Are these Sacred Cows or Trojan Horses

Are you, like me, fascinated by the mythology which surrounds modern working practices?

Lone Person StandingWhat I mean by mythology is that growing collection of words and phrases used to describe working practices which have long since lost their true meaning  People trot them out like some form of incontrovertible mantra and assume everyone agrees their meaning and application.

If like me, you challenge people on their use of mythology, you will often encounter sheer dumbfoundedness. That is because the words and phrases are in common parlance with a taken-for-granted assumption that everyone agrees their meaning.

These assumptions plague modern business environments. In my view, they need eliminating. If not eliminated, we should exercise greater caution in their use. I share this view with Jake Breedon, who wrote a book called Tipping Sacred Cows.His book essentially challenged conventional wisdom.

At the root of his thoughts lie the belief that there is a major flaw in leaders who embrace beliefs without understanding and managing their side effects. He further argues that such beliefs eventually become sacred cows, which stunts real thinking and understanding.I  agree with Breedon’s view though I would extend it. My view is that these assumptions lead to a limited challenge, if any, of their underpinning thinking.

However, rather than sacred cows, what if the beliefs we’re considering were Trojan horse? I give four examples below, drawn from Breedon’s book.

A modern buzzword of the business world is collaboration. It implies a strong emphasis on team working and close cooperation between teams and partners. However, I would question whether a team approach is always desirable? Aren’t some tasks better suited to a single competent individual?  My sense is that people still pursue a collaborative approach, even when a single focus would be better.

Moving on to another example, let’s consider the notion of hard work. It is a highly valued characteristic in the workplace. However, as Lord Sugar once famously said, “Gerbils work hard, they run around a wheel and get nowhere.” Hard work, therefore, needs to be targeted in the right way. Research has shown that work, coupled with cleverness, generally creates the most efficient, elegant processes.

A third example concerns organisation’s desire for creativity.  There is a constant challenge to innovate and develop fresh products and services.  What we ignore at our peril is, of course, the ‘dopamine effect’. Dopamine is our bodies’ pleasure chemical. It is often released when we find things novel. Note the emphasis on the word novel, as opposed to the word useful.  How much sense checking do you do when pursuing creative solutions? Is your solution novel or useful, or novel and useful? Novelty, even in the absence of utility, will give our brains a hit., so please beware.

My final example is our modern day fixation on excellence.Breedon argues that demanding excellence in everything is time-consuming, energy-sapping and, thus, opportunity destroying. I agree with him.

I want to become a better me every day. It is an iterative process. It is about making incremental improvements on a consistent basis. For me, that is how I would define excellence. More so, rough and ready work can be of real value. By its very nature, it is quick and enables new ideas to grow and develop into fresh processes, products, and services.

As a leader for many years, I have always been keen for colleagues to do good work, to do their best. I’m most keen for them to get started and to take some action, rather than plan for excellence and never begin their journey. So my advice would be to pursue excellence in a somewhat different way.

My intent here is to make you think a little differently like Jake Breedon did with me. What other myths can you think of that exist in our current working practices? I’d be delighted to hear of them.

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