Design Thinking, Scrum and the cargo cult

This article is a translated, edited version of my original article in German on Medium. If you want to read the original, you can find it here.

A typical request we get from time to time revolves around the topic of design thinking. A potential client contacts us and explains that the company absolutely needs Design Thinking. They usually want to talk about a training session, an impulse lecture, or something similar. We then like to ask: „Why?“ That’s important to us because we want to understand what motivates the companies that contact us. And when it comes to design thinking, we often get a response like, „The management heard about it at a networking event the other day, so we’re doing it now.“

We have similar situations with other topics as well, but with Design Thinking, these kinds of inquiries are relatively frequent. What goes on internally at companies before, during, or even after Design Thinking is put on the agenda often follows this pattern: Design Thinking is introduced and mandated with all kinds of promises. People are trained to work with Design Thinking, with limited time and money, of course. Most of the time it is barely possible to give people a rough understanding of what Design Thinking is – actually working with it is another matter. Apart from the trained people, nobody else knows the method, and in general nobody is prepared for the changes that are necessary to work with such a method. The nature of the organization and the business model also do not fit Design Thinking to some extent. But the announcement was: „We’re doing Design Thinking now!“ And since it came from management, the participants try to carry it out as well as they can. Colleagues resist because they do not understand the purpose of the method and are annoyed by the chaos in their daily business. The implementers are frustrated because it doesn’t work. In the best-case scenario, the method is abandoned. In many cases, however, this is not politically possible, so the catchphrase is retained. The term becomes a laughingstock in the company, part of the „bullshit bingo“ that so prevalent today.

That is why we strive to clarify such inquiries. We find out why Design Thinking is asked for, whether it makes sense, whether the organization can use the method at all, and above all: whether those responsible know what Design Thinking is and why they want to use it. This is the crux of the matter. Design Thinking is not the only method facing questions of implementability. It is a symptom of a much more fundamental problem. The problem can be better grasped if we understand another situation.

Meanwhile in Melanesia

We go back in time a little, and we change places. As early as the 19th century, various primitive peoples of Melanesia (which includes Fiji and New Guinea) had their first (prolonged) experience with Europeans, their trade routes, and the luxury goods that came with them. Later, during the World Wars, especially during the American-Japanese War, they were mainly in contact with Americans who established military bases on various islands.

For the tribal peoples, the arrival of ships and airplanes, the dropping of goods from the air as well as the goods themselves were inexplicable. At the same time, among the goods were sometimes objects that found their way into the lives of the peoples there and changed the societies accordingly. It did not take long until the inexplicable events were integrated into older, religious ideas of the tribes. Ancestor cults mingled with the idea that fitting rituals would lead to bringing more of the fascinating goods to the islands. Matching rituals were copied from the foreign sailors and soldiers: Wooden headphones were carved, dances in the form of landing signals were performed, and fires were lit at old airstrips in the hope that the planes would return as a result. Some tribes built planes out of wood and straw and laid out new airstrips.

These phenomena, known as „cargo cult,“ could be observed in various places. Over time, most ebbed away; some developed into long-lived, institutionalized ancestor cults. What they all had in common, however, was an imitation of actions, processes, objects, and technology that indigenous people could not understand. There was a lack of insight into the underlying organizational, technological, and even social structures that the material world of the industrial age required.

Are we a cult?

Let’s jump back to today’s business world. The connection between the two situations, as radically different as they may be, is quite clear: Both the cargo cult and the implementation of methods such as design thinking feature activities that are geared toward imitation. We imitate actions in the hope that good things will happen to us. Often, however, the actions are detached from an understanding of the fundamental relationships behind them.

An analysis of implementation efforts should ideally be preceded by self-reflection at the organizational level. However, such activities cost a lot of time and are not directly value-adding or revenue-relevant – hence many companies struggle with this. But if such an analysis is not carried out, central questions remain unanswered: What do we hope to achieve with the methods to be implemented? What problems do we want to solve, what potential do we want to realize? If I cannot answer these questions for myself in detail, I cannot answer the question I actually want to ask myself: Do our goals and the targeted methods fit together? Only when we can answer this question with a clear „yes“ should we dive deeper into the matter.

From an organization’s point of view, feasibility is also an issue, of course: A tribal society will not make its way into the industrial age in the foreseeable future, certainly not without outside help. And ideally, such a society should also ask itself the question: Do we even want this? A decision for such a change has enormous implications. Here again, we find parallels to the corporate world. Are we even aware of the implications of working with a new method? Are we willing to go „all the way“? And does this path even lead to a place that fits the goals of our organization?

Of course, this poses a fundamental challenge that applies to companies and societies alike. Without knowing what such a development even means, we cannot make such a decision. This makes an outside perspective all the more important here. This can take the form of consulting, best practices or a visit to companies that are already working with such methods. Regardless of which path one chooses, the focus is always on a constructive, critical attitude. We need to question things, want to understand, and try things out.

Scrum or Murcs?

Design Thinking is far from the only topic where we encounter this issue. I originally came across the term cargo cult through a partner of ours: Marc Kaufmann, an experienced Scrum Master, coach and trainer. He is often confronted with similar situations where Scrum is not understood but implemented. A nice coincidence and a peculiarity of the German language allows him to summarize the topic in a play on words. We can apply Scrum, or, turned on its head, make murcS – a word that sounds a lot like the German word “Murks”, meaning “shoddy craftmanship”. In most cases, murcs comes about when the why behind the introduction of Scrum is not understood.

So there are many areas where the effect of a „cargo cult“ can occur. Systems of self-organization such as Holacracy or Sociocracy are predestined for this effect. Both challenge many fundamental beliefs, turn assumptions on their head, and dig deep into organizational structure. Also, both rely on clearly defined meeting formats, decision-making processes, and other tools or (in the language of sociocracy 3.0) patterns. These can be successfully implemented or, without understanding why, imitated while hoping for unlikely success.

An example of this comes from a large industrial company with which we have worked for a long time. One of the business units there had used a common, analytical model to classify itself and its work priorities relating to the rest of the company. According to this analysis, most of their regular challenges consisted of transferring technologies with clear requirements to reasonably predictable situations. Over time they became quite successful with this approach, and they were able to offer a lot of value to other business units within the company. Technological expertise was in high demand, but so was reliable routine. Upper management then wanted to introduce the Scrum framework, because it supposedly made work better in every way. So they ordered employees to perform „daily standups“ as it is known in the Scrum framework (now they are officially called daily Scrums). Within the Scrum framework, such a meeting has the purpose of quickly aligning a project team regarding their work. Since a Scrum team is moving through the tasks and requirements of a backlog (the sprint backlog in this case) at a fast pace, while every single team member is working on his or her specific tasks, coordination and alignment are crucial. However, this meeting format made no sense for the people of the mentioned business unit, since they had to do more or less the same tasks every day. It just used up everyone’s time and nerves, and resistance arose. Presumably, the meeting format has either been retained as a meaningless „shell“ or abandoned since.

But even with less „radical“ changes, we sometimes end up in this impasse. Another example relates to setting up an innovation management, especially regarding an overarching innovation process. Without understanding the why of such a process, the end result is often self-serving. In one company, employees told me that ideas are developed much faster and more effective then they are implemented outside of the official innovation process. Introducing an idea into the process usually means that you don’t hear anything for several months, only to learn that it was rejected by someone you don’t even know. The people in charge are only interested in keeping the process alive, without underlying purpose or meaning.

Here a timing component usually comes into play. Let’s assume that an employee develops and successfully implements a process to solve a certain problem in the company. Eight years later, problems surface. Colleagues, however, rigidly insist on adherence to the process. After all, „we’ve always done it that way.“ However, the people responsible for introducing the process at that time are no longer in the company. So there is no one left who even understands why the process was built the way it is now. The situation might have changed fundamentally and the process is no longer up to date at all… and yet, we stick to the original process, going through the motions.

A possible solution

So if the problem is so fundamental after all, what can we do? At the core is the question of why. A solution ideally starts here by embedding the why question at all levels of the organization. This is the very issue that is being addressed by the trend of so-called „purpose-driven organizations“.

The goal is an organization that is focused on a long-term purpose instead of other goals such as short-term shareholder value or simply maintaining the existing structures. A purpose describes the reason for the existence of an organization. Some people prefer to talk about a company’s vision. Unfortunately, these vision statements are sometimes formulated and communicated by the management level and does not correspond to the reality and identity of the members of the entire organization.

When a purpose is anchored in the company itself, we have the opportunity to question what we do and, more importantly, how and why, at all levels of the business. This simultaneously means a high degree of self-reflection and a self-assurance in the face of constant change. Indeed, questioning existing structures and activities also means that there are few things to „hold on to.“ The only thing that remains is purpose, which provides orientation as a guiding star. The challenges of such a dynamic organization – especially on a psychological level – also bring with them a great advantage: we never become part of a cargo cult.