How Do You Know an Idea is Dead?
Farewell TRDEV

Creating a "Sacred Cow-Free Zone"

Regarding my post the other day on the Tyranny of Dead Ideas, commenter Kate Riel asked an interesting question:

Just articulating a dead idea is a huge step for an individual or organization because it makes you question those notions that define self efficacy.

So how does an organization nurture and support an environment with no 'sacred cows' where it is safe to express an existing pattern as potentially a dead idea?

I don't really have the answer. If I did, I'd probably be rich. But I do have a few thoughts.

First, I think you have to change your own personal behaviors and look at where you don't question certain sacred cows in your life. A few months back I read A.J. Jacobs' is The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and one of the things that struck me about his book was the idea that to change your beliefs, you have to start with changing your behavior. Fake it till you make it. It's not the beliefs that have to change first. Instead, you have to start "being the change you want to see."   I think that creating an organizational culture of questioning sacred cows has to begin with us as individuals trying to weed out the dead ideas that may be holding us back personally and professionally.

Part of doing this means engaging in your own personal reflective practices. Then you can move on to trying to create an organizational environment of reflective practice where there is regular reflection and structured thinking about the work and values of the organization and how that is fitting in with reality.

I also think that both individually and organizationally you have to be thinking about the big, important problems and focus on doing work that matters. Too often I think we get bogged down in the minute details and the short-term view, which means we're never really taking a step back to look at the larger picture of what's going on. This is a habit that has to be cultivated, especially since it tends to go against how most organizations end up operating. 

These are a couple of thoughts that come to my mind in terms of creating a "sacred cow-free zone." What ideas do you have? How do we cultivate an environment that regularly challenges us to question if we're holding on to dead ideas?


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This is such a fascinating post. I’d agree that personal reflective practice and focussing on work that matters are critical. In my experiencing creating 'sacred-cow free zones' in organizations also requires strong leaders who build trust – real trust, and create a space where is safe to put all cards on the table. This is hard work. It is impossible to fake this and people know if your not sincere about it. Another important aspect which I think is related to working on what matters is having clearly articulated vision so that everyone in the organisation can be focussed on the question ‘are we really doing what we say we are doing.’

I completely identify with the statement that we get "bogged down in the details" that "we never really step back to take a look at the bigger picture". Before we can create a sacred cow-free environment we have to nurture a atmosphere that prods us to maintain perspective. How do we hold perspective? Failure. Yes, failure is the crucible for developing perspective. Don't you notice that sometimes the most gracious, interesting, positive, open, people have encountered heart wrenching defeat? Maybe before we can create a sacred cow free zone we have to nurture a place where failure is expected and when appropriate even celebrated.

This is a terrific post. It is so hard to let go of sacred cows - and dead ideas - because they are familiar and comfortable. They feel risk-free, yet they have never been more risky. If we don't seriously innovate and refresh our thinking about everything from how we interact to donors to how we talk about ourselves in the age of new media, the nonprofit sector is going to be just as defunct as its sacred cows.

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