Sacred Cows in an Economic Downturn

by Ed Rigsbee, CSP

Ed Rigsbee

What better time to grind up sacred cows into hamburger than during an economic downturn? Why; because the sacred cow protectors in your organization are experiencing lowered resistance when times are not so good. It is much more difficult for them defend their pet projects, products, and services that have reached their sunset when placed under the tight economic microscope.

Sacred Cow Defenders

Upper level decision makers pay especially close attention to questionable activities in an economic downturn, organizational restructuring, or during a merger. If you have even a faint indication that you might be a sacred cow protector, this is the time to realize that everyone will be attacking your pet sacred cow. Ask yourself if this cow is worth your career or might it be time to let go?

To help you work through the process of either defending or letting go, consider the following:

  • Why should this cow continue?
  • Who cares most about this cow?
  • Why do they protect it?
  • Which market or stakeholder segments does the cow still serve?
  • Is this cow still profitable?
  • Is this cow worth the organizational resources necessary to sustain it?
  • Has this cow reached its sunset?


Cow Grinders

This is the moment for which you’ve been waiting—to rid your organization of that outdated, resource sucking albatross that has, in your opinion, been dragging everyone down. While this is a good time to bring out the meat grinder, you’d better be smart about your actions. This is not the time to pretend you are a bull in a china shop but rather take a methodical approach to getting that cow into the grinder.

First, you must remain aware of the fact that most sacred cow protectors have their identify and self-worth complexly entwined with the cow that they protect so ferociously—a bit like a momma bear protecting her cub. And you do not want to get between them.

Broaching the Subject

How do you help an iron-clad mind to open up? Perhaps oil and leverage will do the trick?

The oil relates to the idea of slipperiness verses friction. Their iron-clad mind is the friction and you become the oil that helps movement. Your job is to help the protector see that there might be new or better ideas, products and services that might possibly, maybe, perhaps serve the market or stakeholders better than the currently protected cow.

Leverage relates to an outside object or force that allows ease of movement for heavy or stuck objects. Needless to say, the stuck or heavy object is the cow protector. The outside force could be higher authority or replacement product/service. Higher authority needs no explanation. Replacement however is formidable subject. Where or what could the cow protector use as an alternate crutch for channeling their passion? Figure that out and you have both oil and leverage available to help you, to help the protector move toward something better.

Grinding Cows in For Profit Organizations

We’ve always done it, our customers expect it, and so we should continue to do it. This is an area that can be overcome by numbers, metrics or measurements. It is difficult for a person or department to defend something that can be proven to no longer be performing.

The “not invented here” attitude can be a challenge when offering alternatives to the cow you want to grind. Leading the cow protectors to their own discovery of a replacement generally works well. The price you, the cow grinder, must be willing to pay is to relinquish an ego boost and the credit for being the cow grinder.

Sacred cow profitability always decreases with commoditization. For most things there is a season. Even sacred cows that are only approaching their sunset must be examined closely. The challenge is in letting too many old cows run the pasture. If in your organization there are a number of cows that are nearing their end of usefulness, all your organizations resources are being allotted to refreshing and keeping alive old cows rather than allowing innovation and discovery of new and profitable, non-commodity products and services to take their place. You can swim with the sharks in highly competitive regions or head for the open waters of innovation and creativity.

Grinding Cows in Non-Profit Organizations

  • Long-term equity is bestowed upon those that have participated through volunteerism for years. These folks also enjoy chronological credibility. Going up against this cronyism is wrought with landmines, especially for the younger, innovative, and excited members. The most critical challenge that faces non-profits today is honoring members with this long-term equity while simultaneously defending the emergence of youthful exuberance. Can they both co-exist—I believe so.
  • Changing member needs and desires compounds the above conundrum. This is an area where paid non-profit staff and the volunteer leadership must work toward mutually beneficial programs, services and long-term strategic plans to gradually turn the page to a new era. The need for this phenomenon generally occurs every decade or two. As an example, many organizations are now discovering that the sacred cow golf tournament that has always taken place before the convention can no longer sustain itself financially. The old timers defend it with all the oomph and gusto they can muster but the newer functionaries in the industry could really care less. Perhaps the tournament’s sunset has arrived?
  • Non-profits must be keenly aware of the current and emerging competition from non-traditional sectors. There might be products or services your organization has provided to its members since the dawning of time. And, there might now be for-profit companies that provide the same, or better, products or services faster, cheaper, and offering more choice than your non-profit could ever achieve. Might it be time to grind that cow?



So what’s a reasonable person to do? If you are a cow protector, be certain it is worth protecting. If you are a cow grinder, be sure that cow’s sunset has arrived. Grinding cows simply for pleasure or self-adulation is not an acceptable reason to flick the switch and start the grinder. The magic for your organization is for the leaders to have the wisdom in understanding and recognizing the difference.



Ed Rigsbee is a nationally recognized expert on strategic alliances and organizational strategy. He has been an adjunct professor for the University of Santa Barbara.

Contact him at www.Rigsbee.com or visit www.youtube.com/partneringalliances to view Ed’s videos.