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Cargo cult strategy


All the startups in the world are striving hard to turn into big corporates with lots of users and billions in revenue. At the same time, the big corporates that have lots of users and billions in revenue are striving hard to keep the startup culture alive among their employees and stay as agile and nimble as them in implementing new ideas.

This is what is called the Cargo Cult strategy.

Greg Satell writes:

"During World War II, natives on Pacific islands saw something most unusual. Strange men appeared, cleared long strips of land and built structures decorated with flags. Some of these men wore large cups over their ears, while others waved sticks and, almost magically, machines appeared from the sky carrying valuable cargo.

After the war ended, the men left and the supplies stopped coming. Some of the natives formed cargo cults which copied many of the the rituals the soldiers performed. They marched in formation, wore cups over their ears and waved sticks around. Alas, no airplanes ever came.

Clearly, the idea was patently absurd. Anybody who thinks that waving sticks will cause airplanes to appear is missing some basic principles about how air travel works. Yet many modern executives also believe by mimicking the tactics of others they will somehow achieve the same results. These “cargo cult strategists” don’t do much better than the islanders."

No two companies are the same. And No two people are the same.

So, it makes little sense to copy tactics without understanding the essence of what makes it work.

When Netflix was starting to take off in 2004, Blockbuster had the same offering as Netflix in terms of mail-order delivery of movies. But, while that was the only model Netflix was operating, Blockbuster had to fight complaints from retail partners who were afraid that the new model would cannibalize their sales (it would), and eventually under pressure, Blockbuster shuttered that model and everyone knows what happened next - Netflix is among the top companies today and Blockbuster is bankrupt.

When we try to imitate people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, we are walking down the same path as Blockbuster in trying to imitate Netflix. There are important aspects of our lives that are potentially incompatible with the tactics we are trying to imitate from someone else that is succeeding by doing that.

The next time you are trying to imitate the tactics of someone else, be it in your personal life or at work, ask yourself if you are behaving like a cargo cult strategist.

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