In some medieval cultures, cows were sacred, never to be killed for food or even used to assist in the plowing of fields. These sacred cows enjoyed a serene life, having free run of the space within the community’s gates in which they resided. These cows suffered no enemies and were generally able to lead long lives, ultimately dying simply of old age. They were never challenged, except in very rare circumstances, as was the case one spring in medieval Europe…
To all of the residents of this particular community, it was like any other spring day, tending to their gardens just outside the fortress walls, readying their fields to provide the food that would supply the needs of everyone for the year. But this was no ordinary day.
It started as a low rumbling, and as each minute passed, the rumbling got louder, signifying to the town’s residents that there was something unknown approaching, and approaching fast. In those times, precaution was the measure of the day, so all of the residents outside the city walls quickly moved behind the protective barriers, ensuring that they would be able to weather the force of whatever was on its way. After everyone was safely within the garrison, they closed the fortress gates, manned lookout positions on the upper walls, and armed themselves in preparation for the unknown.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes after they were fully readied that they spied the first wave of attackers on the far ridge, and it wasn’t but a few minutes longer that hundreds of attackers were now fully positioned along the walls, readying their attack. And attack they did. The initial attack was followed by an even more brutal, elongated barrage of arrows, battering rams, and intimidation. But the town held their own, holding off the attack, and keeping the community safe. But the barbarians at the gate were not to be driven off.
One day of this siege turned into two, and then two into three, until the town found itself fighting for survival for a number of weeks. The townspeople knew they would not be able to survive forever, they only hoped to last longer than their attackers. But food supplies were running low, and the men responsible for thwarting the attack were getting weak. They had no access to additional supplies, and were cut off from the outside world. They did, however, have an abundant supply of sacred cows within the township’s walls. Unfortunately, not only was the idea of killing a sacred cow taboo, it was also a horrible crime.
But these were not ordinary times. Should the soldiers defending the attack fail, the town’s sacred cows would almost certainly be slaughtered by the barbarians. But, if the town’s soldiers were to kill some of the cows to provide food, they would likely be stronger and better able to continue the fight and perhaps prevail. There really was no other alternative, the soldiers knew that in order to have any chance at saving the town, the people, and their way of life, they would have to re-evaluate the sacred nature of their cows, even if just a month ago this thought would have been abhorrent.
So in a bold attempt to save their community, these brave men evolved and re-defined the place of the cow in their society, ultimately to the townspeople’s benefit, and to the cow’s obvious demise. But the town survived.
So what does a town and it’s sacred cows have to do with Agile teams?
Sacred cows roam free in many of today’s companies, never being questioned, never being examined objectively, simply they are revered by those that are forced to live with them. Sacred cows can take many forms, but are easy to spot with the simple question “why are we doing this?” If the answer that returns is “because we have always done this” or “this is the way it is done here,” you likely have yourself a sacred cow. And as most companies that have moved to an Agile approach know, sacred cows most often times need to be slaughtered.
Choosing to slaughter sacred cows is a much different exercise when the decision is made while there are barbarians at the gate. This type of decision springs from necessity, or more often, desperation, and ultimately results in something far short of a true changing of culture, a step that is required for most companies looking to move from waterfall to Agile. Choosing to slaughter a sacred cow when there are no barbarians at the gate results in a decision made in an effort to improve rather than a decision in an effort to simply survive.
Now, don’t get me wrong, in the grand scheme of things, it is still a better situation to be able to dispatch with sacred cows, regardless of the impetus. At times, being forced to remove sacred cows can result in a greater comfort level in identifying additional cows that should be asked to leave. It is a muscle that needs to be stretched from time to time so that it does not atrophy. But as many of you are likely aware, most larger companies simply do not encourage, let alone allow, the examination of these stale relics of the past, but instead have misplaced pride in the history of policies and actions that brought their company to their current position.
Learn to evolve, or plan on starving to death.
In today’s business climate, with its rapidly changing competitive landscape, those companies that choose to not examine their own sacred cows will likely find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to make these decisions while barbarians are banging at the gate. The recording industry is a great example of a large organization that was unwilling to examine their own cow.
The compact disc. A golden example of how sacred cows detrimentally influenced the recording industry.
The compact disc was a boon to the recording industry. It was cheap to produce, had superior sound quality, and were selling phenomenally well, in spite of a price point that was often complained about by their customers. The recording industry was able to enjoy this situation for more than two decades. They enjoyed this hugely beneficial climate for so long that is effectively created a sacred cow, one that would only be challenged after they were forced to, but ultimately much too long after the point in time they could have slaughtered the sacred cow for their advantage, rather than simply survival. A college student named Shawn Fanning created a simple piece of software that allowed users to trade copies of their music across the internet. Napster created a shockwave across the industry, but it was only the first in a long time of technologies that would allow customers to find their music quickly and at reduced cost. There was a window of opportunity for the recording industry to see the changing tides, but instead they had tunnel vision, only seeing the glory days of the CD, and the money that went along with it, and chose to fight reality in their effort to bring the past to the present.
And they failed miserably. And they continue to fail even today to some extent.
Steve Jobs was the first to successfully challenge the sacred CD cow with the advent of iTunes, and after a short period of time was able to prove that it does not make sense to leave your sacred cow sacred. Often times it is important to wield the cleaver and put down the cow that has an organization following beliefs of the past during times which require an evolution in approach. Sacred cows are rarely sacred forever.
But in light of all of this, it is not easy to bring our own sacred cows to light. They are often sacred for a reason (although rarely a really good reason mind you), and those individuals that do choose to point the finger at the cow in the room will likely be met with scorn or dismissal by those other individual’s intent on protecting the institutions of the past. Clearing these cows from our hallways and boardrooms takes courage. And in reality, there is safety in numbers in these types of endeavors.
Become a Sacred Cow Hunter.
It often takes nothing more than keeping a vigilant eye. Encouraging (or requiring at first) some type of ‘inspect and adapt’ mechanism within your organization, where a safe environment is created and allows for anyone to call out a sacred cow sighting. Companies must believe that if any value, belief, process, policy, or corporate mantra is valuable enough to be kept, it should also be strong enough to be challenged. It is cancerous in any company to allow a festering sentiment about ‘why something is done’ to grow without address the why behind the what of the policy. Transparency in communication from the top down and the bottom up is most often sufficient to flush out cows hiding in the dark corners of your organization. And if you think your company has none, they are much better at hiding than you are at finding, so keep looking.