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Cargo Cult Development
What is Cargo Cult, how can you recognize it?
I recently mentioned the term “Cargo Cult” regarding software development processes. It turns out not everyone is familiar with this metaphor.
It was originally coined by Richard Feynman, who said in 1974:
“In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”
What does this “Cargo Cult Science” mean for software development?
In short, cargo cult development means that people focus heavily on processes while failing to understand (or even care about) the goal.
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“We have to have daily stand-ups of exactly 15 minutes because the Scrum Guide says so.” (Is this even true? Have you checked the Scrum Guide? I did.)
“We need to implement OKRs because Google has been successful with them.” (Copying other companies without understanding different companies’ situations)
“We need to track Monthly Active Users because the Analytics Masterclass on Youtube said is makes sense.”
In all of these examples, the speaker does not understand the goal of the activity. It may or may not make sense, but the process of the activity is perceived as necessary. I have often seen this in connection with Scrum, but it also happens in other circumstances.
What to do against a Cargo Cult
The solution is simple: Focus on the goal of the activity. Ask: "Why are we doing this?" or "How will this help us?
If necessary, ask repeatedly. If necessary, call it a Cargo Cult and start the discussion.
What I read
This is separate section of this newsletter. I will list some of the best articles I read on the internet. They may or may not be related to the topic of this article. I will keep a list of the best articles (currently >700) at https://www.digital-product-management.com. These are today’s picks:
Three slides used to run the team at Elaway: Mission - Strategy, Roadmap - Product Stack.
Difference between a great PM and all other PMs: 20 traits shared by great product managers.
North Star Framework 101: North Star Metric Framework with explanations and examples.