Working like a Cow by Walking like a Cow

5 February 2015

Below is one of my favourite ads, at least about managing organizations.

This is a very serious question. Think about it. Cows have no trouble working like cows. Nor do each of us, physiologically. So why is it that when we get together, in social organizations, we have so much trouble working like a cow? Could it be because we have organizing all wrong—all this obsession with charts, namely who sits on top of whom?

I use this ad when I speak about organizations, including in our International Masters in Practicing Management. In last week’s TWOG, which discussed the Worldly Mindset of the IMPM, I recounted an anecdote about the frenetic traffic of Bangalore—another world, for westerners at least.

Then during the week, serendipity struck. A colleague at McGill, Dora Koop, just back from attending that module, recounted another story about cows, concerning crossing the streets of Bangalore. (If you think driving in that traffic is a feat, try crossing the streets.)

The first day we were told that when we crossed the street in India we had to “walk like a cow.” The whole group had to stay together and we were warned not to do anything unexpected. So we just moved slowly across the street and the traffic went around us. Throughout the whole program people used this metaphor [recalling the one about “working like a cow”, introduced in the pervious module]. Whether we were walking in small groups or large groups, we stayed together...did not run...and walked like a cow as we crossed the busy streets.

Picture this: a mass of people—all as one, in conjunctive harmony—advancing steadily and collaboratively through what looks like chaos. Now imagine your organization likewise, advancing steadily and collaboratively through what looks like the chaos around it.

You see, in walking like a cow, we have a secret to working like a cow: it’s about walking and working together. This goes beyond charts, about who sits on top of whom—that sacred cow of leadership—to what I like to call communityship—who walks next to whom. Tune in for more about this next week.

© 2015 Henry Mintzberg