Sacred Cows and Soccer Coachs

A “sacred cow”, as an allusion to the Hindu reverence for cows, is a phrase used to refer to something too highly regarded to be open to criticism. Robert Kriegel and David Brandt co-authored a book called “Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers” on how to eliminate outdated business beliefs, paradigms and routines in order to motivate organizational change, as the one needed in innovation.

The first time I heard the phrase "sacred cows make the best burgers" was from a manager as he was hired to evaluate employees that had been delivering poor results for a long time and were subject to layoffs but had powerful relationships in the organization. So when the new manager said “sacred cows make the best burgers” he wasn’t talking about business paradigms, but about people and his disposition to fire anyone when needed.

This week, Ruben Omar Romano, the soccer coach from Santos (a team from the Mexican Soccer League from my hometown) was fired. In the last two tournaments he had taken the team to the finals, losing both, but still achieving second place twice, which is good for a team who has only won the championship 3 times in history. Although controversial in some decisions and his relationship with the media, Ruben Omar Romano had delivered good results and achieved a solid team, just hadn’t won the finals. In this tournament his results weren’t that good, out of 7 games, he had won 3, lost 3 and tied 1. In his last game with Santos, the team played against Queretaro, the worst team in the tournament, as locals and lost. The entire crowd in the stadium asked for his exit. His reaction? The photo you see above as an insult to the assistants. Next day he was fired. There must have been other internal problems involved in his departure, but still the decision was done quickly and he was instantly replaced. It did surprise me as I thought after leading the team to two consecutive finals he was a “sacred cow” and he probably felt that way too, shown with his hand gesture.

So what is the role of “sacred cows” in innovation? “Sacred cows” can be sacred because they are good in what they are doing and deserve to be highly regarded, and these people can even be great innovation leaders. Like the photo of Barcelona's soccer coach Guardiola (down), which for me is an emblem of team support towards a strategist.

What can be wrong about the “sacred cow” concept is that people may be frightened to contradict or oppose their decisions, even when having a reason to do so. Or when the “sacred cow” does use his/her power to impose his point of view, what I’ve called the Castro Syndrome in innovation (see my 08/ 2010 post on Syndromes). Everybody should be open for constructive criticism and even motivate to be criticized for personal and professional growth. One thing is having respect for someone, and another is having a religious dogma on his opinion.

When “sacred cows” are comfortably numb in their job position they can be an innovation killer, many times rejecting everything that involves change or challenge. As a consulting team we once had a sacred cow that was even opposing implementing metrics in her department! How to deal with them? Try to see what motivates them, sometimes this is greater power illusion and respect from others that they can find in new projects, but at the same time build innovation process mechanisms that allow participation and evaluation from everyone, including others with the same or above job rank. When sacred cows oppose a project, ask them to give you the “benefit of the doubt” and make trials or simulations to gather data and arguments that support the new idea.

If it is impossible to collaborate with the “sacred cows” and are not willing to even evaluate something new (like Ruben Omar Romano and his criticized defensive line of 5)… then “sacred cows make the best hamburgers.” Quicky and effectively.

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