Death To All Sacred Cows

Putting Sacred Cows out to pasture.

Always trust your research. Only hire someone who has done the job before. The customer is always right. These are just three of the countless catchphrases that business people rely on to justify their decision making. Problem is, these so-called “Sacred Cows”—rules, standards and formulas perceived to be unassailably true—are often blindly followed, if for no other reason than “that's the way it's always been done.”

In the new book “Death To All Sacred Cows: How Successful Business People Put the Old Rules Out to Pasture” (Hyperion), authors David Bernstein, Beau Fraser and Bill Schwab—partners in The Gate Worldwide ad agency—target 19 of the most common Sacred Cows and illustrate why they should be invoked cautiously, if at all. Along the way, this trio of Cow wranglers also introduces the concept of Sacred Veal—“newer, less engrained business thoughts which run the risk of growing into full-fledged, bothersome, stifling, constricting, industry-wide business edicts.” 

With so many Sacred Cows overpopulating the business landscape, Bernstein was only too happy to speak with Failure editor Jason Zasky about creating the corporate will to kill them. Metaphorically speaking, of course. 

How did the three of you come up with the idea for the book? 
The way it started was pretty strange. We did an advertisement for our agency that ran in The New York Times. Beau, who is our managing director, suggested we do the ad. Then Bill and I—I'm a writer and Bill is an art director—created the ad. It listed all the Sacred Cows in advertising and how at our agency we see things a little differently. The ad did more than just poke holes in the advertising industry; it also suggested ways to do things better. 

The morning the ad ran in the Times, the top publisher at Hyperion called us and said, “I know you did an ad but you [also] have an idea for a book." 

With three authors how did the creative process work? 
When it came time to write the book we sat down and together decided what the Cows would be. And then whichever Cow was most relevant to Beau or Bill or myself, that person would be responsible for that chapter. We tried to write it differently from the way most business books are written. It has a lighter tone and more snarky attitude. 

Who do you see as the audience? 
The book is aimed at middle and senior management—employees who manage other employees. It's not for people just starting out in business because it's difficult to figure out what rules you should break before you know what the rules are. 

Were any of your ideas inspired by frustration over how your clients have behaved? 
Oh, sure [laughs]. So much of learning comes from frustration. These days we have clients who believe in our point of view. The people that inspired some of our thoughts were clients we've had at other agencies. 

Is there a Sacred Cow that is commonly invoked in the advertising world?
Always trust your research. In the advertising business research is often used to provide insight, but it can be a crutch or tell you what not to do. There's this great quote from Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, 'A faster horse.'” 

The truth is that if you're doing something that hasn't been done before it's often met with skepticism. A lot of times when we test ad campaigns the focus groups will be looking to point out all the shortcomings. That tends to homogenize the work we do.

Can you provide an example of a company that failed because it blindly believed in a Sacred Cow? 
In 1999, the Beihua Beverage Company, doing business in a country with a billion tea drinkers [China] had the bright idea of introducing iced tea. So the company went to the head of its research department [Liu Qiang] and asked him to test the idea. Sixty-plus percent of the people said they didn't like the iced tea. 

A year later Beihua's chief competitor [Xu Ri Sheng] introduces iced tea and it sells like crazy. So Beihua goes back to its research director and asks, “What happened?” Qiang revisits the research and realizes that the taste tests had been conducted in the middle of winter. Of course, people weren't keen on drinking iced tea when it was cold outside. 

What this example teaches me is sometimes you ask the wrong questions at the wrong time. But in the larger picture it tells me that you should follow your instincts, even if research tells you not to. 

One of your Sacred Cows is “Success breeds success.” Does failure breed failure?
[Laughs]. Not always. Failure breeds failure until it becomes success. In other words, if failure teaches you something and you are able to use that to experiment again then it may not breed ultimate failure.

Another one of your Sacred Cows—“Only hire someone who has done the job before”—is one of the most ingrained behaviors among business people. Can you explain why the safest hire is often not the best hire?
That's a chapter I sometimes have to re-read myself because it seems so right. If I have someone who has done the job before I'll need to teach them less and they may already know where all the traps are. But that person may have accepted all the rules and cues and formulas that already exist. So you're not getting any original thoughts; you're getting answers they've heard before or delivered before.

The example in the book concerns Ben Sliney, a lawyer and air traffic controller who was hired as National Operations Manager of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). His first day at work was September 11, 2001. Imagine being ten minutes into your first day and 9/11 happens. Instinctively, he ordered all the planes in the air to land immediately. If he had that job before or had been at the FAA and was familiar with the bureaucracy he might have worried about getting approvals before he reacted. 

At The Gate, do you find yourselves having to consciously fight to keep Sacred Cows at bay? 
We're always conscious of them. It's almost like going to the gym or eating the right foods or anything else you have to be vigilant about. I will say that you never want to point your finger at someone's chest and accuse them of following a Sacred Cow—telling them how horrible that is. Some amount of diplomacy and insight can get them to question whether they are doing the right thing or whether they are just doing what they have always done before. 

What advice do you have for readers who want to eliminate Sacred Cows but are struggling to do so? 
First, list the ones you believe you're following. If you can identify five or ten Sacred Cows that are somehow limiting your ability to be successful, then you can re-assess things as you see yourself slipping into them. 

Take the example of hiring someone who has done the job before. If you feel the people who work for you lack imagination and you have the opportunity to hire someone new then that would be a Sacred Cow I'd be very conscious of. 

Do you feel like you've effectively killed off a few Sacred Cows?
I'd like to think so. But I wouldn't be so arrogant to say we did. I think we pointed them out and then it's up to the reader. We're hopeful that the people who read our book will be willing to kill a few of them in their own business.