Sacred cow or Trojan horse?

17 February 2015 -


We look at why bosses should rethink some of their preconceptions about management styles, and how workers operate

Ben Walker

Jake Breeden felt like a bad father. In the 12 years since his first daughter, Emily, was born, he had never missed any of his three children’s birthdays. As busy as he was – travelling and teaching across the globe – he always made certain that he’d be home on the big days. Yet, one year, he couldn’t make it.

Breeden, a guru of management styles, had to attend a crucial two-week leadership development in Dubai. However he sliced it, there was simply no way he’d be home for his middle daughter Clara’s 10th birthday – a milestone. His perfect record was coming to an end. “Daddy,” said Clara, sobbing. “Will you do anything I ask you to make up for missing my double-digit birthday?”

Breeden hesitated: “What do you want?”

“I want,” said Clara, “you to promise you’ll miss Emily’s 13th birthday.”

When asked why, Clara said: “Because it’s fair.”

Fairness is generally a good thing to strive for but, like so many nice-to-haves, the pursuit of it can sometimes lead to absurd outcomes. “Fairness is a virtue,” says Breeden, who uses the anecdote about his daughters to open his book Tipping Sacred Cows. “But when it’s a virtue that trumps reason, it can backfire.”

The trouble with virtues is that they are theoretical concepts removed from the cut-and-thrust world of day-to-day business. All other things being equal, it is reasonable to aim for them, but all other things rarely are equal. Relentlessly pursue virtues, says Breeden, and prepare for unintended, unhappy consequences. “The truth is,” he says, “that many workplace values that seem beyond reproach actually do hidden damage.”

Breeden makes clear that the point of his thought-provoking book is not to completely destroy all conventional wisdom, but to challenge it. Only by doing this, he says, can we save this wisdom from its undoubted flaws. “When leaders embrace beliefs without understanding and managing their potential side effects,” he writes, “the beliefs become sacred cows and get in the way. I have seen the same heart breaking story play out too many times. Well-intended leaders, driven by deeply held beliefs, try to do the right thing. But the right thing backfires.”

Here we outline why sacred cows are often Trojan horses.


(Sometimes known as: “Too many cooks spoiling the broth”)

This reporter remembers a clever game from a management training course. It was a giant geometric puzzle, the rules being that everyone in the team had to move at least one piece during its construction. Of course, as with any other geometric puzzle, it was really a one-person job. Our team leader solved the challenge brilliantly by simply having all his teammates move a piece an inch and then letting the guy with an aptitude for geometric puzzles build it alone. Mission accomplished. Had everyone tried to contribute the task may well have descended into confusion. It almost certainly would have been slower, as the teammates simply got in each other’s way. “Very clever,” said one delegate. “The point is that’s it’s not a task best suited to team working, so why make it one?”

Collaboration is often seen as virtuous, yet, argues Breeden, it can actually be inefficient, frustrating – disastrous even. He cites the example of the BlackBerry PlayBook – a tablet device similar to the iPad. Canadian Business reports that one director of Research In Motion (RIM), BlackBerry’s manufacturer, had wanted the product aimed at the business market, thus is was billed as being “professional grade”. Another director, however, had demanded it was aimed at consumers – hence the frolicsome name PlayBook. The result was that it met the needs of neither group. RIM would have been better letting one director or the other have his way. Not both.


Collaboration has become fetishised in the modern, open-plan workplace. Team players are crucial to a business. Yet some tasks are clearly unsuited to team working and are better executed by one competent individual.


(Sometimes known as: “Pushing a boulder uphill”)

He’s hardly a management guru, but Lord Sugar is fond of mocking those who defend their own performance by saying they worked hard. “Gerbils work hard,” he says, “they run around in a wheel and get nowhere.” Hard work is, of course, a good thing – but only when targeted in the right areas. Miscued hard work squanders the resources many organisations value most – time and energy – and very often leads to organisational damage.

Gen Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, a decorated chief of the German army and a fierce opponent of the Nazi regime, divided his men into four groups: clever, diligent, stupid and lazy. He added that most of his troops displayed two of those characteristics. The most valuable, he said, were the clever-lazy men. “Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions,” he said. And the worst? “One must beware anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will cause only mischief.”

While there is a certain cruelty to this analysis, it is nevertheless reflected in a modern management model that many leadership gurus swear by. “While the clever-diligent group is working late nights and weekends, members of the clever-lazy group innovate more creative solutions to save the time and energy the stupid-diligent group is spending,” writes business intelligence blogger David Crandall. “This creativity – this innovation – is the reason Hammerstein wanted clever-lazy people as his highest leadership. Instead of throwing more man-hours at a problem, this group looks for a much more elegant solution.”


Hard work is extremely valuable in management but only when coupled with intellect. “Laziness” – rather than actual slothfulness, this is better defined as a very rational determination to avoid unnecessary work – can be highly valuable if coupled with cleverness. Clever-lazy people create the most efficient, elegant processes.


(Sometimes known as: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?”)

In his book, Breeden tells a story of his own misjudged piece of creativity – the creation of a comedy character to walk around a trade fair. The idea was that this strapping bright-pink being would tread the tech-conference boards and drive people to buy his client’s new videoconferencing software. The guy who turned up to don the costume was short, fat and keen on taking regular cigarette breaks. “That was fine,” recalls Breeden. “Keeping him off the show floor was the best thing that could have happened.” Breeden uses the story to make the point that much of what is creative is also narcissistic: designed by and for the benefit of its creator – not their client or their target audience.

The problem stems from the fact that novelty, even in the absence of utility, gives our brains a hit of the pleasure chemical dopamine, says Prof Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist cited in Breeden’s book. “This is why it’s important to use conscious thought to contemplate the dopamine rush and decide whether the idea is effective,” Kaufman says.

Breeden compares the contrasting fortunes of Apple and Sony in his quest to prove that much of what is creative is also wasteful. “Think of Sony and their thousands of new products from video-game players to TVs to music,” he writes. “Meanwhile Apple’s entire product line can fit on a kitchen table.” Yet, in the first quarter of 2013, Apple’s iPhone sales alone were worth $22.7 billion, more than the entire sales of its rival Microsoft ($17.4 billion) and, for that matter, Sony ($18.4 billion). Critics of Sony’s performance have lambasted the Japanese giant for its lack of ideas, points out Breeden. “Wrong,” he writes. “Sony’s failures stem from too much creativity.”


Sense-check new ideas to make sure the creativity is useful and not just novel. “Creativity should be pragmatic, not prideful,” writes Breeden. “Creativity exists to solve an important, unsolved problem.”


(Sometimes known as: “Letting the best become the enemy of the good”)

“It is better,” writes Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles in their book Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense, “to be first rather than to be the best.”

The trouble is with being the best is that it often takes a lot longer than just being good. And first movers’ advantage is massive. One of the biggest corporate-performance studies, the Profit Impact of Marketing Strategy, shows that pioneers command an average market share of 29%, compared with 13% for later entrants. Unless you believe that the first product into markets are pretty much always vastly superior than those that follow – unlikely given the follower can base its product on the pioneer, and better it – the evidence is that it is indeed better to be first than best. “Markets have a single summit,” write Goddard and Eccles. “And buyers have an irrational and enduring bond with the brand that sits on the summit.”

Breeden argues that demanding excellence in everything thing we do is time-consuming, energy-sapping and thus opportunity-destroying, we should instead be “comfortable with a little bit of low quality from time to time”.

“My advice is be excellent occasionally,” he adds. “When we study leaders who accomplish great things, they seem to have a sixth sense that gives them permission to do second-rate work on the way to doing a first-rate job.”

Breeden says that a sure fire way of killing off a great idea is to demand it is fully formed and painstakingly researched at the formative stage. A policy journalist recalls being cornered by a government policy director after being invited to present an idea he had for a structural reform to an audience of experts. “She said she was very interested,” he recalls. “But she then asked me to detail every single aspect of my concept and provide her with all the supporting evidence. I said I didn’t have all that because it was merely an idea, a talking point. But we didn’t talk. Indeed, my lack of civil-service standard appendices meant I never heard from her again.”


Rough-and-ready work can be of real value. By its very nature it is quick – and this is how ideas turn into business concepts and subsequently break new markets. Tim Harford's book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure provides great evidence that “just get started” has much to recommend it over the “make sure it’s excellent” approach, says Breeden.

Image of Trojan horse courtesy of Basar / Shutterstock.

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