Challenging Sacred Cows that Inhibit Successful Transformation

When newspapers saw their classified revenue erode when new competitors like EBay, Craigslist, and challenged them.

When the music industry was first confronted by Napster music downloads and tried to hold on to their CD revenue streams.

 When Garmin realized that revenue from their auto GPS devices would never return as mapping apps on smartphones became mainstream.

These are huge disruptions that not only affected individual businesses that relied on these revenues, it transformed entire industries.

What are Your Organization's Sacred Cows?

Disruptions like the ones I just described happen fast, but they are not overnight transformations. Having been a part of several transformations, I can tell you the battle is not fought yearly or quarterly. It's a daily battle on the organization's values, product's fundamentals, and the "way we do things." Here are some examples

  • How much editorial control should magazine editors have of their home page versus allowing an algorithm to decide what content to prioritize?
  • Should you spend two months of redeveloping an advanced search capability that less than 5% of your customers utilize, or should you try  discontinuing or simplifying the capability?
  • Should you keep that legacy system running three more months because several VIPs have refused to migrate according to schedule?
  • Does every article require a custom design and layout, or can you target 30% of the articles to fit into one of 2-3 standard templates?
  • In your BI dashboard, should you try to make every dimension searchable and sortable to support different user needs even if the added complexity adds development time, testing complexity, or performance degradation?

I've seen these examples and many others. Often the time spent debating or arguing the importance of preserving something from the past outweighs any of potential benefits?

Why the Sacred Cows Inhibit Transformation

A sacred cow is "an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning." By definition, when we are trying to transform we have to be able to question everything, challenge assumptions, bring in new data and facts, and develop new innovative thinking. If individuals hold on to the past or inhibit the discussion on what really is important for the future versus what worked in the past, then transformation may not be possible. You may transition and improve, but a transformation requires determining whether something implemented in the past is still required, in what form and with what priority.

This discussion, if and when it happens, is likely to get heated. Doug Moran states it well in his post Don't Mistake Cooperation for Collaboration

In reality, cooperation can be one of the greatest obstacles to collaboration. For collaboration to occur, there needs to be conflict. Great collaboration can get heated. To an outsider, it sometimes resembles hostility or anger, but when we look more closely it is neither. Without collaboration, our ability to create transformative change is limited. 

Should You Burn the Ships?

In most scenarios, this may not be advisable and forcing changes on people may not yield the desired results. But sometimes it is a necessary tool. Change agents have to learn when to use it and how to apply to truly get team members motivated.


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About Isaac Sacolick

Isaac Sacolick is President of StarCIO, a technology leadership company that guides organizations on building digital transformation core competencies. He is the author of Digital Trailblazer and the Amazon bestseller Driving Digital and speaks about agile planning, devops, data science, product management, and other digital transformation best practices. Sacolick is a recognized top social CIO, a digital transformation influencer, and has over 900 articles published at InfoWorld,, his blog Social, Agile, and Transformation, and other sites. You can find him sharing new insights @NYIke on Twitter, his Driving Digital Standup YouTube channel, or during the Coffee with Digital Trailblazers.