Be a cult

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.


9 thoughts on “Be a cult

  1. “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.” That sounds like a process that lends itself well to, if not Orientation, then Decision.
    Entropy is energy unavailable in the system; while there is energy created, by,I am guessing now, the disorder in the system.
    Both are on opposite sides perpendicular to the knife’s edge, which is created by the followers, until the energy between Decision and Action tips in and at the moment of inertia created by all the forces in the system.
    The velocity that was once slow in Observation suddenly gets very fast in the gap both wide and narrow, deep and shallow, and far and near; between Decision and Action.
    A velocity that counter most of the resistance that is the feedforward and feedback that restricts Orientation.

  2. The largest and most successful cult, or variation thereof, as larry very eloquently
    describes perhaps has to be North Korea.
    Somehow that leadership manages to keep the
    society fozen in time, and cut off from external influence. No easy task,
    particularly since broadcasting and the WWW. Somehow, entropy
    is controlled, as not to trigger wide spread revolt.
    This could be the envy and role model for sociopathic corporate cultures.


  3. We are then of the cult of Boyd, which is the cult, of specifically never, ever, being a cult.

    “you’ve gotta challenge all assumptions, it’s like, you know, we have doctrine,
    airforce has a doctrine, the army’s got a doctrine, the navy’s got a doctrine,
    everyone’s gotta doctrine. You read my work, doctrine dosn’t appear in there even
    once. You can’t find it.”
    “Know why I don’t have it in there ? Because it’s doctrine
    on day one, everyday after it becomes dogma, that’s why !”

    John Richard Boyd.


  4. “We are then of the cult of Boyd, which is the cult, of specifically never, ever, being a cult.”
    But there is more to being a cult than stove-piping. There is the legitimacy issue.
    How do you maintain legitimacy without a doctrine?
    So while you say you’re not a cult….
    Boyd still comes down to Decision making, Singularity, and its “tipping” point.
    In what position, of the Orientation, does the “tipping” point begin to show itself, and what happens after it does show itself?
    We could also ask: Like a Google algorithm is there a centering-force that develops from the turn in positioning, or does the position just becomes a linear path towards an end (end, way, and means) where we don’t see a change?

  5. This whole thing depends on having a good organizational culture and perhaps a solid end product or execution of strategy.

    The issue is that most organizations lack the ability that cultivates cults. That can be due to inertia, bureaucracy, and a lot of other issues. Plus often leadership at the top leaves much to be desired.

    The key here is that most companies don’t have what it takes to form cults, nor are they willing to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem, much less try to fix it.

    – Chris

    • Chris — this is a good general explanation for many problems. The people who run such organizations (companies or other types) simply aren’t minding the store. They’re interested in other things, like money, perqs, and status. Observed from the outside, such orientations often produce what I call the “Mexican jumping bean effect.” In other words, when an organization does something odd or downright stupid, it’s often the result of unseen dynamics (i.e., bureaucratic politics) inside it.

  6. “They’re interested in other things, like money, perqs, and status”

    That rings true with my own empirical experience and observations.
    Short term goals and thinking is symptomatic of the overall problem.
    Winning battles, without strategy, or longer term objectives and goals.
    Many corporations now appear to plan and function on a quarter to quarter
    Production, and R&D takes time, and more time to yield results.
    We see a lot of product, hardware and particularly softwere rushed into production,
    before it’s properly developed and tested.

    This can back fire, and do serious damage to the companies reputation.
    Although people have become accepting of recalls and such, when
    really, it’s outragous, particularly when people die or are grievously
    injured as we have seen in the automotive sector.

    Note to self and all; Rule #1, Don’t Kill your customers !
    Besides being a short sighted and unsustainable strategy,
    it’s just plain wrong !


  7. thank you for writing this.
    my past is full of religious and institutional cults. they have heavily crippled my life into a zero existence.
    now i know what i was looking for in those destructive groupings.
    from an abusive and neglectful family childhood i was desperate for identity and community. i was desperate for cultic institutions….
    thank you for helping me understand this.

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