Sacred Cows - Don't Stop Questioning

Monday, August 29, 2016 by Rainer Stropek

Here you see my old running shoes. I have been using them for years and I still don't see a reason to replace them.

A Case Study About a Sacred Cow

Ever heard about pronation or supination? If you have, you are probably a runner like myself. For decades, running shoe manufacturers have been emphasizing how important it is to analyze the pronation of your foot and choose a proper running shoe based on it. For a long time, they even ignored the opinion of professional running coaches and kept on at it until more and more studies clearly showed that your shoe's pronation control is not connected to injury rates at all [Source]. Pronation-control had become a sacred cow in the running shoe industry.

If you want to read more about myths about running shoes, I recommend Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. It is a must-read for all runners.

How could that happen? Why was a whole industry beating a dead horse for such a long time? One of the reasons was that pronation could be measured in labs and influenced by the proper shoes. You could show that pronation changes if you use this or that shoe. Companies could create easy to understand marketing materials helping people select the right shoe. Pronation was the perfect marketing tool. The whole thing just had one flaw: Pronation-control does not lead to less injuries. It can be measured, it can be communicated to customers but ultimately it does not bring us any closer to the goal of injury reduction.

You can read more about the changes in the running shoe industry in the blog article Minimalism in The Long Run in Runner's World.

Sacred Cows Are Everywhere

In my experience, all organizations and branches have their sacred cows. We stick to models, processes or habits that are broken because it's what we always have been doing. Especially in stable environments, sacred cows live a long and happy life. They seemingly offer safety and stability. In fact, they are dangerous. They make us slow instead of agile. They make it hard to adopt to changing business environments.

If you want to become a "sacred cow hunter", I recommend the book Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers from Robert Kriegel and David Brandt. It contains lots of examples and strategies how to build organizations that are effective in recognizing and removing sacred cows.

Software Changes Are Opportunities

Introducing a new software like time cockpit in an organization is always a great opportunity to review old habits. Does it really make sense to do something just because you have been doing it like this in the past? Let us look at some examples for sacred cows that we commonly come across when we do time tracking-related projects for customers.

  • Complex permission systems
    Overly complex access permission systems are hard to implement, error-prone, and expensive to maintain. Ask yourself whether existing policies still fit to today's organizational culture. Sometimes, policies were created in a different economic environment or by a management team that is no longer in the company.
  • Reporting
    Creating reports is time-consuming. Automating report creation and delivery is expensive. Reading the generated documents consumes time. Are all the reports that you used to create really still necessary? Is the content still relevant? Who reads the reports and why? Would it be beneficial to replace some reports with interactive dashboards (e.g. with Power BI)?
  • Approval Processes
    Approval processes make organizations slow. Sometimes they are inevitable (e.g. because of legal constraints) but in many cases they are an unnecessary burden. What does the approver check? Can the check be automated? Why can't the requestor take over the responsibility for the decision? Can the approval process be limited to certain business cases (e.g. invoice with an amount exceeding a certain threshold)?
  • Data collecting mania
    Do you really need all the data that you used to gather (e.g. unnecessary field in master data tables)? Is somebody still interested in the data (e.g. person, business process)? Is the current level of detail necessary (e.g. overly complex project/task hierarchy)?

Cause and Effect Myths

Even if you find good reasons for reports, processes, data collection, etc., you should still question whether they help you to really reach your ultimate goal. You might measure some facts - like measuring pronation in the running shoe example - and assume that changing them has a desired effect. Question those cause-and-effect relationships. Do you have hard facts proving the relation? If not, it might be worthwhile to invest time and money to validate your assumption. Why not stop the old habit e.g. in a certain part of your organization and see if things get worse?

Understanding causes and effects isn't simple. Too often, we rely on our gut feeling instead of gathering hard facts. Additionally, cause-and-effect relationships change over time. You might had been able to influence employee satisfaction with a certain benefit at some point in the future, but is this still true? As managers, we have to regularly question our assumptions to make sure that best practices don't turn into inefficient habits and sacred cows over time.

If you want to read more about cause-and-effect relationships and business strategy, I recommend looking into Kaplan's and Norton's book about Balanced Scorecard.

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