Transforming sacred cows into purple cows

Remarkable purple cow

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s excellent warts and all biography of Steve Jobs. As I was reading Jobs’ own words about his legacy it occurred to me that one way of characterising part of that legacy would be to say that Jobs was a master of transforming sacred cows into purple cows. Let me explain.

In a business context, a sacred cow is an unexamined assumption about the business: its fundamental business philosophies, the strategies it pursues, or perhaps the values it holds. Sacred cows are often worshipped as conventional wisdom. Sacred cows are believed in by top management and followed blindly by employees, without analysis, argument or overt dissent. With a few sacred cows running loose in the top paddock, a business can be in peril with leadership in danger of groupthink and losing grip on what creates success and enables an organisation to flourish.

For example, Jobs’ fierce conviction when Apple began was that the meeting of design and engineering to make great products that people loved was fundamental to Apple’s success and longevity. He fervently believed that high tech consumer products could change the world and that the world could be a better place with Apple in it. His obsession with this, with being a ‘product person’ rather than a business person, along with his boorish (some said nasty) behaviour and inconsistent micromanagement, led to his being ousted in 1985 by Apple’s then CEO John Sculley. For Sculley, the design-consumer product issue was a pipe dream: “Apple would never be a consumer products company”, he is quoted as saying. To Sculley, I believe, this notion was a sacred cow for Jobs and his supporters within the company. Whereas, after Jobs had been removed, Apple began to focus upon maximising profits to the exclusion of making great products, surviving on a temporary dominance in desktop publishing. Ultimately, this strategy became a sacred cow of its own for Sculley and successive CEOs, leading to the loss of market share to Microsoft and eventually the profits themselves. The stock price fell from a high in 1991 of USD $70 to only $14 by 1996.

What’s a purple cow then?  Coined by the writer and blogger Seth Godin, a purple cow is worth talking about, its something amazing, something remarkable. A purple cow in business is the art of building something remarkable, noticeable into your products or services themselves. By using innovative design, by being courageous and willing to take risks and break the rules, purple cows can be built into the products and services we create.

Re-enter Jobs in December 1996 with his sacred cow in tow: build innovative, beautifully designed products and build a lasting company. Apologies for the cliché, but the rest is history:

  • the iPod and iTunes changed the way we consume music
  • the iPhone changed the way we do phone calls, photographs, music, web interactions, & spawned the App industry
  • the iPad changed the way we do so many things – read books and print media; watch film and TV; play games; learn; create music and video; edit pictures and create art

Purple cows. Each one a high tech innovation that blends design and engineering at the intersection of art and technology.  Apple stock is now worth $535 (just checked on my iPhone). Jobs took what many thought to be his downfall, his sacred cows, and used them to transform his company into the biggest in the world.

So I wondered, how might you transform your sacred cows into purple cows? The first step is to take a good look at the sacred cows running round in the top paddock – what are the unexplored assumptions and conventional wisdom about your business? Dissect then, reflect upon these things in order to understand how you or your business achieve the success you have (or not), what makes you or your business flourish?

Time to make some brave decisions, to break some rules. Gather together your teams or associates, ask yourselves how you might redesign or create products or services that transform your customers’ experience. How might you make their experience of your products or services remarkably good? Think how you might combine ideas you wouldn’t normally consider doing – ask the ‘what if..’ question. Get rid of what doesn’t work any more – put the sacred cows out to pasture. Take a leaf from Apple: ‘Think Different’, and you’ll be well on your way to transforming your sacred cows into purple cows.

Picture credit: Purple Cow by Terry George. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 Rye and District Camera Club

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