Cargo Cult Digital Transformation


Posted on: November 3, 2017 by David Daly

One of my long-time favorite articles about software development is Cargo Cult Software Engineering by Steve McConnell. In it he cites Richard Feynman who used this metaphor to describe practices that have the semblance of being scientific, but do not in fact follow the scientific method:

"In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes 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 for 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."

Steve McConnell then goes on to talk about what he calls Cargo Cult Software Engineering: where an organization tries to copy a style that has been used successfully by another organization, but fails because their copy is only superficial. For example, Steve says this about organizations that try to clone a “process-oriented” approach:

"They observe that those organizations generate lots of documents and hold frequent meetings. They conclude that if they generate an equivalent number of documents and hold a comparable number of meetings they will be similarly successful. If they generate more documentation and hold more meetings, they will be even more successful! But they don’t understand that the documentation and the meetings are not responsible for the success; they are the side effects of a few specific effective processes. We call these organizations bureaucratic because they put the form of software processes above the substance. Their misuse of process is demotivating, which hurts productivity. And they’re not very enjoyable to work for."

Earlier this year at the February meeting of the Atos Scientific Community I made a similar observation about much of what is being described as “digital transformation” today.  Just because a digital disruptor has built a mobile app, uses cloud infrastructure, or even creates a brand new business model, does not mean that copying any one of these strategies will convert your organization into a digital business. Perhaps this is why, in 2016, 84% of companies who had embarked on a digital transformation failed to achieve the expected benefits.

In my view, rather than a shallow “cargo cult” copy, what’s really needed is a much deeper transformation which fundamentally alters not just what the organization delivers to its customers, but also how it delivers it, and, most importantly, the very essence of how the company operates. The leadership, governance, organizational structure and culture must all foster innovation across all aspects of how the business functions: from its products and services right through to extreme optimization of internal operations. Anything less and the change will be nothing more than superficial; radical results require radical transformation.

Credit: Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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About David Daly

Global Deal Assurance Manager at Worldline and member of the Scientific Community
David is the Global Deal Assurance Manager at Worldline, the European leader in the payment and transactional services industry. He is also a member of the Atos Scientific Community where he is leading the Digital Business Transformation track. In addition he is an Atos Distinguished Expert with a focus on Agile and DevOps, as well as being a Fellow of the British Computer Society and holding Chartered IT Professional status. He has worked within the technology industry for over 18 years in a variety of roles including developer, analyst, technical architect and development manager. He is a regular public speaker who often challenges conventionally accepted wisdom and has a passion for proving that alternative approaches can produce better results. He lives in Nottingham with his better half, his 2 young daughters and a female cat called Bob. Outside of work David enjoys running and playing piano in a 60s covers band.

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