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January 17, 2008

Kill Your Sacred Cow

Bernd Schmitt
Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business and Executive Director, Center on Global Brand Leadership
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I have heard it many times. Business leaders tell me that they want to think big. They tell me that their organization’s growth — and in some cases, its survival — depends on big, bold ideas. They are envious of the big success stories that they read about: Starbucks, Whole Foods, Apple’s iPod, Google. These were big ideas that not only succeeded and brought profit to their companies but transformed their industries: casual dining, supermarkets, music players and the Internet.

Yet in many organizations, Small Think rather than Big Think prevails. Managers are stuck in a thinking mode characterized by inertia and resistance to trying out the unknown. Those charged with developing strategy stick with the status quo, the same old procedures, planning tools and strategy maps, even when they fail to produce bold ideas.

To break out of this mold, it is key that we question our deeply held assumptions — the sacred cows of a business — and develop alternatives to them. That's what Samsung has done in consumer electronics by focusing on customer experiences rather than on technical product features alone, thereby challenging Sony and quickly turning itself into a creative powerhouse. That’s what Dove did when it challenged the entire beauty industry with its Campaign for Real Beauty, featuring ordinary women of all ages, sizes and shapes. That’s what is happening at the Metropolitan Opera. The Met is no longer just an opera stage in New York: it broadcasts its opening night live in Times Square, has made deals with Sirius Satellite Radio and beams its Saturday afternoon performances into movie theaters worldwide.

Pulling off bold strategies that change markets requires leadership through every step of strategy development, planning and implementation. But the first step for companies who aspire to thinking big is to look beyond the conventions of their own business.

Kill those sacred cows!


by Osifo A. | January 17, 2008 at 5:19 PM

Allow me to play Devil's advocate here and offer my opinion as to why Small Think still prevails in many organizations. I reckon the reason for the slow paradigm shift from Small Think to Big Think is the notion that Big Think ideas and strategies are risky. Killing the sacred cow is like gambling, it could lead to untold success and fortune but it could also ruin an organization. For every success story like Samsung's or Google's there is a horror story like GM's or Merrill Lynch's - where adopting bold, "Big Think" strategies and sacred cow killings didn't get these companies where they wanted to be. I think what prevents managers and organizations from adopting bolder strategies are the carcasses of companies before them that tried and failed at Big Think strategies. It all depends on the level of risk the management of these organizations are comfortable with. Killing the sacred cow may not always be the best way forward.

by ray horton | January 17, 2008 at 5:31 PM

Very good, Bernd. Too many sacred cows in the business world (and I suppose there are a few lurking around the curriculum of CBS as well, but that's another story).

by Fernando Reiter | January 18, 2008 at 10:25 AM

There is a story of a guy that comes home for Thanksgiving dinner. When he sees the turkey he notices that it is missing its legs, exactly what he was hungry for. So he asks his wife why did she remove the legs. She answers that she has always done it this way. "But why?", he asks. "Because my mother taught my to do it this way". So the guy drives up to his mother-in-law's and asks her the same question. Her answer is the same as her daughter's, she was taught by her mother to do it that way. So the guy jumps into his car and drives to his grandmother-in-law's home. So he explains to her what has happened and what were the answers he has received. She laughs and explains: "When I was young, during the great depression, our ovens were very small. So in order to fit the turkey in it we needed to remove the legs, and so the tradition was created." All sacred cows exist for a reason. Before you start killing them, I believe it is important to ask "why do they exist?" and see if changes in the environment have rendered the explanations useless.

by Johnny Chen | January 19, 2008 at 1:11 PM

i am very lucky to be here. anyway,from my point of view, aim big and think small is only a way out. survival fittest. for business, which interests you, also your setting enviroment the most fittest. but what for sure is a new strategy only favors the first rule-breaker. for innovations, we try to find them not to make them.

by Scott | April 11, 2008 at 3:43 PM

I'm all for thinking differently and breaking the mold, but Fernando is correct. Sacrificing the sacred merely because it is considered sacred is unwise. Examine how the cow became sacred in the first place, and whether that mindset has evolved or is still relevant prior to the slaughter.

by ANorman67 | August 22, 2008 at 3:52 PM

Sometimes another party slaughters the sacred cows, which have been wandering in the road, and thereby opens it to traffic. In Europe, it is often the European Commission or a Member State government that does the slaughtering. However, few worshippers of sacred cows look far down the road and realise there are new opportunities to be seized. In particular, the bankers and venture capitalists over here cannot believe that the cows are dead and will not return in greater numbers. Mould-breaking is seen as a risky activity which should be left to others. And they are right! In the mid-80s, the UK government removed the barriers to competition in broadcasting, allowing the establishment of a new venture (BSB) in direct-to-home satellite television. It raised £2 billion of risk capital on the understanding that it had a monopoly of the frequencies and the orbital slot allocated by the ITU for broadcasting services beamed to the UK. In return, it had to pioneer digital TV ready for the next century. These satellites could also carry what we now call digital broadband services. I set up a company (DBSS) to exploit the opportunity and BSB invested in it by lending the spare capacity on its satellites while we got going. I had worked on the enabling legislation in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet Office in 1980-83 and also realised that public key cryptography enabled the directing of broadcast information to individual subscribers. The sacred cows of public service broadcasting were slaughtered by innovative legislation and new technology. Then Rupert Murdoch set up Sky TV in Luxemburg whose government allowed him to use telecommunications frequencies instead of broadcasting frequencies to carry analogue TV signals direct to UK homes, thus getting round the law. Stopping him by appeal to the courts would take years, during which he could build an audience at BSB's expense. So BSB and Sky were merged into BSkyB and the £2 billion investment effectively written off. My little symbiotic business suffered the same fate on a much smaller scale. The moral of the story is that sacred cows can wander in from neighbouring fields to replace the ones that were slaughtered.

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