Cargo Cults illustrate ‘the secret’ path to business failure
With the approaching New Year, CEOs, entrepreneurs and investors will take time off to reflect on the past year. In the privacy of dens, offices and hotel rooms will cringe at our mistakes, and then promptly plan the next ones by engaging in cargo cults, perhaps the most effective way to plan and repeat failure.
Anthropologists invented the concept of cargo cults by observing tribal cultures in Melanesia. During World War II, Allied Forces established airbases on strategically located tiny islands of the South Pacific to support the war effort against the Japanese Navy. Indigenous people who didn’t have knowledge to understand technology inhabited many of these islands. These people had seen airplanes in the sky before, but were never able to bring them down. So, the Allied soldiers came in by boats, built runways and, spoke into headsets to guide planes to land on the islands. And then, the plane disgorged a cornucopia of goodies: chocolate, cigarettes, and food…
After the end of the war the soldiers packed up their gear and left the islanders to their own devises while aircrafts continued to fly overheard, leaving tantalizing contrails in the perfect blue sky, which caused the islanders salivate at the thought of chocolate and the other goodies.
Because they desperately needed the planes to come back, they carved coconut shells into headsets, which they outfitted with little bamboo antennas. They donned the coconut headsets and mimicked the gestures of the soldiers they’d seen communicating with the aircrafts.
Technologically savvy people know that the chance of directing an airplane down by dancing around with coconut headsets on one’s head is next to nothing. In logic theory this exemplifies confusing sufficient conditions with necessary conditions. Necessary conditions are an absolute requirement for success: without the right electronic equipment, the right frequency, or the right language the aircrafts will not land. Sufficient conditions do not guaranty success but are loosely associated with it.
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New age emancipation gurus like Anthony Robbins have mastered the art of teaching us to confuse necessary and sufficient conditions: if you believe hard enough in your goal and master your fears you can achieve anything you want! Business schools, on the other hand, are all about necessary conditions: markets, margins, planning, or contingencies.
Seems simple? Not so fast! Even though, we are technologically savvy we tend to approach the interface between what we understand and what we don’t understand with similar beliefs in sufficient conditions as tribal cultures: we expect that the stuff we don’t control will resolve itself through positive thinking, luck, meditation, or determination. As far as I know it is not possible to improve the price of gold by doing yoga five times a week.
I acknowledge that positive thinking is more than useful and at times seem a necessary condition, but it is not the most critical of the component of success: there is a need for actual actions and milestones that take the yardstick forward. Without careful self-analysis and coaching we are the Kool-Aid drinking prisoners of our own cargo cults.
Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>