Chyral Blog

Cargo Cult Business Analysis

Business demands that you perform absolutely all of the analysis that your project requires to be successful, but not a single hour more. How do you determine how much business analysis is necessary for a given project? By having the audience for each deliverable identify exactly what it is they need in the document. That means working with your developers to determine the type and amount of detail they need in say, a BRD. Delivering anything beyond what your audience finds necessary is by definition unnecessary analysis. This implies that there are two obvious ways analysis can go wrong, through excess analysis and inadequate analysis. The following story is an example of the latter sort, inadequate analysis.

Recently we crossed paths with an agency with a large client who needed a new enterprise CMS. The client wanted to replace the legacy system that had hobbled their business for years and engaged that agency to assist in selecting a new system, and in turn that agency subcontracted Chyral to perform the business analysis.

Twenty hours was invested in discovery work sessions with key stakeholders, which is a perfectly reasonable amount of time for the task. Now the rule of thumb for the analysis-to-discovery ratio is 5:1; five hours of analysis to every hour spent uncovering the business’ needs. So imagine our reaction when we learned that no more than four hours total was budgeted for not only the analysis, but for writing the business requirements as well. They had it exactly backward.

In the wake of World War II on some South Pacific islands a religious practice appeared in pre-industrial tribal societies after meeting and working with the American and British militaries: Cargo Cults. We’d show up on one of their islands with plane after plane loaded with war matériel and fleets of ships full of cargo. It was the product of our science and industrial might, delivered across the globe to defeat our enemy. To us it was simply the necessary items to fight the war. But for people who had never encountered the modern world and to whom modern manufacturing was unknown, it appeared these manufactured goods had to have been created for them by supernatural means by their deities and ancestors and that foreigners had unfairly ended up with the cargo through malice or mistake. Here were things they never imagined, literally arriving on their little island out of the sky daily and controlled by indifferent strangers who stockpiled this wealth with no regard for sharing. And then one day, they were gone, along with the cargo. The war had ended and with it the wealth. So they turned to religious ritual to return the matériel,  the “cargo.”

They simply did what they saw the Americans and Brits do to bring the planes with the cargo. They cleared landing strips out of jungles, lined them with lights, built control towers  and sat in them speaking into radios imploring the planes to land and listening on headphones for signs of the cargo’s return. But their microphones were bamboo, their radios straw, and their headphones were made of coconut shells. And so the planes never came back. They were certain they were doing everything right, it looked just the way it looked before, but something was missing. They said the same incantations into the mikes connected to their radios, but the planes never returned with the cargo.

And just like the people on these islands, this agency was practicing cargo cult business analysis; they followed all the apparent steps and forms of business analysis, but they’ve missed something essential and the planes never land.

Four hours to analyze all of the  business requirements and technologies and vendors in order to select a content management system to power the website of a full size, retail business and all that that entails – requirements for integration, digital asset management, multivariate testing, personalization, publishing and workflow, people and processes – is profoundly unrealistic. Using the rule-of-thumb given earlier, successful projects typically invest twenty five times that amount of time for the task.

This agency had already selected the CMS in their mind before the start of the project. And so things like business requirements and analysis were simply pro forma items to be checked off, merely a ritual. And suggestions to perform actual, meaningful analysis were dismissed with platitudes like “we don’t want to document the reinvention the wheel” and “we don’t need to boil the ocean.”

But what was the client getting for their money? Certainly not a recommendation tailored to their specific needs. You’d need far more analysis than just four hours worth to get that. What in fact the client got was an opinion, an uneducated guess at which CMS was going to best meet their needs. And this is what happens when an agency chooses to cut corners on analysis. They practice cargo cult ritual business analysis, just going through the motions; pretending. They’re sitting in a hut with coconut shells on their ears talking into a bamboo microphone, hoping the planes will land.



  1. Betty Swallocks  February 7, 2013

    Rockin the Beats by Dr. Dre in Coconut, yeah! Seriously, what have you got against coconut headphones? They’re green, stylish, and locally grown. Look, at this rate we’ll be lucky in the US to hire cargo cultists for our projects.


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