What is a sacred cow?
“Sacred cow” is an idiom based on the understanding of how highly regarded cows are in Hindu culture. In Western culture the “metaphorical” sacred cow may be individuals, institution organization, business processes, belief systems practices and habits that are considered immune from criticism because it has been accepted or respected (often unreasonably so) for a long time that people are afraid or unwilling to question it.
How are sacred cows described in today’s business world?
- A practice that cannot be tampered with, or criticized, for fear of public outcry
- Unquestioned rules, dogmatic systems and ways of working that seem off-limits to change
- Blindly accepting a pattern, or worse, a feeling that improving it is forbidden and challenging to the business
- Something that must be accorded respect or reverence, not touched, handled or examined too closely
- A firmly held mainstream belief that is considered to be true without independent verification
- Routinely doing things because…well…that’s the way they’ve always been done. Formulas may be comforting, but they rarely work in the real world
Sacred Cow Impacts
Sacred cows are hardly unique to any single industry and hinder those that ignore them. They vary in age, size, and urgency to be slaughtered. They may be a corporate orphan whose performance is lacking and starved for attention, capital, or the managerial know-how needed to fix them. They may be pet projects, lost subsidiaries and/or obsolete procedures that are championed or protected by an influential “someone” who is afraid to abandon something that once made them successful.
Sacred cows are not always ‘old’ ideas. They may be a new product that will not gain traction, expansion into a new territory that is not receptive, development of a different distribution channel that increases operational costs. In whatever form the sacred cow presents itself, they are always characterized by their lack of “good business sense” and unwillingness to sustain a change-ready environment.
Sometimes sacred cows are a senior team member who appears relatively harmless on the surface. Unfortunately they are problematic in their resistance to change and that costs a company customers, vendors, market share, and eventually money. Recognizing problem sacred cows and knowing how to send them to pasture are critical tools for company executives as senior managers can easily hide and fatten their sacred cows.
These bad bovines stifle innovation and wreak havoc on corporate planning, direction and performance with their outdated and costly business practices. Outmoded beliefs and assumptions. Passé strategies, processes and systems that generally inhibit change and/or prevent improvement and better responsiveness to new opportunities.
What do sacred cows look like?
- They may have moved up through the ranks because of their longevity. Their willingness to stick it out and end up in a position of leadership that they are completely unequipped to handle
- Came to the rescue of someone within the organization at a pivotal moment. This single action has cemented their safety and security
- Could be a relative or cherished friend
- Adhere to the status quo and will not color outside the existing lines
- Pay lip service to new ideas but rarely (if ever) truly accepts or adopt any fresh outlooks
- Unclear responsibilities and it is unclear what he/she does all day long or where they are during the day
- Caught the attention of outsiders that are amazed that the person hasn’t been removed already
- Staff with a general disdain and dislike of this person
Identifying the Sacred Cows
Firstly, determine if “Business as Usual” is the best thing for the company and its people. If change needs to be on the agenda, round up and herd all of the cattle together and plan the removal. Which ones need to be ‘tipped’? Which ones will be roasted? Would a quick slaughter be the kindness way to turn sacred cows into cash cows?
By embracing change when it is needed and appropriate, a company can dramatically transform its culture and add tremendous benefit to the business by unblocking potential. Unfortunately if the fear of change and refusal to update the “rules” and stale thinking continues, the company becomes vulnerable to predators and the poaching staff.
Where do sacred cows graze in your company?
The sacred cow can take many forms. It may be a corporate orphan whose performance is lacking – starved for attention, capital, and the managerial know-how needed to fix it. Or it may be a pet project of a senior manager, such as a new product, expansion into a new territory, or development of a different distribution channel. Sacred cows may also be policies, products, or processes that have long outlived their usefulness. Whatever they are, sacred cows are characterized by their lack of “good business sense.”
Directors need to recognize that one or more senior managers are typically the sponsors and protectors of sacred cows, as they are in a position to sustain and possibly even expand them. Often, the CEO is the sponsor, but not always – especially in large companies. Some directors may be surprised to find how easily sacred cows can be tucked away in a company’s nooks and crannies, particularly in their infancy.
Tipping Sacred Cows
Last year’s release of the book “Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits that Masquerade as Virtues” brought the subject of Sacred Cows to the forefront – again. Author Jake Breedon, Prof at Duke Corporate Education, has taught leaders in some of the world’s leading companies, including Google, Starbucks, Cisco, Microsoft, and IBM. He prods us to look at these vital aspects of our working lives and determine when we may be taking a wrong turn – even if the intentions are noble.
“Tipping Sacred Cows” identifies the seven most common sacred cows at work, including balance that turns bland, creativity that conceals narcissism, and passion that becomes obsession. Breedon offers simple steps and suggestions for recognizing and overcoming the potentially career-limiting effects of each of the most common sacred cows. He challenges old ways of thinking to create positive change in the workplace.
Breedon also explains how one can face dangerous behaviors that are most often viewed as virtues that allows one to lead with fewer self-imposed limitations and greater results. He teaches that by understanding the potentially dark side of our sacred cows–hidden traps that lie between good intentions and good results–one can realize and ultimately reach their fullest potential.
Breedon’s book outlines his lessons on the seven most destructive sacred cows.
- Balance: A dysfunctional pursuit of balance can lead us to compromise and make unnecessary trade-offs in an attempt to seek safety.
- Collaboration: Knowing when and how to work collaboratively vs. collaborating as default
- Creativity: Narcissism can cause creativity to backfire when focusing on your own selfish need to add creativity instead of using creativity toward achieving an objective.
- Excellence: High standards can choke progress when we focus on excellence in process rather than excellence in outcome.
- Fairness: Blurring the line between a fair chance and a fair result can backfire. Avoid placing others’ needs before yours by default, to accomplish your goals.
- Passion: Caring about one part of your work should make you better at other parts. Seek passion with harmony, not obsession.
- Preparation: Over-preparing can cause you to avoid action or become so invested in what you prepared that you resist change when it’s necessary.
For further investigation, you may find Jake Breedon’s 21 Question Assessment of interest to highlight what may be your own sacred cows.
Here is a short YouTube book review on “Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Habits that Masquerade as Virtues”.
It is true, old rules diehard. It is certainly not surprising for anyone to want to continue using timeworn ideas and practices taught when times were much different. However, in order for businesses to grow today, removing sacred cows will make room for creative ideas and new thinking in to thrive in your business.