Identifying and avoiding the cargo cult

On small teams, most processes are informal. Everyone has a clear stake in the outcome, and if the work is getting done, who cares how? You build close working relationships that fill in for the lack of formal communication and expectation setting.

This is why small teams often have some of the most innovative and valuable processes. They don’t need a formal process, so if they do have one, then it obviously provides value.

However, these processes are usually catered to the few individuals who created them, and they tend to lose their impact as more people and subsequently more stress are added. We get comfortable with the process itself, and new co-workers continue to go through the motions while the procedure’s original utility gets lost in the transition.

This is an example of what Richard Feynman called a “cargo cult” in a 1974 commencement speech. The term “cargo cult” describes an activity that looks and feels like science, but lacks an actual scientific basis behind it. As 8th Light has grown, our daily and weekly traditions have contained enough ancillary benefit and inertia to convince us to continue. But upon closer inspection, the purpose and reasoning that created several of these traditions was no longer present.

As a young company continues to grow, this problem will never go away. How can we identify this behavior quickly so that we can correct for it early on?

1. Remain in constant motion. No process is permanent. This is why consulting companies do so well. They take different processes, almost all based on very few opposing values, and apply them rigorously until one works.

The value is in changing the process, not in the specific process you choose. Your team, the market, etc.—they’re all changing. Different processes will fit you at different times. Embrace a culture of constant change, because you will learn during change regardless of the outcomes.

2. Determine the value by asking why? The Toyota Production System uses the 5 Whys technique as a way to drive down to the core value of a process. You determine the problem, and then ask why that problem exists in a chain of at least five different causes and effects. All process comes with a cost, so it should be assumed guilty until proven innocent. Approach each process with the assumption that “this doesn’t provide value, let’s stop it,” and make the data prove otherwise. By asking why, you’re forced to think deeply and reflect on the actual benefits that each process provides.

3. Make the process prove itself with data. It can be hard to reflect objectively on something that you created and continue to be a part of. Here are some other people who can provide valuable data for your assumptions:

The newbie — They have a unique perspective, but it is important to create a safe place for feedback that doesn’t compel them to agree with your points. You can craft the question carefully, using hypotheticals like: “Think of three ways to show respect to your team.” Then you can follow up by asking, “How is each of those better or worse than our current method?” This has the added benefit of engaging new employees in the reasoning behind your company’s activity.

The oldie — This person likely understands the full context of the process, having been there at the beginning when the activity provided a ton of value. As a result, they might exhibit some of the same biases that led you to seek additional data. They might be prone to confirmation bias, since the process was partly their creation. However, they might also have an overly optimistic memory of the process’s original usefulness. It’s important not to ascribe to this false dichotomy, but these answers still serve as a good indication of which way the wind is blowing.

The objective expert — Invite a competitor or expert objective party in to witness your process, and ask for their thoughts about the activity. They have no real horse in the race, but a lot of different experiences in trying to get the same value from different processes. As long as you can trust them to be honest, their perspective will significantly broaden your possibilities.

Paul Pagel, Chief Executive Officer

Paul Pagel has been a driving force in the software craftsmanship movement since its inception.

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