Cargo Cult

On occasion, you meet companies that outwardly claim to be agile, but on closer inspection have hardly developed or want to develop an agile culture. Agile consultants use the term cargocult for this, when organisations introduce agile methods without any utility value, but rather for symbolic reasons.

Cargocult is originated as a religious movement on some Pacific islands, where for example parts of airports are replicated out of wood and the activities of an airport operation are symbolically imitated to bring about the return of the ancestors who will bring cargo. Cargo of the kind that American troops brought to the islands in masses during the Second World War.

In my practice, the vast majority of “Cargocult” cases in companies are different. In one situation, I saw that agile methods were introduced into IT. The employees were told about this literally overnight, had no training whatsoever, but were supposed to convert all ongoing projects to agile ways of working. As it was a hierarchically managed company, this was also applied to most of the ongoing projects. The management announced after 4 weeks that they were more agile and better than the industry leaders.

The change to symbolic agile working led to significant delays in all projects. There was puzzling and interpretation by project managers on agile methods, very often with a simple misattribution like: Definition-of-Done is our old familiar acceptance protocol after all. Astonishing nonsense arose, even repressions were to be enforced under the name of agility.

The nightmare story ended after 9 months, with the management lecturing about the inadequacies of agile methods. I was approached during and after this large-scale experiment, I talked to the people. The vast majority suffered from this nonsense. A few have always been politically correct and found all things proper.

It was clear to the majority after a short time that this way of working has nothing to do with agility. Their emerging resistance eventually led to the official termination of the whole exercise. But what about the supporters, did they believe in a cargocult? I rather suspect they wanted to decorate themselves with agile clothes. They wanted to tell the world that they were now also an agile organisation. Inside, everything should remain as hierarchical as possible.

It seems reasonable to conclude that they wanted to appear modern and were not at all serious about it. It’s more like a kind of symbolic agile work to pretend something to the management and the outside world. For me, the term Potemkin villages is more appropriate, as no one expects agile culture to fall from the sky at one time or another.

“New Work” Potemkin villages are, obviously, a pointless as anything. In all the examples I know, they don’t do any permanent damage, the employees are familiar with such nonsense. A few young employees will leave in the short term. By the way, these companies also introduce legally necessary framework regulations in this way. These usually end up in a corporate department, where there are always designated ISO officers.

So the question remains: why do they do this? I spoke with HR colleagues who are usually appointed to carry out such “new work” culture changes. They were annoyed by such projects, there is almost always a lack of support, resources and budget in their companies. A transparent communication about which goals could actually be achieved with the far too scarce resources never existed in their companies.

It would be nice if anyone would say. We just want to have that written outside on the door because everyone is doing it the same way these days. However, that’s not the case…

Oil tanker blurred photo in the sea

IT social worker

IT, that’s the hoodie-wearing nerds in the vault. Especially in the news footage: There has been a publicity-grabbing computer failure in a company, and the background image is of a person in front of a laptop, shutters down, casting a striped shadow on a hoodie. The only new development since a few years is that the hacker is sometimes female.

Recently, when asked what I did for a living, I told a woodworker that I am a computer specialist. His answer was that he couldn’t spend the whole day sitting in front of a computer. I replied that I couldn’t do that either. He said he works with people. I asked him where and when he actually works with people. Approximately every 6 weeks, he advises customers on individual pieces of furniture or their restoration, apart from that, he works alone in the workshop.

He didn’t believe that I work far more with people. For him, IT means sitting in front of a computer and programming. And so I tried to explain to him the tasks of an IT architect. I told him that I need to understand the client, his culture, his maturity level. That we need to agree on the right level of IT services that will bring real business value to the client. That I have to reconcile the picture I have of the customer’s IT with the reality in the company. That I have to win people over to change their work and show them a nuanced picture of what their future could look like.

I honestly don’t know if I really reached him. At least he knows that there are people in computer engineering who work intensively with people and social systems. But I guess he still believes that most of us work with pizza fingers in the basement.

This highly stupid image of IT professions probably plays a great deal into why we have been lacking young talent in this sector for years. Particularly for female trainees and students, “sitting in front of a computer all day” is likely to be quite a put-off.

I can only say that the job opportunities in IT are extremely wide-ranging, you get to know great customers, and you can develop super interesting innovations for the business with them. Not a single day goes by that I do not work with other people.

Dear computer professionals, let’s talk more often about our profession, about exciting, challenging or funny encounters with clients, always in the bright sunshine as well as sometimes wearing a hoodie.


Everything is going to hell

When it comes to change, there is a Late Majority that is against transformation almost all the time. Even when an old system is on its last legs, these groups still find reasons why a new system, process or approach is really bad and will drive the company to bankruptcy.

The late majority is the last active group to contribute to the change. Once they are emotionally through the change, the new system is running extremely well, new customers have been won and so on, sometimes the same people say things like, „I always knew that the new system would be excellent for us.“

I enjoy chatting with these people over coffee to understand when the change of heart took place and whether I could have accelerated it in any way. The amazing thing is that everyone I have spoken to denies ever having been an opponent of the new.

Even if a person sitting next to him confirms that he actively worked against the innovation, all I hear are excuses like, “I didn’t mean it that way”. No matter how transparent or fault-tolerant the customer culture was, they always deny that they were ever against the new, now superior system.

In this context, initial reservations are perfectly understandable. If an organisation has waited too long, has been driven to wear and tear, the staff is often so stressed that a transformation seems like an impossible burden. When, after a successful transformation, an initial objector says, “Yes, I thought the team couldn’t carry that too.” That is perfectly understandable.

For change processes, the reluctant players are most important too, they help to stabilise at the beginning and at the end they sometimes have the chance to introduce the new system even better than the early adopters. Have the courage to admit that you were a doubter at the beginning, because we can all learn from that.


The 1% nonsense

A very popular narrative is that you only have to invest a few minutes every day in training, work, knowledge, contacts, physical resource or a sociological resource and after a year, through the effect of compound interest, something really big will be the outcome. In order to illustrate this, let us consider the following example.

Let’s imagine that it is true for a entire social network that one new post generates an average of 1 % new followers.

And now my 1% story: Invest 3 minutes every day in a posting on your social network and with every posting, the number of your followers increases by 1%. If you start out with 100 followers, after a week you have 106 followers, after a month 135 and after a year 3741 followers.

Why do these 1% stories impress us at first? Small investment – enormous growth – big profit!

For these 1% stories to be actually achievable, the projected growth has to be exponential. Unfortunately, this exponential growth does not apply to the propagation of 100 flowers in your garden, even if the initial values would also be 1% growth.

Biological systems often follow logistic curves, these are those curves that have the characteristic shape like an S. In the gradient part they look like exponential functions for a short distance. In our example of one posting per day, I chose such S-curve as my model, means the constant worker recognises the difference between 100 and 150 days later, because then the curve begins to slope down.

In my imagined model we reach 500 followers at the end of the year, which is a great increase and was worth the effort of about 18 hours of typing. However, compared to the targeted 3700 followers, the result is disappointing.

Which is exactly my point of criticism of these 1% interest rate stories, almost nothing in a limited market grows exponentially. I worry that the lack of realism and the disappointment along the way of not creating enough growth leads to dropouts and demotivation.

The reasons in the stories are often brilliant, it’s worth investing a constant 3 minutes a day in something good. You get smarter, generate more customers, become more athletic or whatever. Just not exponentially.

Exponential and logistic growth
Exponential and logistic growth

Value outcome, not hours

In social media, I am always amazed to see that simple and unreflective appeals achieve high click rates. Some of them are already ancient, but they are re-posted every few weeks and get thousands of clicks. These platitudes are annoying and boring for me, but the attention economy of the social media loves exactly such calendar slogans.

One of the phrases is: “Employers, value performance, not attendance”. A great appeal, a wonderful topic to discuss. Furthermore, it is also very value-creating when companies take a serious look at it. For most companies, this means a profound change, which is not that easy.

When I see this prompt on my timeline every 14 days, I always have to think of many corporations and chuckle. I remember a conversation with a slightly younger unit manager. At the time, my team was known for its high efficiency partly thanks to Lean, Agile and Diversity, and I was often asked what was behind it all.

After such a talk, this colleague took me aside and explained to me how to achieve something in a corporation. It was a very great conversation, she has a very different perspective on the world than I do, but I really appreciate that she openly explained her approach to me. Here are the main methods of her “presence” strategy.

Always stay late, find a place in an open-plan office that is well visible to everyone. When the lights are shut off in the evening, don’t switch them on again, only light up your own workstation. Two LED desk lamps are ideal.

Always seek to get attention. Visit the executive floor, ask about appointments and attendance, take the lift exactly when the last executive meeting took place in the evening, mention in the lift that you are taking a short break and just get a drink from the vending machine on the ground floor.

When going somewhere, always have things under your arm, a booklet on which you can write something down with a pen is ideal. Against being bored, spread out a lot of documents on the desk, in between which you can hide some private reads. Even the private tablet doesn’t catch the eye in the midst of all the stuff.

She had a dozen more tips of this kind. Such methods were very successful in her company and I think this also applies to many other companies. As I said, not my world at all, but a very sympathetic conversation, I had to smile a lot and I have seen a different world view.

Now let’s evaluate the strategy “presence” and the alternative “performance”:

Imagine that in the next reorganisation, her name is tossed into the ring. The reorganisation is discussed by a small group of people who have access to hundreds of candidates. Her name comes up and most of the board doesn’t know her very well, but have a positive impression: “Oh, that’s the one who always stays so late”. In this fashion, the “presence” strategy conveniently finds many supporters across the board.

This is much easier than a matching assessment on the performance of hundreds of candidates. These performances must be transparent to the same decision-making body. Think about how many conditions have to be fulfilled for such a body to say by a vast majority: “Oh, that’s the one who always performs so well”.

One requirement is the mutual recognition and reference to each other’s achievements. “I could never have done it without the co-worker” or “The team was on fire towards success, I barely had to assist” and many more statements like this.

So, now we have something tangible for the people in team “performance”. Not just the hard-to-implement generic phrase “Employers, value performance, not attendance”. How about the appeal: “Give praise to a colleague in front of the whole team today!”

This can be practised in any company, regardless of whether it is a member of the “presence” team or the “performance” team. Even if the subject of “performance” is very well managed in your company, a little praise never hurts.