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

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.


No knowledge, no criticisms

In the social media, people often complain about unjustified criticism or condescending remarks based on gender, origin, clothing, etc. Such complaints are then often garnished with the statement that other social groups do not have to suffer from wrongful comments. In my experience, marginalising criticism is very common and likes to abuse external things like irrelevant characteristics or hobbies. The main thing is that it is a low-cost vehicle to discredit the person being attacked.

I am and have been involved in many change processes, and you hear these sayings very often in the tea room. Some leaders who drive change really get tons of blame. These insults are often driven by the Laggards, the people who are the very last to take over the changes. As an external consultant, I am seldom affected.

But it did happen to me once: A company badly needed to make its decentralised, inhomogeneous IT more efficient because it was writing red figures. After a few months of initial progress, there was a big project meeting to discuss alternatives. A business unit had joined at short notice and sent a representative. I was only a guest and seated at the very back of the room.

This representative took the opportunity of a small break in the programme, went to the front, grabbed the microphone and insulted me as a person. ” Do you want to be told what to do by that jerk German” was the more harmless version. I was very caught off guard, adrinaline shot through my bloodstream, yet I was able to use the period of name-calling to collect myself.

Slowly I went forward, placed myself next to him, looked at him and indicated with my hand that I wanted the microphone. He was very puzzled, kept talking, but I gestured with my hand without saying anything. He gave me the microphone and went back to his seat. I resumed quickly that we were all here to discuss alternatives, asked him to be constructive and forbade him to attack me personally. However, constructive criticism of my work was always welcome. He shouted something incomprehensible from his seat, then there was peace.

For me, it is important to briefly counter the attack. Not to the content, because such an attack has no content. It can be as low-level as a slow blink I threw at two ladies I didn’t let cut in front of me at a concert, who then had to settle for two rows behind me and then condescendingly insulted me with externalities and alleged qualities.

Often you only discover something like that through a second person, and I always bring it up there, too. I never raise suspicions, but rather talk about the content. “I heard you don’t like the upcoming changes”, the reactions are manifold, from “Yes, yes, it’s all good” to constructive criticism to “Yes, Miller is an blockhead, look at what a pimps car he rides”.

Such condescending criticism can really strike you. Maybe because you’re having a weak moment, because you’re struggling with other things in the project, because the criticism has subtly hit a sore spot.

When something like that has happened to me, I process it. I look for reasons why it has affected me and try to conclude it for myself. An important checkpoint is: Would I ask that particular person for criticism? If not, the criticism is not for me, but instead says quite a lot more about the other person.

Critics of nose lengths are annoying and don’t deserve any attention. You don’t know me or the content, then you have no right to criticise.

Finally, a quick thought on good criticism. If it is a mentor-mentee relationship or a supervisor-employee relationship and you are asked for criticism for improvement. From an observer’s perspective, you can highlight strengths and offer weaknesses as alternatives. Instead of saying, “You still have to learn how to talk to customers, but you are already very proficient in accounting and technology,” you can say what you appreciate: “When we are both at the customer’s, I love that you take the technology and the numbers off my hands. That way I can concentrate fully on the customer. This way, as an start to a meaningful conversation, a lot of ideas for improvement can be discussed, the mentee has maximum freedom to take alternatives and talk about the future.

Slow Blink
Slow Blink