Antipattern: Cargo-Culting

Author(s): Tobias, Felix

Adopting processes, technologies or methodologies without understanding why and how they work, in the expectation to achieve the same benefits as the role model.


The origin of “cargo culting” goes back to indigenous people living on pacific islands, which were used as air force bases during WWII. These bases mostly got their supplies by air drop. After the military left the islands, the cargo supplies stopped and the indigenous people started to imitate the soldiers’ behavior, for example by carving wooden headphones, like the tower staff has worn, or igniting the runway lights at night. This way they hoped to receive supplies again by the spiritual entities they believed the soldiers and cargo planes were.

In modern IT this behavior can be observed again. The “Cargo cult” describes the adoption of behavior – which is presented by role models – to achieve the same benefits, without understanding the reasons and motivations behind the decisions made in the first place.

Generally, adopting the ideas of a role model is nothing bad, as they mostly invested more time and money for that result than later followers. The process of doing things without questioning them is often used as a starting point for learning new processes, technologies or methodologies, like it’s done in the japanese martial arts principle “Shu Ha Ri”.

The first phase “Shu” can be translated as “follow”, which means that the learning person imitates the behaviour of the teacher exactly without questioning it. The following phase “Ha” means to “detach”, where the learning person is running into the boundaries of the adapted behavior and needs to find its own way to further improve their own skills. The last phase “Ri” roughly translates to “leave”, where the learning person finds its completely own way to solve problems because it has understood the implications and boundaries of the learned behavior. As long as the phases “Ha” and “Ri” are part of adopting new processes, technologies or methodologies, the phase “Shu” most likely won’t lead to the negative implications of cargo culting. Unfortunately, oftentimes exactly these two phases are ignored and the result is the kind of cargo culting we would describe as an anti-pattern.

What are some examples?

Why does this happen?

How can we avoid getting into the situation in the first place?

What are suggestions to get out of the situation if we ended up in it?