Challenging Sacred Cows

Walk into any creative, innovative organization, and you’ll find it full of future-focused ideas and tolerance of ambiguity

In these innovative, successful companies, people aren’t afraid to challenge their sacred cows. 

But what are those, exactly?

Sacred cows can describe any manner of things: ideas, rituals, routines, processes, approaches, even people or entire organizations. They exist in almost every human system, and all have one thing in common.

Sacred cows are never questioned. 

Listen carefully, and you may quickly find them all around you. For example: “This is how we design our strategy,” or “They just tell us what to do.”

Fundamentally, sacred cows are assumptions, and they’re enduring, pervasive ones too. To move forward, survive, differentiate, and compete, it’s essential that these assumptions get questioned.

Running on Autopilot

Assumptions, or sacred cows, have an undeniable impact on how we make decisions, on how we construct, shape, and interact with our reality. 

When an organization or team is stuck with assumptions – when they go unchallenged – its members close themselves off to possibilities, choosing instead to run on autopilot. Not infrequently, these businesses power blindly on as the path shifts beneath their feet. 

The corporate world is full of sad examples of such firms, firms that refused to acknowledge or accept their shifting context – choosing the comfort of ignorance instead.

When we choose to challenge assumptions, we essentially decide to think critically, rather than thoughtlessly ploughing in a certain direction. 

Instead, we take a scientific approach, accepting nothing as given until it’s proven so. 

Monkey See, Monkey Do

I strongly believe in not accepting things at face value, or simply because they’ve once worked. 

Through years of experience, I’ve learned how effectively challenging sacred cows can be:

  • Questioning assumptions prevents us from operating on wrongful, or outdated data.
  • It opens us up to new, innovative, and potentially much better ways of doing things, and
  • It frequently stops us from perpetuating a culture of “Monkey See, Monkey Do,” which can be incredibly toxic in the long-term.

Despite all the benefits of questioning assumptions, it’s rarely as easy in practice as it is in theory.

How To Challenge Your Organization’s Sacred Cows

There are many reasons many organizations find it hard to challenge their sacred cows. 

Typically, these are:

  • Loss aversion – “What if we make a ‘worse’ decision?” 
  • Catastrophizing – “Then, we’ll waste resources, time…we’ll lose our advantage…” 
  • Fear of conflict – “Why do I have to speak up first?”I want to fit in, not cause trouble and waste everyone’s time,” and
  • Plain old fear of the unknown.

To open our minds and embrace innovation, conscious effort is required. 

Quite simply, It means that challenging sacred cows means being brave, facing those fears, and deciding to move forward anyway. 

In other words, “Just do it.”

Mindset Matters

The “Just Do It” philosophy applies in many scenarios, from designing strategies to streamlining workflows. 

And I know for sure that it applies to deciding how we’ll do those things. 

Throughout my career, I’ve noticed that the most high-performing teams and organizations tend to challenge their assumptions in several ways.

1. Take the ‘Other’ Perspective

When things seem immune from questioning, high-performing companies consider them from another perspective. Take a trendy cafe, for example, that serves organic, healthy food.

Sure, customers want to eat well and feel good. But what other assumptions are you making? 

That they’re willing to pay a premium for “standard-sized” meals? Might they be happy with smaller servings (and less waste!) to dine more frequently?

Or have you assumed that healthy means imported, specialty ingredients? Might they visualize local or ‘farm fresh’ instead?

Putting yourself in stakeholders’ shoes often grants fresh, unexpected perspectives that lead to more value creation – and ultimately, happier customers.

2. Asking More Questions

Both “Why” and “What If?” matter when we’re challenging assumptions.

When we’re strategizing, brainstorming new product ideas, or revisiting operational issues, child-like curiosity can work wonders.

This is much easier in work environments where people feel psychologically safe, where co-workers can think: “I won’t be ridiculed,” or It’s okay to be wrong.”

Asking questions often uncovers huge flaws in our sacred cows, which often prove themselves obsolete. 

3. Mind Your Mouth

Finally, high-performing teams are highly language-aware. They’re quick to spot the tell-tale “Sacred Cow Semantics.”

“We always,” “We don’t,” or “We’ve never,” for instance. 

With simple awareness, they’re more prepared to make innovative changes for the future. 

Over To You

There are plenty more ways to challenge sacred cows, like “No Wrong Ideas” Meetings or letting new team members speak first – but there’s no single cookie-cutter approach to doing it right. 

Perhaps the best, most flexible way to start encouraging this mindset, I’ve found, is to implement a blanket rule when it comes to your ideation:

“Leave your assumptions – with your electronics – at the door.” 

Can you think of one sacred cow that’s begging to be challenged in your organization or team?