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Start-ups, digital and entrepreneurship: the cult of cargo in business strategy

How many times have we surprised ourselves imitate the behavior of others, from a more or less conscious perspective to achieve the same results ? How many resources are allocated by companies to standardize their communication, their positioning and their strategy on leading companies in their market?

And above all, what analysis was done upstream to ensure that the behaviors and techniques we imitate are indeed those that have led to the success of those we imitate?

Vast question, which brings us back to the famous cult of cargo, which we will discover in this new article, 11th in a series of courses on management 2.0, the summary of which can be found here.

Note: this content originally published in 2012 was republished in 2023.

The cult of cargo: kesako?

Have you ever heard of cargo cult ? This set of rites that appeared among the aborigines of Oceania in reaction to colonization has led certain thinkers and scientists to question the processes of imitation and mimicry. To understand the cult of cargo, we must go back to the time of colonization, first in the 19th century, then later in the 20th century.

In Melanesia notably (Oceania), aborigines saw cargo ships loaded with food and medicines land, as well as airdrops of goods, simply after seeing the American and Japanese troops then on site requesting the sending of these supplies via their radio operator.

In fact, not being able to imagine the economic, industrial and logistical system that was hidden behind the simple order of supplies, the natives began to imitate operators by making fake cabins wooden radio operator, without any electrical wire and with fake microphones. They then prayed inside these cabins, hoping in vain that supply ships would be sent to them.

From then on, you can imagine what question this real story raises: that of relevance of imitation which, when it is poorly thought out and poorly arranged, does not bring the expected effects.

Examples of cargo cults

The cult of cargo in strategy and marketing

In business strategy, it is common to see certain companies all align on the same communication channel after seeing a market player succeed thanks to this means. We then hear about “presence on social networks”, “SEO” and “keywords”, without decision-makers really knowing what these terms mean.

A boon for certain consulting firms, who do not hesitate to take advantage of ignorance and fashion to take advantage of their clients and sell sometimes unsuitable services. The same goes for music producers who, as soon as an artist relaunches a musical style, begin to produce ersatz ones, hoping to benefit from the same media coverage and the same, generally random, success. Evidence of an aversion to risk and a profound lack of imagination.

The cult of cargo in IT

In computer science, the cargo cult consists of copying and pasting a piece of code in the hope that it will have the expected effects, without understanding this code and without checking in advance whether the conditions are met for it to work.

The cult of cargo in market finance

Related to certain effects of financial bubbles, the cult of cargo can in one way or another explain certain completely absurd valuations, and certain mimetic stock market behaviors which have no logic on an accounting level.

We see through these different examples that the cult of cargo can explain certain choices, good or bad, which have the common denominator summary imitation. Since then, the line between learning by imitation and Panurge's sheep behavior is thin, very thin!

Let's see if there are ways to avoid falling into inefficient mimicry...

How to avoid the cult of cargo?

Prioritize innovation management

As opposed to imitation, innovation seems to be the most obvious way to avoid suffering the consequences of a possible cargo cult on your organization. However, It's not Steve Jobs who wants. If you have enormous resources allocated to Research & Development, shareholders and stakeholders who trust you, a business angel who follows you blindly, or a charismatic and respected leader at the head of your company, then you can afford to be the instigator of new products and services on the market, and therefore to make the market.

If, on the other hand, your start-up launches into an already existing business with a view to gaining market share, it will be necessary learn to imitate leaders, to take what worked for them, and adapt it for you, depending on what you want to do. And this is the culmination of the message I am trying to convey in this article: imitation is an art.

Learning to imitate, example of seduction

To imitate is to learn. But what must be imitated is not the result, or the behavior, but the method that led to the result.

Furthermore, to succeed in imitating, you must first understand what the ingredients and the context that led to success are, not to reproduce them literally, but to understand their logic, in order to better understand them. transpose to your case.

Let's take the example of an attractive person, whether in love, in friendships or even in the professional environment. Following your mannerisms will lead you, after an adaptation phase that is always a little strange, to modify your personality in order to make it match what you think is an attractive personality. However, it is not really a panacea.

Imitating a person should only produce marginally better results. Charisma and attraction do not constitute a simple series of rational behaviors applicable by anyone, it is not just a gesture to be reproduced procedurally, with identified protocols which work every time.

The aura is above all social, contextual, physical, psychological... It is a state of mind, a concentration of factors more or less perceptible, more or less imitable and resulting from an entire personal journey, which ends up releasing waves .

It is therefore not by imitating an attractive person that you will monopolize their past (which is the cause of their charisma), their network, the image they project, the archetype they represent in the eyes of others, in short, his character.

Once you understand that this is the methodology that must be imitated, that is to say the more or less conscious construction of a personal legend and a lifestyle of your own, through a past, an experience, a character, a clothing and oral style, an eloquence congruent to your person, which must be adapted to the environment in which you evolve, then you will create your own recipe for success.

What works in seduction then works in other areas, starting with business strategy and communication, which is largely a story of seduction: that of consumers.

Limit cognitive biases as much as possible

This subtitle could have been called: “be well documented”. Knowing our limited rationality, to avoid making bad choices we must have the maximum relevant information possible.

Here, two practices to be applied with rigor: monitoring, research and processing of information on the one hand, which consists of documenting, debauching and prioritizing the information available to us, and the propensity to make the right choice according to a defined objective by trying to eliminate cognitive biases (hypothesis confirmation bias, status quo bias, etc.) in order not to be influenced either by psychological factors or by partisan or individual interests.

The more alert you are, the less risk of imitation to the letter will be big.

Identify key success factors

This is the basis of the base when you want to grow in a new market and steal market share from your competitors: identify the key success factors in order to fully understand the challenges and prerequisites of this market, otherwise we are heading towards catastrophe, that is to say improvisation and a pale copy.

Identify the official AND unofficial means that enabled the success of the model company

Everyone knows, apart from identifying and then imitating the known reasons which allowed a company to succeed in a market, it is also necessary to learn about the unofficial means OR the little-known coincidences which accelerated success.

Nothing – let alone success – ever happens by chance. There is often a catalyst who does what, a catalyst that must be identified either to seize it as well, or to find an equally effective substitute.

For unofficial information, I refer you to the concepts of white, gray and black information from Economic Intelligence.

White information (70%) is that which is easily obtained via research on accessible and public media, gray information (25%) is that which is obtained via monitoring and benchmarking processes, while black information (5%) is obtained by illegal means (corruption, etc.). The idea here is to capture white and gray information.

Let's take the example of a restaurant that is always packed, which has a certain decoration, a certain style of cooking and an identified offer. We quickly tend to conclude, as an observer, that this restaurant is full because its marketing mix is optimal. Except that to be filled, this restaurant may use several channels of business providers that few people know about, such as cutlery providers (TheFork), paid influencers (Instagram), press relations (articles sponsored) or even the presence on social networks or foreign media which make it possible to attract as many tourists as possible.

The paid part of communication as well as the presence on foreign channels (tourist guides in foreign languages, foreign travel blogs) is located precisely in this famous gray zone, to which we have less access than white information.

Resuming success chronologically

It is not because a company offers a certain product that, if you arrive with the same product or even a better product, you will recover market share. Sometimes, success must be understood chronologically in order to properly extract the key factors.

In IT, we can apply this advice by understanding, sequentially, why this or that piece of code acts in a certain way. Thus, copying lines of code without trying to know in what context these lines were typed amounts to nothing more and nothing less than building landing strips in the hope that a plane will land there by chance. Or doing incantations in telephone booths.

This is also why savvy programmers are so annoyed each time a beginner comes to ask them on a forum to program a piece of code without trying to understand the logic of this code.

Analyze the value chain in length, breadth and depth

Imitating a model is good. It is still necessary to understand all the ins and outs, from supply to delivery, including manufacturing. It is also necessary to understand what tax regimes apply to the competing company, and whether its turnover is as good as its media success. Know that the start-ups that we hear about everywhere in the press are NOT necessarily the most profitable, others make much greater profits in their own corner, without anyone worrying about it. See the famous restaurant that is full to bursting or whose bags are delivered in large numbers, and which must then pay the commission of these business providers...

Balancing imitation and innovation

A classic case ofimitation-innovation is Apple's iPad, inspired by tablets that have already existed for several years but which had not aroused any enthusiasm. To understand the success of the iPad, we must integrate ingredients that only Apple could boast of having: cutting-edge R&D, high-end marketing, a star and autocratic leader (see the theory of the entrepreneurial school) , highly committed consumer ambassadors, a post-iPhone period conducive to the success of a tablet, etc…

Obviously, this did not prevent, once success was achieved, competitors from entering this market. This is why sometimes, it is very useful to wait for a competitor who has the means to start by evangelizing a new product, and then come and enter this market with alternatives that are sometimes more successful and less expensive! But that's another subject…

Here are some ideas for reflection in order to to learn to imitate effectively, don’t hesitate to submit your ideas! If you liked this article, don’t hesitate to share it 😉

Return to the summary of the Introduction to Management 2.0 course »

« Chapter 10: The two main types of web communication for VSEs/SMEs


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