cows nzCows are pretty topical here in the land of Hobbits, our economy is increasingly dependant on them at the same time as evidence emerges showing they are causing some of the pollution tarnishing our clean green image. Those black and white cows aren’t what I am talking about today – rather the sacred kind:

a person, institution, custom, etc, unreasonably held to be beyond criticism.

My definition – the way we have always done a thing whether it’s suitable or not.

I learned about Sacred Cows and the need for a company to figuratively slaughter them early in my career working for a company who grew pretty rapidly to 180 staff, compensating for their growth with a focus on process and basically running the company from a thing we called our Quality Bible. On one hand this rigid approach was necessary to create consistency and maturity, on the other hand it resulted in processes that were widely misaligned, often onerous, process-for-the-sake-of-processes. This resulted in the unintended consequence of constraining pivots, innovation or changes in operating model to occur. Enter a new CEO, brought in to improve profit margins in preparation for sale, created an opportunity to undertake a “sacred cow hunt” with rewards, even t-shirts for those who (I stress figuratively) slaughtered a sacred cow – I got loads of t-shirts btw.

While that approach was rather radical it resulted in a more streamlined business with less quality managers, less middle-managers, enhanced team engagement and for a brief moment the ability to move towards a culture of innovation and agility (long before agile was a thing). Thinking about this “fit for purpose” exercise as an entrepreneur it is one companies could undertake on an ongoing basis – vs in this large transformational way.

Culture of Change

A while ago I wrote about designing your company, in a similar fashion to designing your product. Companies evolve, from the pre-revenue moment they are founded to the 180 staff example above they go through growth related changes, service line, operating model, leadership, staff, product, scale – you name it your company will be evolving. Changes minor and major present opportunities to revisit “the way things are done”, there is a fine line here between change-for-changes-sake and taking a lens to focus on the impact of what is happening with your eyes wide open.

To give you an example, an early stage startup might have run it’s finances in a spreadsheet producing invoices as tabs emailed to a customer as a pdf manually. As the company scales so should this process, changing to a cloud based finance package will take effort but I promise an ideal opportunity will present itself. Imagine billing $3m in revenue via that manual process? sounds hideous to me, yet I know there are companies out there who do exactly that.

Empowering the entire team to think in terms of “is this process still fit for purpose?” and providing them a mechanism to invoke a peer review and sanity check will embed the hunting of sacred cows into your culture so evolution will occur naturally. Process improvement or removal or implementation doesn’t always need to attract a cost, it could be as simple as adding a quality check or removing a step that is redundant.

Never too late to start

If you identified with the 180 person company – Go on a Cow hunt, get the entire team involved and look for opportunities to return to your leaner more agile roots. It really is never too late and you will find the benefits of engagement and alignment probably outweigh the process improvement elements.

If you are a business owner or manager you need to keep your ears peeled for language like “because we do it that way” or evidence of bottlenecks in your operation. Bottom line is businesses need to change and evolve, stagnating or become process bound will just end up costing you when the market shifts. Stay lean, stay agile.

Dilbert as ever has an awesome illustration of a Sacred Cow, one of my pet peeves in a day and age I don’t own a fax and we have electronic transactions legislation to reduce reliance on original paperwork being couriered around town. Rant over. Let me know how you get on Sacred Cow wise. Happy sharing. Vic.


While the cow picture above was licensed under creative commons, this Dilbert comic strip comes from