Sacred Cows


“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.”
–Abbie Hoffman

For any individual, team, or organization facing change, one of the most difficult things to deal with are sacred cows.  You know what I mean – they are the ones you see grazing on your valuable grass and in your eyes contribute nothing but noisy moos, greenhouse gasses and poop.  Yet for whatever reason they are there and are often defended by the establishment.  Why?

I have a few perspectives, looking at the sacred cows grazing around me:

Vested interest in the status quo.  Yeah, there may have been a good reason for that sacred cow before it became a sacred cow, yet times have changed.  Oftentimes the problem is that the leadership may be so invested or emotionally attached to the sacred cow that they cannot look at it objectively for what it is.

Over-systematizing.  As organizations evolve, they develop systems and procedures, then with time add more systems and procedures without divesting those older procedures and systems.  By virtue of inertia, those older procedures and systems become sacred cows.

Over-standardizing.  Another sign of the cow is when an organization embraces standards and the creation of more standards, few of which are tied to meaningful, measurable performance.  For some teams, the act of defining standards is the raison d’etre of that team, and for whatever reason that function is embraced by management.  I see this phenomenon all the time.

Now that I’ve given you perspectives on types of sacred cows I encounter, here is a game plan for getting them off the grass.

Use the value equation.  As I’ve written before, the value equation defines the relationship between benefit and cost: value = benefit – cost.  By definition, sacred cows provide negative value: the cost outweighs the benefit.  One sure-fire way to shoo those sacred cows out of your pasture is to shine light on them in terms of the value equation.  Again, this can be challenging because of the subjective, emotional attachment that is placed on these sacred cows, and often the establishment will cite perceived benefits that attempt to get at a positive value relationship.  Stick to your guns and ask for objective, relevant, and extant evidence of benefit that offsets the cost of the care and feeding of the sacred cow.

Define a sense of urgency.  John Kotter’s eight steps for leading change has, as step number one, defining a sense of urgency.  With regards to getting rid of sacred cows, there must be a sense of urgency built around taking action, to getting those sacred cows out of your pasture.  This is one of the most important steps that enlightened leadership can take – define the sense of urgency to take action, then move ahead deliberately and quickly to the other seven steps.  If there is no sense of urgency around doing something about the sacred cows, nothing will happen.

Do you have sacred cows around you? What has worked for you to shoo them out of your pasture?

Text © Joe Williams 2011
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

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Sacred Cows