Consultants must be the smartest people in the world. They attend the best colleges, they get MBAs from the best business schools, they work with the best companies (where, in turn, they enjoy great learning experiences). In short, they must have the best brains. But when top consultants want to learn more about brains, where do they go? According to an anonymous Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) source at a Big Five consulting firm, they listen to Romanian-born Andrei Codrescu's droll commentaries on National Public Radio — specifically, one from August 1996 that provided the raw material for yet another round of consultant-metaphor madness.
"Inside consulting firms," our unnamed source reports, "a story about a fish that eats its own brain is being used to describe executives who have been at a company so long that they've actually stopped doing anything productive. What's more, they're unwilling to implement change." In other words, these executives are eating up their mental resources: They aren't using their brain; they're simply consuming it.
This type of story is not unprecedented. In the CDU files, we found other cases of debunking that have involved either fish ("This Advice Sounds Fishy," August 1998) or brains ("Great Minds Write Alike," April:May 1997). But this challenge represents a new hybrid: fish and brains. To reel in this metaphor, the CDU first went to its spawning ground — Codrescu's original NPR commentary. His story centered on the reported discovery of a second brain in the human gut. (How did the consulting world manage to miss that opportunity?) Then Codrescu turned his attention to the world undersea: "My friend Pat Nolan writes from California about the sea squirt," he said, "an aquatic mammal with a very simple nervous system that swims around until it finds a suitable rock or coral reef to settle in for life." And then, according to Codrescu, the sea squirt "devours its own brain . . . kind of like tenure."
Having caught the drift of the original metaphor, the CDU next went fishing for some facts. Alan Kuzirian, an associate scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, has been studying marine biology for 30 years. Problem number one: Kuzirian says that sea squirts aren't fish at all. They're actually urochordates — which means they have a primitive spinal chord. And the brain of the sea squirt? That leads to problem number two: Sea squirts don't really have a brain — at least not in the way we humans think of a brain. "When sea squirts are in the larval stage, they have a simplified central nervous system," Kuzirian says. "It's called a 'ganglion.' In larval sea squirts, a cerebral ganglion controls movement, and a visceral ganglion controls digestion."
When sea squirts mature, they stop swimming and attach themselves to a permanent object. At that point, their body changes: The cerebral ganglion breaks down and is reused elsewhere. What remains — the adult ganglion — controls feeding and reproduction. But does a sea squirt eat its own brain? Problem number three: "Of course not," laughs Kuzirian.
Steven Webster, a senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, California, concurs. "The word 'eat' is completely incorrect," he says. "Instead, there's a metamorphosis. Saying that they eat their own brain is like saying that a butterfly eats a caterpillar."
Webster adds a fourth problem: He suggests that consultants who apply the brain-eating-fish metaphor to brain-locked managers miss the real point of this natural phenomenon. "After its metamorphosis, the sea squirt doesn't idly sit around, doing nothing," he says. "It totally changes its life. A sea squirt recycles what it doesn't need into what it does need. Nothing goes unused or wasted. How many people in business can say that about their work?"
And what about Andrei Codrescu, the originator of the fish-brain metaphor? The NPR commentator and Louisiana State University professor says that he isn't surprised to learn that sea squirts don't eat their own brain — or that consultants misapply the metaphor. "The business world is constantly on the lookout for metaphors in the natural world — and especially in the sea world," he says. "Think about all the sea metaphors: bottom feeders; sharks; little fish, big fish. The way sea squirts function actually does remind me a lot of businesspeople. So many people in business seem to have little or no brains, and the business world itself can be such a primitive system."
So the tale of the sea squirt's brain is just another "fish" story. There is, however, one vital connection between the sea squirt and the way consultants use the sea-squirt metaphor: When the sea squirt finds its new home, it attaches itself upside down.
A version of this article appeared in the May 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.