills and data analysis beyond her capabilities.

You may work with a company that pays lip-service to the notion of estimation as a part of project management - only to be content with a single figure, with no range, no confidence interval, and no empirical data from past estimates.

These are cargo cult practices in the world of project managment; very superficially mimicking potentially effective management practices but with no real understanding. Key words may be used, key concepts mentioned, some cursory training given – but there will be next to no grasp of cause and effect and no committment to understand.

And like the Melanesians, these business cult devotees will sit waiting for the plane to deliver while all around their island the world goes forward, increasingly regarding them as a backward curiosity.