Tackling a Sacred Cow

Sacred Cow - An idea, custom, or institution held to be above criticism.

As a Business Analyst, it is your job to question, and question everything until you get to the truth (or as close to the truth as possible). The truth is the foundation from which we build solutions so it is essential to have the strongest foundations as possible.

Sacred Cow – Causes

At some point however, you are going to stumble upon a Sacred Cow – be it a person, process, team, or function – that for some reason, cannot be questioned. There are many reasons Sacred Cows exist, such as;

  • A process in the team is not functioning correctly and causing issues but the team manager either can’t or won’t resolve it and doesn’t want to admit (or have it highlighted) that it’s causing issues because other team’s processes are also causing issues.
  • The team has a disgruntled key person dependency who has a certain way of doing things and does not take favourably to questioning or change therefore the status quo is being protected.
  • There are organisational changes in progress and the manager and/or team are trying to prevent / delay process improvements that might lead to their team being disbanded / made redundant.
  • There are organisational changes in progress and the manager and/or team are giving a false portrayal of their processes in order to accelerate the transition to a favourable target state.

Sacred Cow – Indicators

With that in mind, it won’t come as a surprise that Sacred Cows usually have layers of protection / obfuscation to stop you finding out the truth, so it might take a while before you realise one exists. Here are few indicators to look out for;

  • SME / Stakeholder unwilling or reluctant to provide the level of detail you need to fully document / define a process
  • SME / Stakeholder continually reschedule meetings at the last minute causing delays
  • SME / Stakeholder provides frequently contradictory information or information that doesn’t make logical sense i.e. information about a process that sequentially doesn’t add up or match what you’ve observed
  • ‘Grapevine’ conversations from multiple sources hint that the team / manager are trying to avoiding redundancy / empire building

Of course, you might experience these because there is a lack of skills, knowledge, experience, or time in the team that owns the process, however, it could also indicate the presence of a Sacred Cow. It is up to you to exercise the correct level of diligence and tenacity to find out which it is so you can act accordingly, but approach with caution because even just trying to identify a Sacred Cow comes with risk.

If it walks like a Cow, and moos like a Cow…beware

As a Business Analyst your role is typically to document the current state, and then capture the requirements for a future target state (and everything else in-between). You are seen as an agent of change and that is the world you live in, change is made by people for people, but not everyone is as welcoming to change, particular where change is being forced on someone.

Now look back at the list of causes and put yourself in the shoes of a team manager, and ask yourself how you would react if someone came along and as a consequence trying to figure out the impact of a change, exposed you and your team in some way? Here are some of the risks;

  • The manager / team are held accountable for all issues being experienced even though their process is one of many in the organisation that are the cause.
  • The key person becomes so disgruntled at being questions that they leave (or take an extend leave of absence) and exposes the manager for a lack of succession planning.
  • The manager makes a complaint about your attitude, or questions your ability in a bid to remove the risk of what your questioning may reveal, but in the process damages your reputation.

That said, don’t be dissuaded from doing your job, just exercise the appropriate level of caution.

It moos, now what?

This is where it gets complicated and a lot of what follows very much depends on the type of organisation you’re working in and the organisation’s culture.

Ultimately there are two options if you’ve come across a Sacred Cow;

  1. Tackle it, and deal with the consequences
  2. Avoid it, and accept the risks

Before embarking on a particular course you should discuss with your Project Manager and if necessary, your Programme Manager (or higher depending in the situation).

Option 1 – Tackle it

The exact approach you take to tackle a Sacred Cow depends on the risks you’ve identified in doing so, but before you do anything, make sure you have buy-in from the relevant governance structure in your project (i.e. Project Manager / Programme Manager) because you may stir-up a hornet’s nest that gets out of control very quickly.

Once you’ve got buy-in, it’s time to start asking more direct questions than you’ve asked previously. Here is the first piece of advice:

Ask the questions from a position of looking to achieve a compromise rather than an outcome that suits the project only.

What I mean by this is that your goal when establishing the current state and capturing requirements for the future state is to achieve progress from a project point of view (i.e. to enable the project’s progress along the project’s timeline). This means that the questions are being asked in the context of ‘tell me the answers so I can document them for everyone to see and the project can progress’.

When tackling a sacred cow, the context you have to adjust to is ‘help me understand the current landscape so that I get the information the project needs and I’ll manage the information appropriately so as not to compromise your position’.

By doing this you are trying to establish an understanding based on trust. If it works, and you want to uphold your reputation as a Business Analyst, it is imperative that you don’t break this trust. The Sun Tzu (Art of War) offers some great advice for such a situation:

Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.

Sun Tzu

In other words, don’t force the issue. By asking the questions in such a way what you are really doing is signalling that you know you’ve stumbled upon a Sacred Cow, but you are willing to not make a big deal about it as long as you get something you need i.e. you want to reach a mutual understanding.

See how they respond to it and go from there. There are so many variables from this point it could be a book rather than a blog post but get ready to compromise and deal.

The target outcome is to get the information you need to make progress and your reputation rests on your ability to uphold your side of the deal.

If you can’t make any progress then it’s time to pick Option 2.

Option 2 – Avoid it, and accept the risks

If you decide to avoid the Sacred Cow then you’ll need to identify what risks this introduces, what mitigations can be put in place, add them to the RAID log, and track them.

An example risk could be;

  • Due to insufficient information about process xyz, there is a risk that the transition model can not be fully defined or is not appropriate to achieve the target state.

Any unknown in a project can lead to any number of risks, it’s important to spend a good deal of time actually thinking about what risks this has introduced to the project, and make sure everyone who needs to know about them, knows about them.

There are many reasons why avoiding a Sacred Cow might be the best option, the most common reasons are due to some sort of office politics. This can be frustrating for a Business Analyst, particularly when the office politics are so sensitive you might not find out the exact reason, but ultimately your responsibility is to the project and you fulfil that by making sure the risks are raised and accepted. You can then move on to tasks and outcomes that you can influence.


Sometimes you can’t carry out your role to the extent required because of Sacred Cows. There is no option to avoid it and pretend it doesn’t exist (or worse, assist with the cover up) because this will result in the project being exposed to risks nobody is aware of, therefore it has to be tackled one way, or another.

There are a number of factors that need to be considered when deciding which option to choose, but the net result is that the right people are made aware of the Sacred Cow’s existence, and the appropriate action is taken. It is worth remembering that if you chose, and are successful at Option 1, you might still have some risks that you need to raise, accept, and mitigate – both options are a risk based approach on the basis that all the information you need is not forthcoming or needs to be guarded.

Have you ever had to deal with such a situation, or want to discuss a situation you’ve currently got? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Author: Dan

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