Cultural cows and cakes could close you!

Company Owners and Leaders, I speak with are expressing increased concern, worry and in some cases anxiety about the threat of pests to their businesses and I’m not talking about cockroaches, rodents, or rogues but The PESTS, the political, economic, social, and technology challenges to their business. 

You know the BIG things that even governments struggle to respond to let alone control – the threats of cyber-attacks, supply chain inflation, mental health issues, technology advances, climate change, new viruses, environmental crisis, cost of living hikes, wage demands, Brexit, UK devolution, US civil unrest and war in Europe.

BUT with every challenge comes opportunity… yet to realise opportunity you must first challenge your sacred cows and your cake making.

A sacred cow is a closely held belief that is beyond question, immune from criticism, and effectively untouchable!

I recall first hearing (and understanding) the phrase when a marketing agency pitching for our business asked, “are there any sacred cows in the business, areas where we can’t go, people products or processes we must not touch?”

Cakes are a more current (GBBO) translation of Henry Ford’s “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”.

“You can’t use the same ingredients and expect to bake a different cake.”

I was once a BUM before being promoted to a Business Unit Director… becoming responsible for the unit’s profit generation, which was being held back by a number of personally held sacred cows.

One particular growth opportunity required changing the habits (work and personal) of a lifetime.

The marketing team saw an opportunity for profit growth by offering next day delivery on all orders placed by 3pm, yet to achieve this we had to increase/plan our stock better, manage our order loading, ensure the process flow was sufficiently resourced to handle any spikes and take our staff with us – all of which required a business unit team effort to deliver.

It involved lots of internal and external negotiations, for example having royal mail and other carriers move their collection times back to suit us, and changing staff start and finish times – not as easy as you think if you’ve inherited a post room team working factory hours because the post room had always reported into the factory and that’s how it had always been 7.30am starts and 3.30pm finish, with a lunch time finish on a Friday… not great if you want afternoon orders delivered next day!

So, we had to consider mixing up the ingredients to get the cake we wanted… a few agreed to the new hours but not all, so we’d move staff from other areas in the business unit from 3.30pm onwards into the post room. We replaced leavers with new starters on new hours, but the sweetest moment was when John (post room man and boy) agreed some 12 months after the changes to change his hours and the reason … “I can see that the changes were right for the businessand that they offered greater job security and job satisfaction.

The business quickly went on to achieve market leadership with a 98.5% on time delivery, in full, on all orders placed by 4pm, generated more sales, employed more people, and before it became a sacred cow – I dialled back a percentage point or two on the delivery, saved hundreds of thousands on stock holding, boosted profits and still retained our market leadership positioning.

What are your sacred cows?

  • Managers who are allowed to treat staff badly
  • Pet projects led by the Boss
  • Unprofitable products that used to be best sellers
  • Best sellers that are now unprofitable
  • Out of date services
  • Antiquated technology (with a small t) loved by the staff disliked by the customer
  • Services that no longer resonate with the latest generation of customers.
  • Hours of work
  • Holiday policy
  • Place of work

Covid put Cows and Cakes on the senior managements to-do list, and many took decisions for the survival and prosperity of the business that would have been considered strictly out of bounds a year or so before; others sat it out thanks in no small part to the government support, which won’t be so generous with the next PEST. 

Why do we continue to do stuff that we have always done, stuff that’s been handed down through the generations, stuff that is not as effective as it used to be?

When did you last seriously question or challenge your cows and cakes in terms of what they bring to your post covid business, let alone what they bring to your business in the current or threatened political, economic, social, technology challenges?

Challenge doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can be difficult – that’s why it called a challenge.

Helpful pointers to get you started

  • Start the conversation
  • Restate your values why purpose
  • Be sensitive
  • All ideas count
  • Provide a process framework
  • Start on one of your cows that no one expects you to offer up
  • Be specific not fluffy
  • Acknowledge concerns like job security
  • Define what “good” looks like
  • Share the financials

One of the biggest blockers for Owners, Leaders, and Employees, when it comes to cows and cakes is FEAR … but be encouraged others have been there, been through it and survived to share their experiences.

“The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything.”

Theodore Roosevelt – US President

“The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most as has been, into every corner of our minds.”

John Maynard Keynes – Economist

“We need to have the confidence that the way we are working is the best way to work – if not we need to change the way we work.”

Michael Donaldson – The Value Innovator

Since 2013 I have been helping ambitious SMEs with their Strategic and Leadership challenges.

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Posted in Business Growth, business strategy, change management, Company Culture, Decision Making, Engagement, leadership, Strategic Planning
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