Cargo Cults

So let me tell you a little story about Papua New Guinea.  Located in the southwest Pacific, Papua New Guinea had been, for most of its existence, isolated from the rest of the world.  That is until its location played a role in WWII.  From the perspective of a native inhabitant of Papua New Guinea, it must have been fairly shocking to see massive metal birds flying across the sky.  No less interesting were the giant metal whales that floated in the sea.  And you can imagine how confusing it must have been the first time one of these giant metal birds or one of these giant metal whales broke apart and came crashing down onto their island.

And if that weren’t crazy enough, their bellies always seemed to include wondrous riches, themselves almost unfathomable.  Wooden cubes filled with food and drink and all sorts of rare treasures.  And without too much of a stretch of an imagination, you can envision natives of Papua New Guinea beginning to think that these gifts that came out of the bellies of these metal birds and metal whales were actually gifts directly from the gods.  What else could explain such craziness?  And then these metal birds started landing and out of their bellies came people.

They looked different though and they spoke their own ancient language and wore their own ancient robes.  And these creatures prayed to their own gods in their unique ways.  They built these temples specifically designed to attract more of these wondrous metal birds with such riches inside their bellies.  These temples were long, flat rectangles that they arranged on the ground like an oversized nest for the metal birds.  And to get the metal birds to come out of the heavens, the aliens would wave bright orange ritualistic objects in long rehearsed dance.

And the long rectangular temples and the orange baton ceremonial dance worked!  For in fact, they did bring forth more of these metal birds from the sky.  And for years, there were riches coming from their bellies.

But then one day, for no reason at all, the aliens left.  The metal birds no longer came.  The metal whales no longer sailed in the seas.  And there were no more riches.

Clearly, the aliens had not prayed enough.  Had not built enough temples.  So the natives took up the cause and built their own rectangular temples.  They performed their own ceremonial orange baton dance, just as the aliens had done.  And for decades, hearing stories of great riches, the Cargo Cults on the island of Papua New Guinea continue to pray to the gods of the metal birds, awaiting their inevitable return.




I think about Cargo Cults whenever I hear founders spouting buzzwords.

Is it really so strange to believe that the words mobilecloud,crowdsource could be part of an elaborate ceremony.  As if saying the works will bring forth millions of dollars from our venture capital enriched heavens? Is it really that crazy to believe that uttering the words agile or lean or customer development would produce holy engineering teams blessed by the startup gods?

And if you were to see someone praying to these gods, using their ceremonial words, so devout in their religious devotion, do you really think you could convince them otherwise?  After they had seen such proof to the contrary, do you think you could convince them that merely uttering these words is not enough – that the ceremony doesn’t actually matter at all?



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