Cargo Cult management

A famous Feynman story

I first encountered the term “cargo cult” in the late 1980’s when reading one of Richard Feynman’s books, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” on his quite interesting life. He actually used it in a commencement address at CalTech in 1974. In short, he refers to a practice of dogmatically executing a set of activities in order to obtain a certain result but without the underlying essentials being present. The links above will give you more information on the excellent way Mr. Feynman made the point. For that I defer to him as one of science’s great storytellers.

A lot of management is “cargo cult” management

The reason I’m bringing this up is that only last weekend, I was talking to some friends about the false expectations that exist about management in the minds of many people, and the dangers that entails. I contend that a lot of management is really “cargo cult” management. Let me explain my point.

We put someone, a “high potential” manager, in a certain position, with a management role and with the “mission” to manage, but without a clear context nor the access to the necessary tools, systems or even decision power about these to truly and actively manage his function, his processes, his team …

The word “management” and the associated degree of the “MBA”, the manager par excellence so to speak, is supposed to automagically result in better functioning and better outcomes. And interestingly, in the first few months after the entry of a new manager, functioning may actually improve. It took me a while to figure out that the most likely cause of this is probably “management by announcement”, where the anticipation of and the first reaction to the new manager will lead people to believe that something may actually change. They adapt their functioning for a limited time, in anticipation of what they hope this new manager will bring is fundamentally different from the one that came before … but the fairy-dust wears off after a while.

Failure of management is often due to failure of leadership

What is left is yet another “high potential” who failed to live up to the high expectations. There’s a reason for those failures, and often the high potential is not the only one at fault. For a manager to manage, he needs a management system, a set of agreed upon, communicated underlying systems and procedures. These rules need to be clearly understood by the collaborators and consistently applied across the area or department the manager is responsible for. Ideally, these rules are the operational translation of a vision.

Now, let’s contrast that to the reality that this new manager often finds himself walking into an environment where no such clarity exists. Real management first requires a thorough overhaul of systems and structures … and exactly that overhaul is one of the last things a new manager will actually attempt to do. And the question is, should he be the basis of that overhaul.

Good, but especially relevant management has an essential prerequisite: good governance. A clear vision on where the organization is going with no lack of clarity on how to achieve that vision (operationalization) and who will do what (roles and responsibilities) to achieve that vision. In order to know what not to do, first you need to be very clear and succinct about what to do. So, if you want real management, you first need to create an environment in which it can actually take root. And the talent to create that environment is called leadership. A leader is someone who can develop and communicate a vision, its avenues and its constraints. A leader inspires people to find their way to that goal. Making sure the people get there in the most effective, efficient and economic fashion is the role of the manager.

Management should complement leadership

It reminds me of the description the late Stephen Covey had about the difference between leadership and management. A manager supports execution by the team, while the leader points the way. Lack of clear vision and direction just leads to teams running around in circles, without a clue as to where they are headed. Management cannot really influence that without requiring the manager to overstep his boundaries.

And management should not replace leadership. It should complement it.