Visualize a cult. You probably see:
- An ideology that seems incredible — even silly — to outsiders but that cult members will defend to their deaths. Data that contradict the ideology will either be interpreted to fit (that is, be explained away), or, if this should prove impossible, will either be ignored or denied.
- A leader whose pronouncements reveal and interpret the ideology to cult members and whose every utterance, therefore, must be embraced and every command fulfilled, regardless of the cost or outcome.
Why in the world, you ask yourself, would sane human beings belong to cults, much less fashion their organizations in such a way? Cults, like all closed systems, generate entropy/disorder that mounts up inside until it makes them vulnerable to competitors or causes them to rip apart. On the other hand, there’s something successful about this model because down through history, there doesn’t appear to have been any shortage of them.
An article in this month’s The Atlantic, “Turning customers into cultists,” suggests an explanation. Many cults offer their members two things often missing in their lives, identity and community. Prophets and esoteric dogma are means for achieving these, but are not in themselves strictly necessary. As a study of the Unification Church (the “Moonies”) concluded, “The cult inculcated new members through simple techniques: weekend retreats, deep conversations, shared meals, and, most seductive, an environment of love and support.”
Even the Peoples Temple (Jim Jones), Branch Davidians (David Koresh), and Heaven’s Gate (Marshall Applewhite), whose members did demonstrate their loyalty with their lives, provided this strong sense of identity and community.
Descriptions like these should remind you of Einheit, the foundation of Boyd’s organizational climate. Literally translated, it means “one-ness.” Boyd used “mutual trust,” and other connotations include harmony, common outlook, and cohesion. Its importance in military operations cannot be overstated. Einheit is what moves people to climb out of trenches and march in straight lines towards certain death, as 19,000 British soldiers did on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916.
Discussions of cultism in business inevitably lead to Apple (Disclosure: I’m writing this on my 2008 MacBook, which still works so well that I can’t convince my wife I need to replace it). From a business standpoint, though, it would be a mistake to regard the company itself, Apple, Inc., as a cult, the late Steve Jobs and its famously secretive culture notwithstanding. Success in business requires attracting millions of customers, that is, people who are not and never will become members of the company itself.
So the genius of Apple was to recognize that the concept of “member of the cult” needed to be broadened to include not only employees of the company but its customers as well. There’s even a website, The Cult of Mac” (“Breaking news for Apple fans.”) The Atlantic article gives insight into how this was done. In Boyd’s terminology, we might say that they achieved a high degree of Einheit with all those Apple fanboys and fangirls.
As I suggested in chapter 6 of Certain to Win, one way to do this is to play the cheng / chi game: Give them what they want and expect — good performance, reliability, beautiful design, etc. — but then throw in something they don’t, like an intuitive operating systems (with free upgrades), a well-integrated ecosystem, responsive customer service, etc. Even an Apple decal for your car. And perhaps most important, the feeling that you’ve become a member of a family of similarly enlightened beings.
The challenge for Apple will be to preserve this cult-like relationship with its customers. As a company grows and so loses the advantages of exclusivity, the benefits of being identified as a cult member become diluted. An Apple tag line from years ago was “Think different” (to which an industry commentator once appended “so long as you think like Steve.”) But there’s increasingly less cachet to thinking different if everybody else is thinking the exact same way. My guess, unfortunately, is that over time Apple will shift its focus to market share and financial results and become just another company.