Every consultant knows that there's more than one way to skin a client — which may explain why so many consultants are drawn to one particular management metaphor: that of herding cats. In fact, this fur ball of a problem was coughed up to the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) by Fast Company reader Ross Little, a consultant at Ernst & Young, who wrote: "I've heard the phrase ['herding cats'] used a number of times. . . . It usually refers to the challenge of getting various individuals to come together as a unit or team. . . . ('Geez, getting everyone back on track is like herding cats!') . . . I wouldn't be surprised if cats get along much better than this phrase implies."
In fact, the business landscape is littered with examples of consultants invoking kitties. Back in 1995, Patrick J. McKenna and Gerald A. Riskin, founders of the Edge Group, an Edmonton, Canada-based consulting firm, issued "Herding Cats: A handbook for managing partners and practice group leaders" (The Institute for Best Management Practices).
More recently, renowned leadership guru and consultant Warren Bennis authored "Managing People Is Like Herding Cats" (Executive Excellence Publishing, 1997). In his preface, Bennis doesn't pussyfoot around: "Anymore, managing any people is like herding cats. Cats, of course, won't allow themselves to be herded."
Hoping to (cat) nip this concept in the bud, the CDU made a call to Solveig Pflueger, chair of the genetics committee of the International Cat Association, based in Harlingen, Texas. According to Pflueger, given the right motivation, cats will virtually herd themselves. "I can guarantee you it is possible to herd cats around an open can of tuna fish," she says. "Or just shake a shiny toy in front of them."
Next stop on the investigative prowl: Essex, England, where the CDU tracked down Roger Tabor, a biologist who is a leading expert on cat behavior. Tabor has written and narrated two BBC series on cats ("Cats" and "Understanding Cats") and has authored four books on cats. "People in the past have herded cats," says Tabor. In medieval times, monks were allowed by royal decree to hunt feral cats for their fur. "When hunting cats, the monks had to herd them along," Tabor says. And, he points out, the common sight of cats being formed into herds led to the coining of a technical term. "A 'clowder' is an ancient hunting term for 'group of cats,' " says Tabor. Think of a clowder as the cat equivalent of a pride — in other words, as a herd of cats.
To learn about similarities between big cats and small cats, the CDU turned to Gunther Gebel-Williams, the lead animal trainer and a star performer in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus for more than 20 years. "You can get a group of tigers to behave in unison," he says. "You work with each tiger in its areas of strength, and then you positively reinforce those strengths. The end result is a unified act."
Finally, the CDU spoke with Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and author of several books, including "The Cat Who Cried for Help" (Bantam, 1997) and "Dogs Behaving Badly" (Bantam, March 1999). Never mind whether you can herd cats, says Dodman. The real question is whether you should apply the cat-herding metaphor to employees. "You don't really want your employees to herd," Dodman says, "because herding suggests a mindless clinging together."
His point should give consultants everywhere pause: Would they really prefer to see teams of people behaving like mindless herds of, um, cats? It's a question that can provoke only one response: loud catcalls.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/March 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.