Calling All Cows and Elephants

Sacred cows and elephants in the room – those issues that no one likes to talk about, or has the courage to bring up, for fear of awkwardness, repercussions, or conflict. These are the things that lie off to the periphery and remain in the shadows… and which linger, sometimes to the detriment of the organization’s success and mission effectiveness.

Sacred cows and elephants in the room. Every organization has them.

It’s important for leaders to try to understand the cows and elephants, especially if when left unaddressed can harm the organization’s prospects. But this can be politically charged and so leaders must choose their battles wisely.

There are times when pulling those issues out from the shadows and into the center of the room, where the lights are brighter, can be more easily and safely accomplished; strategic planning is one of those times. When I am in the discovery phase of helping organizations to develop their three to five year plans, I like to call the question and I do so rather bluntly. I will ask:

“What are the elephants in the room or sacred cows that you would like addressed and resolved as part of this strategic planning process?”

You’d be surprised to learn what I hear. When posed as simply as this – and it certainly helps that I’m an outsider – I gather incredibly useful data, including information with great strategic relevance.

It’s important to note that I always consider the interview process to be a confidential one. I encourage those I’m talking with to speak freely and that I will never (ever!) disclose the source or attribute any information I hear. I’m looking for patterns and trends and trying to help. I also have a clear sense of what is and is not strategically relevant. If I’m there to help develop a strategic plan, I maintain a healthy and necessary distance from issues pertaining to day-to-day operations.

When I pose this question, I almost always gain important insights about an organization and gather information worth including in that organization’s deliberations about their current and hoped for future states.

What are your organization’s cows and elephants?

One response to “Calling All Cows and Elephants”

  1. An excellent question to ask and in the way you suggest (confidentially and with the purpose of looking for trends, etc.).


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