6 Deadly Sins of Agile Implementations: Slaying the Sacred Cows

August 5, 2020 | Peter Cronin

In the previous article, we discussed failing to scale Agile while momentum is present. In this article, we will discuss ‘sacred cows’ and how they can kill your business’s momentum.


“If you are not slaying sacred cows in your business when you are carrying out a transformation project then you are not doing a transformation project.”


Most businesses, regardless of size and history, have what we call ‘sacred cows.’ These are people, attitudes, equipment, systems, or other issues that people get defensive about when challenged. As a result, these are not fairly questioned or corrected and little, if anything, changes. To be considered a sacred cow, there must be some resistance associated with it. For example, if it is a minor thing, and an employee asks his colleague, “Hey! Why do we actually do this?” and the colleague replies, “Good point! Let’s stop doing it,” then it is not considered a sacred cow. There has been no resistance by anyone to stopping or changing the procedure.

Rather, sacred cows are those things that, when questioned, usually receive a response like, “Oh, we just do that around here,” or, “That’s just the way we have always done it.” You may even hear people say, “I don’t know. The guy who taught me how to do my job told me to do that, so that is what I am doing as well.” But, the thing is, if you do not challenge these phrases and ways of working, you are not transforming anything!

What are Sacred Cows?

Sacred cows are the underlying, unchallenged, groups of things that people do. Some examples include:

  1. Behaviours of an individual
  2. Behaviours of a group of people, e.g. a team
  3. Reports that get done regularly, e.g. monthly, that nobody looks at

In a sense, sacred cows are things that people, often those who have been working in the business for a long time, get defensive over. Consider the following discussion between two people:


“Let’s get rid of that. We don’t need it.”

“No! We can’t get rid of it!”

“Why not?”

“We need it because of X, Y, and Z.”

“OK. But, how does that actually help?”

“It just does!”


Often, you will find that these sacred cows are protected because of misguided loyalties, fears, and habits, or because people are uncomfortable trying something a different way. While you may think it is best to just let these be swept under the rug to avoid conflict, there is a significant cost of doing nothing. The cost is not just monetary, but can also negatively affect employee engagement, team morale, and respect for management.


“Why are these things here, why are people getting defensive over them? Properly challenge these assumptions when going through any transformation project.”


Sacred Cows and Agile

One of the common sacred cows in Agile is committing to the long-term plans of the transformation. That is, you need to have a plan, of some sort. While you do not need to have precise clarity of where you are going, the reality is that you need to have some idea of how you are going to get there. It is not enough to say, “OK, we are going to build this thing in six months’ time!” Rather, you may say, “OK, we will build this aspect, and this aspect, and this aspect, and we are going to build this module, and this module, and this module.” Then, as you come closer to them, you will have more intuition and experience to be able to ‘chunk’ them down.

Unfortunately, committing to long-term due dates can become an addiction! It can be hard for people to let go of the due dates in a sprint. This is especially common in the sales arm of the business, when salespeople make promises, “This will be done by this date. If it is done by this date, will you commit to this?” And, what typically happens is you end up with teams saying, “Oh, now we have got to meet the commitment that our sales team has made, rather than focus on what is the best thing we could be doing for the product, service, or the project as a whole.” You get tied into commercial agreements where you need to deliver to that.

On top of this, there is ‘vapourware.’ These are products which are announced or currently being developed, but never get released, and are often never cancelled. “Oh, yeah, if we develop that for you, will you sign up today, or in the next few weeks? We will definitely build that in for you.” It might be this insignificant thing a customer wants, but it has a huge development cost associated with it and nobody else wants it. So, you are making impetuous long-term decisions to meet the need of a single customer. This is another sacred cow!

“When you are trying to transform into a full transformation project to an Agile business, you need to make sure that you challenge absolutely everything.”


Slaying the Sacred Cows

When you are challenging and slaying sacred cows, consider the whole structure. For example, if your teams are on commission, think about whether commission schemes will still be appropriate for the new place you are going to be in, your new normal. When people get defensive, don’t simply brush them off! Rather, try to figure out why they are defensive, and if they have a legitimate need that is not being met. If this is the case, consider how you might meet that need, and also the needs of the Agile changes. Ultimately, make sure you slay those sacred cows. If you are not challenging everything, you are not doing an Agile transformation.