Are you familiar with Cargo Cults?
These groups of islanders were first noted in the South Pacific after their contact with allied military forces during WWII. The concept of Cargo Cults explains the reactions that isolated, pre-industrial island cultures that lacked modern technology had when they interacted with the soldiers and supplies being airdropped on their islands.
The enormous amounts of military equipment and supplies that suddenly showed up on the islands represented huge changes to the lifestyles of the islanders, many of whom had had no contact with anyone from outside their communities before. A fascinating Wikipedia post explains the effects that the “manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons, and other goods (that) arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers” had when they were shared with the locals.
Of course the soldiers left when the war ended and that’s when cargo cults arose. The participants would try to imitate the behaviors of the soldiers, “thinking that this would cause the soldiers and their cargo to return. Some cult behaviors involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles.”
Put simply, the islanders would dress in discarded uniforms and place disconnected headphones over their ears. They’d stand on the runways and wave orange sticks in arcane patterns hoping that they would attract the giant airplanes that would bring the boxes of supplies they craved.
Needless to say, all their hard work was in vain – no matter what they did, the B-29s did not return.
The technical term for what Cargo Cults represented is “Correlation does not imply causation.”
Correlation implying causation means that two events appear at the same time or one after the other and that these two variables not only appear together, but that the existence of one causes the other to occur – much like the orange sticks that the uninitiated believed attracted the cargo planes to land.
But of course, that wasn’t accurate then and it’s not accurate now. The difference between correlation and causation suggests that just because things happen simultaneously and appear connected does not mean that they are, in fact, dependent on one another.
You want some modern examples? Wikipedia offers this one: “Since the 1950s, both the atmospheric CO2 level and obesity levels have increased sharply. Hence, atmospheric CO2 causes obesity.”
Clearly this doesn’t make sense. Instead, it’s more likely that more affluent populations both eat more food and produce more CO2.
The correlation does not imply causation.
Now try applying this idea to your own business and your own life. How many things do you do because you believe they cause a specific result even though you have no empirical evidence to confirm your assumptions?
If you always wear a certain shirt or sit in a certain pose when your favorite team is in the playoffs – and you believe that on some level your behavior affects your team’s outcome because that’s what happened the last time they won, you are suggesting that correlation does imply causation.
Other possible examples?
Does insisting everyone wear a suit and tie or professional ensemble to the office really affect the image and success of your business or does it just make people uncomfortable?
Does giving your clients 30-day payment terms really suggest that your company is fiscally solid, or does it just delay payment and lower the collectability and present value of your receivables?
Do your employees really need to return to the office or do the flextime, work-from-home habits, and new technologies like Zoom that they’ve been using for the last year and a half actually make them happier and more effective?
If you take the time to think about the things you believe, it’s very likely you can add to this list.
Wearing old helmets and waving dead flashlights around didn’t bring the Flying Fortresses back to the South Pacific any more than holding your breath while you watch a field goal kicker on TV helps the ball go through the uprights. As the world begins to return to some semblance of normalcy, maybe it’s also time to stop assuming that the things that made you successful before COVID are the same things you need to continue to do today. Instead, why not click on the comment button and answer this question?
Will doing what you did before the pandemic get you where you want to go now, or should you try something new? And if your answer is a resounding “YES,” then what do you think you should try next? Please leave a comment and tell us — I’d love to hear from you.
Hard to imagine a better opportunity to detach from the “because that’s how we’ve always done it” anchor and embrace with imagination the abundance of post-COVID possibilities being presented to us now. COVID forced us to change in many ways. And now, many of those ways of changing not only remain popular, but also effective. As individuals and organizations, we’ll never have a better chance to experiment and explore the possibilities in location, operation, marketing, people management, customer relationship, access to voting, and so much more. The question is — do we pursue the future with new learned information and imagination? Or do we long for the pre-COVID way because it was so much more “normal?”