Cargo Cult Thinking

Cargo cult thinking is the belief that if we simply emulate the visible effects of achievement, the real achievement will follow automatically. Especially, when the initial results look promising, we tend to think we are skilled, while in reality, we are lucky

The term cargo cult was first coined after World War II. During the conflict, several remote-island-based airfields were established in the Pacific for military purposes, baffling the indigenous, primitive populations. Often limited or no contact was established between the islanders and the more modern military forces. When the military finally left the islands, the original inhabitants tried to recreate the airfields using bamboo, stone, and other available material, waiting for the planes to return. Hence the name cargo cult thinking: If you build it, they will come.

Cargo cult thinking is not limited to the minds of our primitive brothers and sisters. It has a prominent place in modern business thinking as well. For instance, Elizabeth Holmes, the notorious CEO of Theranos, started wearing a black turtleneck to mimic Steve Jobs in order to practice a reality distortion of her own. Though initially very successful, as the recent scandals around Theranos have shown, what she actually did was mix cause and effect: The rooster that crows in the morning doesn’t cause the sun to rise. Likewise, cajoling the rooster to crow earlier will not make a longer day.

Which initiatives in your organization are actually based on cargo cult thinking, and should be stopped immediately?

Photo credit: iStockPhoto/thekopmylife

1 Comment

April 20, 2021 at 6:38 am

So, ‘fake it til you make it’ doesn’t work either. Thanks for your sober wisdom.

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