Cargo cults and faking agility: instead of trying to grasp the deeper meaning of agile methods, practices or structures, companies simply imitate them

Cargo cults and faking agility

Brightly colored cube seats, daily stand-up meetings, scrums and flat hierarchies are commonplace in today’s world of work. They could be the hallmarks of an agile business. We stress the word “could” because such signs of agility often turn out to be nothing more than misconceived imitations.

This phenomenon is what is known as a cargo cult – trying to change something merely by altering its external features. In other words, instead of trying to grasp the deeper meaning of agile methods, practices or structures, companies simply imitate them. The rest – or so they hope – should then pretty much fall into place.

The term “cargo cult” was first coined during the Second World War. The indigenous people of Melanesia observed how U.S. airplanes brought supplies of sought-after goods to their South Pacific islands whenever soldiers on the ground set off flares and gave hand signals. So what did the islanders do? They copied the ritual. Yet despite getting it down to a fine art, not a single plane landed.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals are, in my opinion, the hallmarks of our era.

Albert Einstein

The above anecdote may well raise a smile, but a great many companies – including consulting firms – still get taken in by similar pseudo-scientific findings. This is particularly common when dealing with the kind of complex challenges associated with the hot topic of agility. Companies mistake a method for a strategy, elevating individual tools to an almost cult status. Rather than working on the fundamental values, they put forward an agile manifesto that, of itself, is completely ineffectual. Long live fake agility!

Those eager to kick-start a real transformation first have to get to the crux of the matter. It is crucial not to confuse correlation with causation. When it comes to agility, this means first working on the mindset and then, and only then, turning to the methodology. Once again, organizations need to be careful – this time to avoid simply cramming new methods into old processes. Instead, they need to establish an environment within which new structures can grow. After all, this is the only way to create a working culture shaped by individual responsibility, autonomy and communication on a level playing field.