Tipping Sacred Cows
Jossey-Bass, 215 pages, $30.95
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” He was referring to sacred cows, beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny and lead us astray if clung to zealously.
“When leaders embrace beliefs without understanding and managing the potential side effects, the beliefs become sacred cows and get in the way. When leaders shut off their brains and blindly follow the bromides of conventional wisdom they set off a string of unintended consequences,” Jack Breeden, a teacher with Duke Corporate Education, writes in Tipping Sacred Cows.
The scared cows he points to would be viewed as virtues by most of us, things like balance, collaboration, creativity, excellence, and fairness. But he argues that we have to think more deeply about these virtues and apply them on purpose, thoughtfully, rather than out of habit. Indeed, while he says leaders grapple with demons like jealousy, selfishness and greed, he finds virtues that are secretly harmful to be much more interesting to focus on than those vices.
“Leaders need the wherewithal to ask forbidden questions: Why should I collaborate? Is passion healthy? Does everything I do need my best effort? Should I prepare less? Should I care less? Leaders need to be wise to the seductive power of unquestioned orthodoxies,” he writes.
He alerts us, in depth, to seven sacred cows. The trick is to figure out when and how those sacred cows function well, how they can backfire, and how to recalibrate them so that they help rather than hurt your workplace:
Balance: This can be a positive, as we seek to set the dial properly in various aspects of our lives between being effective workers and effective parents, short-term and long-term results, being detail-oriented and visionary, and between different employees seeking our favour. But it can backfire when it sucks you into routinely making bland compromises. “If a leader, in striving for balance, is mediocre at everything (or engenders mediocrity in her employees), then balance has backfired,” he says.
Don’t hide behind the notion of balance to avoid tough choices and unpopular decisions. Often, he observes, seeking balance is just an act of cowardice, the inability to make and commit to a choice. Leaders fall into the trap of saying “all of the above” to the multiple choice questions of the workplace. That leads to poor results. Seek instead what he calls “bold balance,” rejecting compromise as a default position, and over the broader horizon turning those bold choices into a balanced approach.
Collaboration: Collaboration is a watchword these days in workplaces. And certainly it’s vital to get people working together, complementing each other. But he points to the tumble from greatness at RIM, the makers of the BlackBerry, under two collaborative co-CEOs, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie. While their backgrounds complemented each other and they could each tackle one aspect of the firm’s activities confident in the other handling the remaining aspects, Breeden feels they succumbed to the dark side of collaboration: absence of clarity and accountability. “We should collaborate when it’s helpful, not because it’s an unquestioned sacred cow,” he says, calling for accountable collaboration instead of automatic collaboration.
Make sure everyone knows their own and other colleagues’ responsibilities, and they aren’t afraid to point out when someone is not carrying through. And watch out for meetings, the ultimate collaborative tool in the workplace that sometimes is not as effective as working alone.
Creativity: This is the rage these days, as leaders are urged to be innovative and creative. But he forces us to pause and distinguish between narcissistic creativity and useful creativity. He cites Sony, which has failed to have anything setting the technological standard since the Trinitron TV and Walkman – hence, in the view of the media, a company lacking creativity. “In fact, Sony’s failure stems from too much creativity. Instead of listening to the market with humility, Sony’s engineers crammed their best technology into an MP3 player that was too cumbersome to use. Instead of taking care of their customer’s needs for simplicity, they took care of their own engineer’s need for complexity. Engineers inside Sony viewed the storage technology used by Apple’s iPod as boring and beneath them, so they went their own way. These innovators had brains full of ideas. Their problem wasn’t too few ideas: their problem was too much narcissism,” he writes.
It can be fun to exercise our creativity and make breakthroughs. But often, he reminds us, an old idea is fine, or combining two old ideas to produce a new initiative. Beware of always feeling you have to add your own ideas to the brew; that’s narcissistic creativity. And remember, he says, that “useful creativity delivers value, not just novelty.”
Excellence: We want high quality but have to ensure seeking it doesn’t choke progress. That often happens when you become obsessed with excellence in process rather than outcomes, and lose sight of the bigger picture. Sure, you want great processes, but sometimes instead of holding your process to a high standard you can simply focus on excellence in the outcome.
“We set a trap for ourselves when we expect excellence in everything,” he says. “High standards are wasted on activities of low importance because leaders can’t give themselves a break.”
Fairness: We seek fairness. It’s the Canadian way. But again it’s vital to distinguish between process and outcomes as we contemplate fairness. You want fairness in processes, so that people are treated fairly and understand that is the prevailing rule in your workplace. At the same time, you need to recognize that treating people fairly can mean inequitable outcomes, that you as a leader can act fairly with the result being apparent unfairness or inequality.
Breeden tells the story of a head nurse who declined to send her all-star performer to a training program for a second consecutive year, even though she was the best candidate, since it seemed more equitable to send someone else this time. That infuriated the top performer, who saw it as unfair, not recognizing her value, and she shifted to another unit in the hospital. The head nurse’s “fairness” may not have been fair. It certainly backfired, big time.
Passion: Passion is supposed to be a wellspring for career success these days. But he distinguishes between “harmonious passion,” which is in tune with the other parts of your life, and obsessive passion, which crowds out other aspects of your life and work as you fixate on one thing at the expense of others. “Obsessive passion leads to wild swings from huge enthusiasm at the start of a project to disappointment and regret when delays, challenges, or changes arise,” he observes. He asks you to catalogue your workplace obsessions – the chips on your shoulder, for example, or other destructive forces – and mitigate them, so you can find a more stable level of passion.
Preparation: Too often we get immersed in “backstage preparation,” trying to line up everything in order before going ahead with an idea. That only leads to delay. He suggests you concern yourself instead with “onstage preparation,” when you learn as you are doing “the exhilarating, powerful process of making yourself vulnerable to be persuaded and changed even as you’re attempting to persuade.” Also, be alert that preparation can backfire when you fall in love with the work resulting from all that preparation and defend what you should change.
You might feel that in some cases he is just splitting hairs. But that’s his point: sacred cows have value – they are sacred – as long as we understand the times when they work and the times when they trip us up. The book is valuable for alerting us to those dangers, and perhaps also for nudging us to scrutinize other sacred cows he doesn’t mention but can snare us.