First Kill all the Sacred Cows – Then Compete Against Yourself


First Kill all the Sacred Cows – Then Compete Against Yourself

Take a look at these (in)famous quotes from a few business leaders:

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers – Thomas J. Watson, Chairman and CEO of IBM

640K is more memory than anyone will ever need on a computer – Bill Gates, Founder & CEO, Microsoft

People will never trust the Internet enough to take out their credit cards and buy things they can’t touch. – Critics of Jeff Bezos, Founder & CEO of Amazon.com

There is some debate as to whether Messers Watson and Gates actually made these statements, but the fact is that there are countless examples of when successful leaders and businesses ignored opportunities because of their belief in sacred cows. Here are a few more sacred cows that later turned out to be wrong:

  • The United States will always be a manufacturing hub
  • Televisions are an invasion of privacy—why would anyone want moving pictures in the living room?
  • No one would ever buy a small car made by a Japanese company
  • The Internet will never gain the same scale as television for advertising

I don’t need to belabor this point. Clayton Christensen wrote about this extensively in the Innovator’s Dilemma. The point of this article is not to prove sacred cows exist—we all know they do.

Sacred cows exist for one of two reasons:

Reason 1) We always worked one way, and in the face of change, we’re too scared to admit that the old way isn’t working—fear feeds our sacred cow.

Reason 2) We make so much money doing what we do, there simply cannot be a better way to do it – hubris feeds the sacred cow.

Sacred cows can sometimes impair growth and innovation. This is an impairment that savvy competitors do not have—remember, whether you are aware of them or not, competitors are studying your weaknesses all the time and looking for ways to exploit them.

That means that sacred cows can and must be killed by you—before your competitors find a way to kill them by forcing you out of the market. This leads to one clear implication: it is better to compete with yourself than to allow a competitor to beat you at it.

This is the approach taken by long-term successful giants like Johnson & Johnson, Proctor & Gamble and General Electric. Even younger firms like Samsung and Apple take this approach. These are successful companies that learned long ago how to kill their sacred cows.

What are the sacred cows of your organization? How will you kill them before your competitors do?

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