In a speech at CalTech, Richard Feynman (Nobel Laureate in Physics and all-round wildman) talked about “Cargo Cult Science.” He was comparing pseudo-science in some industries to “cargo cults” that emerged in the South Pacific after WWII where isolated islanders would reenact the motions of flight controllers, hoping that would get cargo-laden planes to land again.

As the islanders found out, a reenactment isn’t the same thing as having a real understanding of the technology required to get the planes to land, plus of course, having the need to mobilize large numbers of people and equipment in the Pacific Theater.

That takes us to cargo cult marketing, or the reenactment of what activities seem to have worked for other companies, without regard for the current situation and business realities. So, in the 1990s many companies thought they could be Amazon by building a website and selling their products online. Today, companies think they just need to focus on design to be like Apple.

It goes deeper. Wish I could give an easy answer, but there isn’t one. Knowing what worked for other companies isn’t enough; you also need to understand the specifics of your own time and situation. You can learn what’s going on by talking to a lot of people in and outside your industry as well as customers. And like Feyman said, don’t be afraid of going in a different direction if that’s what the world seems to be telling you.

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