Many years ago a U.S. Army General was visiting his UK equivalent and watching a display of an artillery crew firing a large cannon. Intrigued he asked why there was one more person in the English crew than in their U.S. counterpart. The UK General replied that they had always done it this way but would investigate the reasons why. Eventually he discovered that the extra person’s job was to stand at attention at the back. He had no other role. Previously, his duty was to hold the horses while the cannons were being fired but as horses were no longer used nobody had thought to change the process and re-assign the extra person to other duties.
This is a classic sacred cow in action…
A sacred cow is something in an organisation that isn’t questioned, challenged or criticised, even if it ought to be. For whatever reason sacred cows seem off-limits to change. Most companies have them but they’re not talked about and mostly ignored. Why? Because they fall conveniently into what is called ‘business as usual’, a comfortable (but ultimately dangerous) way to operate.
The problem with sacred cows is that, if unchallenged, they are roadblocks to progress and make it difficult for a business to continually innovate and therefore to reach its full potential. Essentially if “business as usual” is blindly accepted as the only way to do things then you’ll eventually become stuck in a cycle of mediocrity which can only end badly.
The solution is simply to accept less and question more. Examine EVERY methodology, system, behaviour and decision that you take. Test it. Prod it. Challenge it. Make it prove itself. Is it a smart way to do business or is it a sacred cow? Has it been challenged in the past 12 months? Does it make sense to continue? Could we do without it? Is there other ways? If we got rid of it would chaos or improvement result?
One approach I used, regularly was to invite an experienced outsider into our business and get their opinion about the things we should STOP doing. This has always been a useful and insightful experience as it can provide a wider view and help us to uncover bad (or old) practices that we have taken for granted and which may be slowing us down. It also forces the team to defend their beliefs which, at times, has been extremely validating and at others extremely uncomfortable for them. But that’s the point of the exercise.
If you find a sacred cow dig deep to understand the cause of it. It might be slackness, complacency, ego or an aversion (or fear) of change. This can be hard to talk about and people may try to avoid the issue. Push past this! In the face of compelling evidence sacred cows are all indefensible.
To make good progress you have to go faster, and the way to go faster is to stop wasting time on things that don’t create value. Eliminate the sacred cows that will slow you down and only do the things that will make you go faster. In the end anything that doesn’t make sense should be ditched.
There’s never a better time than now to send your sacred cows to the glue factory. They’re chewing up your greener pastures…
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