Have you ever gone out with your friends to a karaoke bar and watched someone, who did not speak English, sing the best Bon Jovi Livin on a Prayer you have ever heard, just short of seeing Bon Jovi live back in 1987? I’ve seen both. Have you ever worked with or for someone who follows a process or framework to the letter but does not have the first clue why they are doing what they are doing? Again, I’ve seen it.
The major difference is one is singing a song for personal entertainment and the other is potentially wasting time, money, and putting projects or product delivery at risk.
The name is derived from the belief among Melanesians in the late 19th and early 20th century that various ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will manifest in the appearance of material wealth, particularly cargo, via Western airplanes, though the meaning of the behavior is more complex than a simple misunderstanding. That mouthful is brought to you from Wikipedia.
I hear cargo cult referenced a lot in the Agile community. I’ve been to half a dozen Project Management conferences and never heard the term once. I’ve been to an equal number of Agile conferences and heard it used every time. We reference it all of the time, referring to the rituals of Scrum, SAFe, and other frameworks. People memorize the frameworks but don’t know why they are doing the rituals. They have little hope of improving upon a framework, if they follow rituals blindly.
I recently wrote that the Agile community should consider using terms anyone understands. If I said cargo cult, I would have to spend the next few minutes quoting what I wrote above, to explain it to a customer. It could make you feel smart, needing to educate someone on a new term. But, why not use a new term like karaoke agile? First, I know the Agile community LOVES to use Japanese words. With a Japanese word origin, from kara empty + ōke, short for ōkesutora orchestra, practitioners should be all over this! For better or worse, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know what karaoke is. This includes anyone outside the Agile community.
Combine words of Japanese origin and the word Agile. Stop using the term cargo cult when describing people or organizations that follow processes or frameworks without understanding why they do it. Win-Win.