Cargo Cult


Problem: A project is in trouble and is far too visible.

Context: A project is about to melt down. Much criticism is directed at the project, its staff, and its leadership. People on the project are getting beaten up by rumor, management interference, and continual demands for replans, and their morale is suffering.

Forces: Solution: Redraw the organization charts, showing the troubled project and leadership placed into a new, larger context, possibly demoting it in stature. If you must, toss out a ScapeGoat or a CulpableGoat, but other than the charts, don't change anything else.

Resulting Context: Administratively, the project is now protected as well as being placed in a safer position within the bureaucracy. The illusion of a committed, forceful, and decisive leadership is preserved.

Rationale: Let's face it: reorganizations are difficult and seldom happen. Frequently, the only change is to the org chart, moving names around, redrawing boxes and arrows, as though the rearrangement of the symbols will actually reorganize the corporation, division, department, what-have-you.

The name CargoCult is drawn from the phenomenon of certain South Sea islanders who believed that by building mockups of airplanes and constructing runways that they could bring back the planes and all the wealth that accompanied them during World War II, when advance U.S. bases in the Pacific used the islands as staging areas. In other words, by reconstructing or simulating the artifacts of a situation, they could effect its occurrence. Such is the case with org chart cargo cultism. Richard Feynman wrote a nice story about it; Cargo Cult Science []

The positive aspects of CargoCult emerge when you just want to get critics off your back. Perhaps you are rectifying the situation but just need to buy a little more time (you might need to enlist the help of a willing and understanding manager or colleague). Redraw the org chart, publish it, and let the confusion, anger, amazement, and political intrigue obscure the real outcome, i.e. no real change at all. Usually, those wannabe Machiavellis most enamored of org charts are the very people who you need to tie up for a while as they try to determine how to scavenge the most benefit from the apparent shift of power. It's good for a few laughs, at least.

Known uses:Anecdotally speaking, the most extreme case of this I have encountered was at my previous company where I was assured by an executive vice president that his division was a flat, team-based culture, with no hierarchy, because, "we don't have org charts. I forbid them!" Thus, with the simple elimination of the paper representation of the division, an entire 1,600 person entity was restructured. In fact, it was a CryptoCracy, in that there was certainly a deep hierarchy in existence, but no one was allowed to articulate its shape. Once the "troubles" came however, changes had to be made. Subsequently, org charts were introduced as problems surfaced, apparently for the specific purpose of redrawing them and thus, mirabile dictu! rebuilding the organization. During the six reorganizations I witnessed (in 18 months!) although the charts would change, the powers did not, as either peoples' loyalties did not correspondingly shift, or displaced managers would find new avenues through which to wield their old power. True, now and then some real change would occur in the organization, but it was fascinating to observe the changes in the org chart held as proof rather than any real change. Another name for this might be Voodoo Doll Management.

A historical example of this same phenomenon may be the case of Earl Long, governor for Louisiana, who, when confronted by legislation that prevented him from serving a subsequent term as governor, ran and was elected as lieutenant governor instead, with a willing and subservient crony in the governor's slot. Earl still ran things, though bureaucratically he was the #2 man. In a sense, he just changed the org chart, for all the difference it made.

Ex-Governor "Garotinho" ("Little Boy") did the same in Rio de Janeiro. He managed to get his wife Rosinha ("Little Rose") elected because the law would not let him be governor again, and she named him Secretary of Security, so he could retain his power over the police and continue leading the city mob (mainly drug dealers). In fact this 3rd mandate is happening right now (2004).

Moral: The chart is not the organization. The best you can hope for is that the chart reflects the de facto organization, but chances are, if you're relying on charts to navigate your realm, you're really hopelessly lost as to its true nature. It may be time to ask yourself, "Is this one of those CryptoCracy things that jerk Olson was crowing about?" If it is, perhaps you'll be desperate enough to try to MapTheRealm.

Related Patterns: JimCoplien's Organizational Patterns[] "Firewalls," "Gatekeeper," "Patron," and "Developer Controls Process" are very useful at preventing situations where CargoCult may be needed, and may even be used along with it. You might also look at ContainmentBuilding, which is a particular flavor of CargoCult. Another one is ManagingUpward.

Author: DonOlson 95/10/19 (revised 96/4/5, thanks to Linda Rising, DavidDeLano, Russ Corfman, Sherri Scott, Jeff Scott, Bipin Patel, and Karel Hull at AGCS for the workshop and review!)
A partial defense of the natives' behavior has been moved to DiscussionOfCargoCult.
Please join the DiscussionOfCargoCult. Or go to CargoCultProgramming for another common phenomena characterized by blind following of forms without understanding.
CategoryAntiPattern CategoryOrganizationalAntiPattern

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