Cargo cult behaviour or science is the semblance of doing things right, essentially simply going through the motions, regardless of the merits or the probability of the activity engaged in to create or lead to the desired results.
In the same way that advice is effective to the extent that it is valid and actionable, that is, leads to effective action, an action is effective to the extent that it leads to the consequences intended in ways that persevere, but without generating, unintended consequences that undermine the beneficial outcomes. (Argyris, 2000).
An example of cargo cult behaviour is the Papua New Guinea tribes1 who built mock airfields and aeroplanes to entice birds from the sky to provide them with bounty. They had the form correct, except that they didn’t understand the details. No planes landed on their airfields.
Another example is speed-mentoring; it has the same form as speed-dating, where parties get together for a brief period, 5-10 minutes, to exchange information, and try to get to know each other. The difference is that with speed-mentoring, in addition to the parties trying to establish whether or not there is the basis for a longer-term relationship, the mentor is also supposed to dispense pearls of wisdom.
Well that is one form of speed-mentoring; establishing the basis for a longer-term relationship need not be an objective, it could simply be a time for the rapid dispensing of wisdom.
But what is the theoretical basis, backed by any empirical evidence that supports the value, defined as the achievement of objectives, for speed-dating? And furthermore, where is the same for speed-mentoring?
I have searched for peer-reviewed papers on the subject only to find few such papers, with the ones that do exist not directly addressing my principal concern, which is, does speed-mentoring work?
One article I found, on the website Psychology Today (Kaufman, 2010), Scott Barry Kaufman provided a summary of 3 papers on the topic of speed-dating and human mating decisions. Kaufman wrote that “[t]his suggests that a speed-dating context is one that generally attracts people pursuing long-term mating tactics (or at least report that they do!).” And later wrote while summarising “… the chances of relating (i.e. ending up in a long-term relationship) with a speed-dating partner was 4%.”
Another paper, discussing speed-mentoring between university students and faculty, states “Given speed dating’s success in traditional matchmaking, it seems reasonable that similar activities might facilitate matching mentors and mentees.” (Cook, Bahn, & Menaker, 2010). I don’t know that an assertion such as “Given speed dating’s success” can be made; where is the evidence? They didn’t provide any. The popularity of a process does not necessarily mean that it has causal power. And again, success compared to what other options? Maybe 4% is a really great outcome, especially compared to another process that say, may have a 1% causal probability; if that were the case, the later process would be a 400% improvement over the former!
That paper (Cook, Bahn, & Menaker, 2010) also noted that “[o]nly two mentees contacted a participating mentor after the event,” that their sample size was too small to draw conclusions, but that their results “suggest that speed mentoring merits further attention.”
That speed-mentoring achieved a measure of success (Cook, Bahn, & Menaker, 2010) could be attributed to:
- The objectives and expectations were clear and understood by all – match student mentees to faculty instructor or professor mentors for a relationship expected to last for the duration of the students’ studies.
- The mentors’ qualifications and area of expertise were known beforehand.
- The context was known and understood – a university.
- The students’ goals (via course selection) and specialization were known beforehand.
Whereas a speed-mentoring session I participated in as a prospective mentor to secondary school students:
- The objectives and expectations were not clearly understood by all.
- Mentors and mentees were not known to each other.
- Apart from knowing that the mentees were students, the mentee context, i.e., their project, was not known to me.
- The mentee questions were not known.
- There were cultural nuances such as with east Asian students, particularly the females, taking a deferential stance to an older male caucasian mentor.
- The room for the event was a lecture theatre with traditional sloping floor, it was crowded, uncomfortably hot and stuffy, and noisy with people talking as well as background music playing.
- Being crowded, see above, I had to get uncomfortably close to female and male teenagers I did not know in order to hear and understand them and in turn be heard myself.
- Being crowded, see above, I am not sure I understood what some of the Asian students were saying, or that I was understood in turn.
- 4 groups were met; 2 groups I never heard from again despite leaving contact information with each group, 1 group contacted me once, and the last group contacted me and we met in-person twice and then they did not initiate further contact, effectively without courtesy, abandoned the relationship.
Contrasting the first scenario with the second that I experienced, how were any objectives expected to be realised in the latter?
This article is simply a brief look at the seeming cargo cult of speed-mentoring and is designed to provoke some reflection. I believe more research is required, but since I am apparently not an advocate, it is not likely to be carried out by me any time soon. I mean, really, would you build a bridge if it only had a 4% probability of success. Would you go out on a date knowing those odds? I know, I know, human relationships etc. are complex with humans being more animate than concrete and steel and replete with thoughts and motivations etc. I know this. But anywhere in the region of 4%, really? Why bother?
Referring back to Argyris above, if you can’t clearly articulate the objectives of speed-anything beforehand, and can’t clearly establish the effective activities that are guaranteed to achieve the objectives if the activities are effected well, then what you have is cargo cult behaviour.
Put another way, unless the factors that reliably lead to speed-mentoring success, however defined are known, and conversely, the factors that ensure its failure are also known, and both are used to inform the process, then the whole speed-mentoring exercise is nearly a complete waste of time.
1 As a well-known example of cargo cult behaviour, Richard P. Feynman (Richard, 1999) wrote “In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas he’s the controller and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”
Argyris, C. (2000). Flawed Advice and the Management Trap. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cook, D. A., Bahn, R. S., & Menaker, R. (2010). Speed mentoring: An innovative method to facilitate mentoring relationships. Medical Teacher, pp. 692-694.
Kaufman, S. B. (2010, December 22). Speed Dating: Is it Worth Your Time? Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/beautiful-minds/201012/speed-dating-is-it-worth-your-time
Richard, F. P. (1999). The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Helix Books.