Sometimes We Don't Know What We're Doing

On February 15, 2006, forty soldiers wearing what appeared to be U.S. Army uniforms climbed a hill overlooking some bamboo-huts in the South Pacific. One of them raised an American flag up a tree over the village, and they began marching down the hill. But as they got closer, an odd picture emerged. The rifles were really just bamboo rods, their uniforms were homemade, they were not wearing shoes, and their chests were painted with the red letters, “USA.” Welcome to John Frum Day on the remote island of Tanna.

The island’s John Frum movement is an example of what anthropologists call a “cargo cult.” Many of these groups formed in villages across the South Pacific when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands during World War II. While there, the Americans exposed indigenous populations to modern technology, vast material wealth, and a seemingly endless supply of jeeps, radios, motorcycles, canned meat, and candy. But when the Americans left, the supply runs stopped.

And that’s where things get interesting.

Many of the indigenous people had grown to like the modern amenities that came with the American way. So they organized into small groups to try to get the supply runs started again. Having never seen airplanes or technology like what the Americans had, they attributed those shipments more to magical forces than anything else. Magic that must have been summoned by the rigid set of rituals that they witnessed every day.

So, these groups cleared dirt runways, built bamboo traffic control towers, carved headsets from wood, made Army uniforms, built bamboo planes, lit the runways with fire at night, and mimicked the daily movements of the American soldiers (to include sitting at desks to talk on wooden radios, shuffling papers between buildings, and staffing runways 24 hours a day to guide planes).

They worked and prayed, but no shipments came.

No doubt these are fascinating, and heartbreaking, tales. Many of us would like the chance to tell those people that their work is futile. That their bamboo planes will never fly, that the goods they seek are made in far-off factories and that they are not free, that radios need electricity to reach the outside world, and so much more. Because with that clarity, maybe those people could devote their time to more important things—like building their communities in their own way.

But before we dwell on the tragic consequences of their confusion, we should probably ask ourselves a question: What if we need clarity as much as them? What if our rituals at work are becoming just as confused and detached from reality as theirs?

It may sound far-fetched, but let’s think this one through.

We face more complexity and confusion at work today than ever before. In the time since World War II, the number of processes, committees, decision-making forums, and procedures at large organizations has increased by factor of 35. Add in the fact that the average office worker spends at least six hours a day on email, roughly half of our time in meetings is wasted, and most managers spend at least 40 percent of their time writing reports, and one thing is clear.

We are drowning in complexity.

So, it’s no surprise that an IBM study found that more than 1,500 CEOs said the largest challenge that they face is complexity. Or that 74 percent of respondents to a 2014 Deloitte survey rated their workplace as either “complex” or “highly complex.” And what happens when most CEOs and employees agree that their workplace is overly complex? Nearly every metric for success suffers: employee engagement, efficiency, profit, and productivity.

And that’s how we landed in a place where we often write reports that no one reads, have meetings that meander to nowhere, build slide decks that never get used, write email chains that seemingly don’t end, and use jargon that no one ever really understands.

Who’s building the bamboo planes now?

It can be easy to poke fun at these over-the-top modern office moments, but there is a real price to pay. Because just like those soldiers marching with their bamboo bayonets, we risk trading confusion for the best of what we could be.

So if we do nothing else, let it be this: May we only use the words we know, do the work we believe in, and never forget what we’re capable of.

To the people of Tanna Island, and what they saw in us.


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