Management, leadership and cargo cult science

December 1st, 2010  |  Published in Change  |  3 Comments

a wooden plane
The late Richard Feynman coined the phrase “cargo cult science” by way of an attack on the way research in the soft sciences was – and arguably still is – carried out. His argument being that research in these areas took on the appearance of scientific rigour but was missing “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty”.

One of the sources of the notion of ‘cargo cult’ is the behaviour of Melanesian islanders after the Americans and Japanese had moved on from the airbases they set up to pursue their second world war ambitions. Once the bases were abandoned the flow of manufactured goods coming from the skies dried up. To encourage the treasure from above to return the islanders built landing strips, wooden planes and radios and adopted the military postures that accompanied them. When the cargo continued to not arrive can we assume they built more wooden planes, worked harder on those marching behaviours and maybe even mapped out a few competency frameworks in order to attract cargo more effectively?

All of which brings us nicely, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, to cargo cult science as peddled by us in the consultancy trade. False debates continue to be generated, almost on a daily basis, that rest on the apparently unchallengeable notion that management and leadership are different and that leadership is somehow better than management. One such debate is underway here as we speak. Although for a less cargo cultish perspective you could try Mintzberg – here is a link to a good summary of his thinking. The dreaded organisational disease known as “resistance to change” shares with “restless leg syndrome” the ability to create a platform to suggest to people that they should spend money to cure something that in the main is a natural consequence of living. The loosely defined basket of tools, techniques, anecdotes and multi level marketing known as NLP manages to be taken seriously in commerce and education. For an alternative view click here to read “Neuro linguistic programming: cargo cult psychology?”. A refreshing example of applied scientific thinking – and maybe a good model for the sort of conversations we should be having with our clients and among ourselves. We could call them real time conversations – conversations with a kind of utter honesty – as Johnnie Moore and I are coming to understand them.


  1. Bruce Lewin says:

    December 5th, 2010 at 10:16 am (#)

    Great post – there is a huge amount of ‘debate’ and not enough ‘progress’ on ‘issues’ in my mind!

  2. Geoff Roberts says:

    December 20th, 2010 at 5:33 pm (#)

    OK, here’s the disclosure – we train NLPers.

    Now my point… I am reminded, when reading the article, of the Placebo Effect. Whether or not there is a theoretical basis to NLP (and neither Bandler nor Grinder ever claimed so) MANY people, myself included, report benefits from using the basic approaches inherent to NLP.
    Just as many people feel the positive impact of sugar pills (or indeed Brain Gym!)

    There does seem to be a more general issue with the theoretical underpinnings of some social ‘science’ stuff – MBTI being a real classic!

  3. John Golds says:

    January 20th, 2011 at 7:05 pm (#)

    Except of course there is some neurological evidence for the effect of placebos but none for NLP. Also there is some interesting research on the BPS Digest illustrating the role the “illusion of control” plays in forming false beliefs e.g. “an illusion of control is created when: (1) a desired outcome occurs frequently and (2) they, or someone else, perform some ineffectual action lots of times. In the context of health, this would be akin to having a condition from which recovery occurs frequently without intervention (e.g. back pain), whilst at the same time receiving a frequent, but ineffectual, treatment. This leads to the inevitable pairing of the desired outcome with the ineffectual intervention, thus giving rise to the false belief that the intervention is causing the positive outcome.” In the psychnalysis environment there is plenty of research that demonstrates that people would have got “better” anyway with no intervention. Could the same be the case for NLP?

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