The idea is so fascinating it became the inspiration behind one of my most popular original quotes, “Sacred cows make great barbeque.” The point is that a whole lot of what we hold sacred isn’t really sacred, it’s just the way we’ve always done things – and making needed change just might taste great. – Dr. Todd Dewett

(an excerpt from Dr. Dewett’s forthcoming book, Live Hard)

Innovation can happen when a select few individuals in an organization step up and try new things. However, it’s much more likely to have impact and be sustainable when everyone believes in the organization’s innovation culture. A culture that is serious about change is always stronger than one or two innovators.

One of the most enduring hallmarks of any effective innovation culture is the ability to deal with sacred cows. This refers to a custom, behavior, product, process, or rule that is known to all, unproductive, and yet untouchable and unaddressed. Much respect to my Hindu friends and their reverence for cows, but the phrase is now so much bigger. It’s a general reference to something that is above criticism – something that can’t be touched.

Simply stated, most sacred cows are not sacred! They are simply choices that became long standing routines. These routines become accepted as the way we do things, and, endorsed by enough people, they eventually become untouchable!

The concept is used most often at a macro level, addressing rules, processes, business models, and markets. The examples are plentiful. No one ever thought Microsoft Windows was the best we could do, but it has been accepted historically as the operating system standard by the majority of computer users and developers. Then Linux was created. Then computing went mobile, and Android sprung to life.

Consider cars. The internal combustion engine has been mostly obsolete for decades. Yet it has persisted very successfully. Similarly, the dealer network approach to sales has long persisted. This was the only buyer reality, until recently. Tesla chose to upend two sacred cows. They decided to sell fully electric cars directly to consumers. They are now the most valuable car company in history.

Nothing lasts forever. Things are supposed to change, in business as in life. The more interesting issue is whether or not you benefit from change, or more to the point, whether or not you’re helping to create the change.

Let’s take it down a level and focus on your workplace. Think about that executive perk that is unjustifiable. The fact that we’re always expected to work weekends. That crazy dress code. The vacation policy you loathe. The terrible system of accountability at work that allows low performers to always get by. Sound familiar?

The idea is so fascinating it became the inspiration behind one of my most popular original quotes, “Sacred cows make great barbeque.” The point is that a whole lot of what we hold sacred isn’t really sacred, it’s just the way we’ve always done things – and making needed change just might taste great.

The same happens in your personal life. There are things that exist, that you respect and don’t question, that are supposed to help you or guide you. Maybe they once did, but they don’t any longer. It could be an old friend, a personal belief, or possibly a practice or a habit. Whatever it is, it stops you from growing, being more productive, and being happier. You’re starting to realize that change is needed. Is it time to question one your sacred cows?

Let’s make some barbeque. What you target is up to you, but let’s be honest, we all have multiple targets. It might have to do with your religious beliefs. It could have to do with your diet. Maybe your family traditions. How about the pronouns you prefer? Who knows? You can’t hold on to any standard or tradition just because you always have. Sometimes that leads to special traditions. Many times, it’s just dumb.

Don’t worry, I’m not telling you to upend everything you do! We only have a certain capacity for personal change. Target one or two things that matter to you, and make the decision to be brave. Choose to no longer step over the dead body in the room as if it were not there.

Sure, that’s risky. Yes, it takes guts. Sometimes it might even be painful and cause problems between you and others in your life. It’s your choice. You can play it safe by not rocking the boat. Or, you can roll the dice and attempt real change. I can promise you this much – great things are more likely to happen in your life when you address a few sacred cows. The fallout is worth it.

The benefits are undeniable. You stand a chance to change and improve the thing in question. You elevate your level of consciousness, reducing the likelihood of future sacred cows becoming a problem, you show others what you stand for and how strong you are, and you learn how to communicate about the need for change more effectively.

One of my favorite examples ever involved a former MBA student in a course I was teaching dedicated to creativity and innovation. One of the themes in the course was inspired by the Einstein quote, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” There is plenty of research in various areas of business and psychology that supports this idea.

The practical application of the idea in the course was to encourage the students to go find new perspectives for the biggest problems they face at work. I specifically asked them to target a sacred cow and start making barbeque. I remember at least two students who voiced out loud that they thought this sounded fluffy, and wondered about the importance of the assignment.

Near the end of the term, everyone shared what they had learned from the assignment. One student who took the task seriously worked for a manufacturer of various pieces of equipment used in underwater applications. His company professed a strong belief in innovation, but one of their sacred cows was that you were not supposed to discuss your problems outside of your division. Each division chased similar top line metrics and to partner or share with other divisions was tantamount to helping the competition.

Thankfully, this student, an engineer by training, really liked barbeque.

He targeted a particular material that was prominent in several major products sold by his division. The goal was to find something cheaper and hopefully stronger, and it had to conduct electricity effectively under sometimes enormous underwater pressure. Even though people openly questioned what he was doing, he spent time in three other divisions and even had meetings with two key suppliers. Eyebrows were raised.

He eventually found the new material he wanted, a particular type of alloy he didn’t even know existed. It was cheaper. It was stronger. It had all the qualities he was looking for. The costs savings were projected to be in the millions in the first year alone, not to mention likely new revenues due to the fact that the material made the product more attractive in the market.

The student’s boss, an engineering manager, initially questioned him, but decided to stay out of his way. In the end, he was so pleased he sent me a very kind email encouraging me to continue with my practical teaching methods. With the student’s permission, I read the email to the class. As people clapped and high fived him, I refrained from directly staring at the two students who so brazenly questioned the assignment weeks earlier.

If that doesn’t inspire you, maybe you’ll feel moved by one the most famous sacred cow stories ever told – it’s the story of Dick Fosbury. As a high school high jumper in the 1960s, Dick used the acceptable jumping method, called the straddle method. It was the only acceptable method. You go over the bar face down – first your torso, then one leg, then the other. Unfortunately, Dick just couldn’t master the technique.

However, he was determined and curious, so, he began to experiment. Quickly one of his efforts started to dominate his attempts. He tried to jump over the bar, face up, with his back facing the bar. Initially, he had a little success, but nothing major. It just looked bizarre to most observers, one of whom suggested he looked like he was having an airborne seizure. His coach was not initially supportive.

When he started, he couldn’t complete jumps at five feet high with the standard technique. With the new technique, he began to make progress. They made fun of him, but he continued making progress. A local reporter derided his method and called it the Fosbury Flop. Dick continued improving anyway.

Soon enough, he set the school record for his high school. Dick eventually won multiple NCAA championships, and Olympic Gold in 1968 in Mexico City by jumping over seven feet, three inches. Today, nearly all competitors around the world use the Fosbury Flop method.

Innovation isn’t always beloved when it’s first proposed or first attempted. Most people cringe when someone attacks a sacred cow. So what. Persevere. They’ll come around. If they don’t, try again.

Or, you can join the chorus of voices saying, “That’s just the way it is.” Or, you can simply contribute to the deafening silence of the people ignoring the dead body in the room.

To achieve a dream and find real success almost always requires some form of innovation. Innovation, in turn, almost always requires you to deal with a sacred cow or two – whether making personal change or leading an organization. What are you waiting for? Start cooking. I want to smell some barbeque.

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