No one seems to agree about the origin of the term “sacred cow.” Before it emerged as an idiom in America in the last 19th century, some believe the term simply described the elevated place cows hold in Hinduism. Or, the term could have originated with the legendary Hindu hero, Prithu, who assumed the form of a cow in order to encourage his subjects to raise more vegetables. But some also accuse Prithu of chasing and capturing the earth goddess, Prithvi, who fled in the form of a cow and eventually agreed to yield her milk to feed the world. Greeks and Egyptians also have their own references to goddesses who took the form of a cow. As often happens with real legends and organizational myths, history gets messy. But about this everyone seems to agree: In modern usage, the term “sacred cow” refers to an idea or practice that people consider, often unreasonably, immune from question or criticism.
We revere our sacred cows for a number of reasons, the most important being that they help us avoid embarrassment, surprises and threats. Even when people show great competency in a particular skill area, they often show greater expertise in protecting what they hold dear. After a while, leaders of companies that have too many sacred cows start to build corrals for them—organizational black holes where good ideas languish, innovation dies and employees chant the hallowed mantra, “We must win, and we must not lose,” even if experimenting could eventually lead to a much bigger victory.
When people in an organization deem a topic off-limits, they eliminate scrutiny, evaluation and measurement and stick with what they’ve always considered sacrosanct. They tie their own hands and limit their opportunities for growth, success and job fulfillment. But when they make questioning holy teachings part of their day-to-day operations, they unleash their potential to solve problems in new ways, approach challenges with optimism and simultaneously boost their corporate self-esteem and grow their coffers. Killing sacred cows is the first step, cooking them with a new recipe, the second.