In the mid 1970s, the physicist Richard Feynman gave an address on one of the impacts of the Second World War on the people of Melanesia.
American troops landed on a remote island that had never been exposed to western technology or tools. The troops set up an airbase and built an airstrip. Wearing headphones, they guided aeroplanes filled with valuable cargo down from the skies. When the planes landed, shares of the cargo were distributed to all the islanders, bringing a type of prosperity and comfort they had not previously experienced.
When the troops left, the great planes stopped arriving. Missing their cargo, the islanders made an airstrip out of woven bamboo. They constructed a tall platform, placed their chief on the platform, and had him don makeshift headphones. But no matter how hard they tried, the aeroplanes never returned.
I’m not entirely sold on the veracity of this specific story. It’s a bit ‘western values educating the savages’, and why the Melanesians would build a new airstrip out of bamboo when the troops would have left a perfectly good and working one behind doesn’t add up at first glance. But it does give us a term to explain a certain kind of behaviour we will often see at work - groups of people or sets of practices that replicate an apparent behaviour, with little or no understanding on how they connect to desired outcomes. All the gear, but no idea.
Learning about this concept has been helpful for me in re-interpreting various situations I’ve been in across my working life. At the time, actions and people like this made me angry and frustrated. Reflecting now, I can see that cargo cult behaviour can’t be effectively addressed with condemnation or rejection. It’s an expression of insecurity or the absence of deep knowledge, and our responses should be attuned to that. Our own actions when we spot a cargo cult operating should be to mitigate the effect of the mistakes that will inevitably be made, and offer support and education where we can.