Thoughts & Observations

The BBQ That Will Change Your Business

Reprinted from my “The Practical Business Radical” column in The Business Press

If you don’t think a BBQ can change your business, then you’ve never met Bernard Ross. A year and half ago, I attended an Association of Fundraising Professionals conference in San Diego. Unfortunately, for most of the conference, I felt like I was attending a history lesson: the same strategies and tactics repackaged under the false pretense of fancy new titles. Then I met Bernard Ross, the Director of the Management Centre in London, who is a loud Scotsman with a thick accent and a propensity for profanity, and the registration fee I had paid for the conference was instantly made worth it. He convinced me that what I needed to do to help move our organization forward was host a BBQ. Not just any BBQ would do. This BBQ needed to be a Sacred Cow BBQ.

The name may sound somewhat horrific, but the concept and the results are anything but. At the foundation of a Sacred Cow BBQ are an organization’s “sacred cows” – the rules that an organization follows, both written and unwritten, official and unofficial. Every organization has sacred cows, things that have become so engrained in an organization that no one can remember why the rule or procedure got developed in the first place. Sacred cows are the “we’ve always done it that way” elements of any business.

Not all sacred cows are bad. Sometimes sacred cows are good. There may be some things that you’ve always done that are actually effective and beneficial for you to keep doing and that in fact are what set your business apart from others (like In N’ Out Burger still using fresh potatoes for their french fries). The point of the Sacred Cow BBQ is to bring multiple stakeholders in your organization to the table to openly and honestly discuss all of your organization’s sacred cows – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Depending on the type of organization you run, a Sacred Cow BBQ would involve all levels and types of staff, customers, volunteers, clients, other businesses, and vendors. Although not necessary, it helps if you actually do host a real BBQ (people are more likely to come and actively participate if food is involved). The location for your BBQ will need at least one wall that can accommodate Post-It notes being stuck all over it.

Here are the Sacred Cow BBQ rules: each participant is given a pad of Post-It notes and a pen. Before any food is served, the participants anonymously write down as many of your organization’s sacred cows as they can think of, one per Post-It note. There is no judgment passed on the sacred cows they write down and it is acceptable if their sacred cow is the same as someone else’s. For each sacred cow that the participant writes down, they get one piece of BBQ. Their first sacred cow gets them a hamburger bun, their second gets them the hamburger, their third gets them condiments and hamburger toppings, their fourth gets them coleslaw, and so on. As the participants turn in their sacred cows in exchange for food, the sacred cows get posted on the wall. Before long, all of the stakeholders in your organization are staring at a wall covered in sacred cows.

As everyone enjoys their hard-earned meal, the session facilitators start the process of categorizing the sacred cows, grouping similar and duplicate sacred cows together. As this process takes place, patterns start to develop. It becomes clear what the organization’s biggest sacred cows are. For us, the most frequently listed sacred cow had to do with requiring volunteers to complete too many forms. After the sacred cows are categorized, the session facilitators lead a group discussion around the top five or ten sacred cows. Together the group talks about each sacred cow and debates whether it should be kept, modified or removed.

The discussion that occurs around a Sacred Cow BBQ is probably one of the most interesting discussions you’ll ever have in your organization. It provides clarity around what your organization values and what may be preventing your organization from growing or providing better products or services, and it gives you starting place to make changes. Since we knew that our volunteers were frustrated with forms (our biggest sacred cow), we embarked on a forms reduction project and brought the number of forms from 52 down to nine essential forms. That is how a BBQ can change your business. What are your sacred cows?