In an economy that moves fast, it's almost cruel to challenge a consultant's parable that sings the praises of patience. But that's exactly what reader Leigh Ann Smyth of Pasadena, California, asked our Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) to do. To motivate a task force, Smyth's boss passed around an excerpt from On Teams, by Ron Archer, with Janet Bond Wood (Irwin Professional Publishing, 1996). Titled "Lessons from the Chinese Bamboo Tree," the passage reads, in part, "Making teams work is a lot like trying to grow the most difficult tree in the world, the Chinese bamboo tree."
According to this consulting parable, a farmer takes a seed, plants it, and tends it every day for a year. Then the farmer looks at the soil and still sees nothing: "no sprouts, no signs of life." After four years, the farmer still has nothing to show for his labor. Says Archer's parable: "To the untrained eye he seems to be a fool, but the farmer knows that he will have to get to the third month of the fifth year when this seemingly dormant seed grows into a tree that is ninety feet tall. Four years nothing, three months 90 feet."
The lesson wasn't lost on Smyth: "A lot of the work we were going to do wouldn't see fruit for a while . . . but our plans were going to lead to far-reaching change." But there's a problem — not with the sentiment but with the facts. The CDU's mission: to separate the bamboo from the bamboozle.
Fact 1: Bamboo isn't a tree.
The very title of the parable ("Lessons from the Chinese Bamboo Tree") gets the tale off to an unfortunate start. There are more than 1,200 species of bamboo, but not one of them is a tree. According to Gib Cooper, vice president of the American Bamboo Society and cofounder of the Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery in Gold Beach, Oregon (one of the oldest nurseries of its kind in the United States), "Bamboo is a grass, not a tree. There's no such thing as a bamboo tree."
Fact 2: If it doesn't grow, it dies.
In fact, if a bamboo seed doesn't start to grow within a year, it's a dud, says Julian Campbell of the Nature Conservancy in Lexington, Kentucky. Campbell, who conducted bamboo field studies in China for the Giant Panda Project, told the CDU, "You can't let bamboo seeds dry out. You have to plant them right away, and within a few months, you should get a shoot above ground."
Fact 3: Check with the Chinese — they know.
For the last word on bamboo, the CDU spoke with Cao Qungen of Hang Zhou, China. Cao has a PhD in bamboo ecology and cultivation from Nanjing Forestry University, manages the Bamboo China Service, and has been involved in bamboo research for more than 14 years. Cao says, "It is just a story — it's not true."
For once, the CDU is saddened by its mission. It would be nice if the lessons of the "Chinese bamboo tree" were true. It would be nice if bamboo were a tree. It would be nice if bamboo could lie dormant before sprouting to wondrous heights. It would be nice if companies adopted a patient attitude toward change. But if a project doesn't show results early, you won't see any results at all. Don't be bamboozled by any advice to the contrary.
A version of this article appeared in the November 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.