Plan To Disrupt

Plan to Disrupt or Plan to be Disrupted.

You Cannot Disrupt If You’re in a Cult

To be Disruptive, Avoid Cargo Cult Thinking

TLDR; Cargo Cult thinking will hold you company back.
Is Your Company Using a Cargo Cult Mentality:

  • What is a Cargo Cult?
  • Cargo cult thinking is knowing the How without knowing the Why.
  • If you do not understand the Why, you cannot disrupt.
  • You can only understand the Why, if you understand the users.
  • You can only understand the users, if you communicate directly with them.

What is a Cargo Cult?

Cargo Cults are a phenomenon that is  simultaneously interesting and upsetting.  The most well known of these are the Cargo Cults of World War 2.  During World War 2, military personnel would be sent to live on small islands in the South Pacific to act as lookouts for any naval activity they may see.  Some of these small islands had indigenous populations of people that were primitive and naive to the technology of the times.  During the course of the war, the soldiers would need regular resupplies of cargo to live on.  The locals would see the soldiers talk on radios (which they didn’t understand) and light signal fires resulting in cargo falling from the skies or washing up on the beaches.  When the war ended and the soldiers left the islands, myths about the soldiers actions and the great cargo began to become religious in nature. In some instances, islanders march in military style parades carrying bamboo “rifles.” and have daily flag raising ceremonies all in an attempt to garner the great cargo that will be delivered.  The cargo cult is born.

Assess your processes,  Ask “Why?”

Disruption comes when you leverage knowledge of your users in a manner that others around you have not.  Of course, that assumes that your company still has actionable knowledge of your customers.  It is easy to conflate the knowledge of how processes or tools work with the knowledge of why the process or tool was developed in the first place. This can happen through attrition of employees, corporate acquisition, or lack of corporate initiative. In these cases, a cargo cult based upon HOW things are done is the result.  A “Cargo Cult of the Status Quo” means no disruption, no innovation, no future. If you do not know and understand WHY process and tools were developed you cannot possibly find a better solution to that problem.

The Cult of the Baked Ham

One Easter while a woman was preparing the family dinner with her young daughter, she was instructing her daughter how to prepare the ham for baking. “Next,” she instructed, “cut about two inches off the end of the ham and lay it on top of the main ham.”

The daughter, confused by this action asked, “Why do we cut the end off of the ham?”

Her mom replied, “That’s what your grandmother always told me to do. She is in the living room, you can go ask her.”

The daughter to her grandmother, “Why do we cut the end off of the ham?”

Her grandmother replied, “That’s what my mother, your great-grandmother, always did when she cooked ham. She will be here shortly you can ask her.”

Finally, the matriarch of the family arrived. The daughter quickly ran up to her great grandmother and asked, “Mom says to cut the end off of the ham because grandma always told her to. Grandma says she does it because you always did it. Nana, why do we cut the end off of the ham before we cook it in the oven?”

Her great grandmother laughed and responded, “Oh my, that was a long time ago, but I suspect I did it because I never had a roasting pan large enough for an entire ham to fit into it.”

Understanding How to do something is not the same as understanding Why

The example above illustrated the position a lot of companies find themselves in. Like the girls mother, companies know how the process is performed without understanding why it was performed. Many companies know how to sell, they know how to produce, they know how to service. They no longer know the users of their products or the reason for the decisions that were made about their products. The “Cult of the Status Quo” is all they know. There can be no disruption if you only know How the status quo is implemented.  The little girl broke through generations of false “Knowledge” about how to cook a ham with a simple question “Why?”

Get out of the Cargo Cult Mentality

Getting out of the cargo cult mentality is difficult because it will challenge people to question what they believe they know. To affect a change, be sure that before a decision is made you ask, “Why are we doing this?” Make sure that the resulting answer is directly related to a users need not about how a user uses the tool or what the belief of the user need is.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
― Falsely attributed to Henry Ford

While the quote above has been pretty much proven to not really have come from Ford, the sentiment that it was conveying still holds true.
In his case, people needed a better method for transportation.  The common knowledge of modes of transportation meant “faster horses” was the obvious, and not disruptive, answer. Make sure that you are sure of the underlying need before you offer a solution.

In Summary

Cargo Cult thinking, specifically, the “Cult of the Status Quo,” is detrimental to all decision making that a company makes. Ensure that your company is not being caught up in this type of thinking by asking Why? at every opportunity.  User need should drive your choices. Make sure you are not falling victim to Cargo Cult thinking.


Cargo Cult thinking will hold you company back.~Tal McMahon


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